Moral progress and rebuking history

I think it is better to rebuke history than whitewash it, and for that reason I am opposed to the widespread clamor for universal elimination of the Confederate flag and renaming buildings which honor those we now know to be criminals. Better they remain as sores in plain public view, the evil they symbolize the object of frank public contempt.

The question arises, of course, in consequence of the gratuitous slaughter last week of nine innocent black churchgoers by Dylann Roof. That happened, in Jeri Massi’s apt phrase, within an “instrastructure of tradition” that includes egregious racism, a crude religiosity that unambiguously endorsed slavery, and extreme right-wing ideologies intensified into nearly incoherent madness by election of a black president. Now, a sane world which has blissfully ignored the lunacy festering in the south appears to believe that eliminating the symbols will eliminate the problem they nurture.

No. The infrastructure of tradition does not change because everybody politely agrees to not notice or discuss the unpleasantness; it changes when there is moral leadership that unapologetically condemns the evil and forces its hideousness into public view. Rather than lowering the Confederate flag and removing South Carolina’s monument to its Civil War dead, Governor Haley could more usefully (and cheaply) hire an architect to retrofit the monument with markers setting-out and renouncing that state’s shameful race-based misbehaviors and vowing it will not happen again.

In a similar vein, Southern Seminary has been confronted with demands that it rename certain campus buildings which honor the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention, many of whom were themselves slaveholders and foaming-at-the-mouth racists who held that blacks bear the mark of Cain. Albert Mohler, the seminary’s president, tap-danced around the problem yesterday, saying at last that he would not change the building’s names even as he characterized those they honor as heretics. If the Southern Baptists were not the authors of so much human misery, I would almost feel sorry for him; after all, he is between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He operates within an infrastructure of religious tradition which has long been the primary engine of southern racism and, however desperately its leadership wishes to change that because it is indispensable to the denomination’s very survival, the laity who pay his salary and once threw rocks at the freedom marchers aren’t going to be good sports about being told they were and are wildly, morally, wrong.

He has a further problem: The Southern Baptists, often with unseemly aggressiveness, claim to be the keepers and guardians of Eternal Truth — which cannot lightly be updated. Nevertheless, he should do exactly the same thing Governor Haley should do: He should leave the building names unchanged and cause to be built at some prominent place on campus a marker or exhibit which expressly declares “This is who we once were, a people who honored those &#$!@ racists …”

A bit of historical perspective, and an awareness of the dangers of self-righteous certitude, would not be a bad thing for seminarians to learn.

The philosopher Peter Singer characterizes moral progress as enlarging the circle of us to include them, as expanding the Golden Rule to cover the others, too. On this definition, which I accept, it was moral progress when we ceased to burn witches and heretics at the stake, it was moral progress to strike down the Jim Crow laws, it was moral progress to cease treating women as chattel, and it will be moral progress when gays are left alone to spend their Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness as they see fit.

It is slow, it is haphazard, it is countered by reaction at every step — but I believe nonetheless in the reality of moral progress; most of us have seen it within our own lifetimes. That comes, though, only with frank acknowledgment of wrongdoing, not with the polite pretense that it never happened, never existed, and why should we speak of unpleasant things anyway? Now is the time for Haley and Mohler — Mohler, an educator, especially — to exploit the opportunity afforded by the awful events in Charleston to exercise genuine-article moral leadership and drag the evil of racism into the public square and publicly strangle it.

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