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No historical figure is without sin, but who we honor with statues reveals what we value
Tom Williams / Contributor, Eze Amos / Contributor | Getty Images

No historical figure is without sin, but who we honor with statues reveals what we value

Christians should never be ashamed of the Bible. But we should also reject any attempts by our forebears, contemporaries, or descendants to twist scripture for worldly purposes.

Conservative evangelicals who compared COVID lockdowns and mandates to “slavery” need to answer some tough questions if a future memorial of Dr. Anthony Fauci receives the same treatment as the recently destroyed statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.

First among them is this: How do you decide which slaves should submit to their “masters” and which ones should rebel?

This may sound like a strange connection, considering that conservative Christians were among Fauci’s most vocal critics during the COVID-19 pandemic. For them, masks and rolled-up sleeves were signs of submission.

Fauci was the public face of the “Coronavirus States of America,” an unrecognizable new nation where millions of people were stripped of their liberty and forced to labor under the control of political and corporate “masters.”

Fauci’s defenders at the time, much like General Lee’s today, reject the belief that upholding slavery was his primary motivation for serving his nation. To them, Fauci was a kind and caring physician who answered the call to serve his country when asked by President Trump in 2020. His reputations in previous battles against HIV/AIDS, cancer, swine flu, and Ebola earned him the respect of his peers and the trust of the public at the beginning of the pandemic.

But perceptions changed for many Americans after COVID started to spread and Fauci became the spokesman of our national pandemic response. The push for extended lockdowns — with exemptions for social justice protests — was described by Attorney General Bill Barr at the time as the “greatest intrusion on civil liberties” other than slavery. Things got even worse after the presidential election in 2020. By 2021, Fauci and his army of CSA officers were pushing for vaccine mandates and ID cards.

Americans of all stripes voiced their opposition, but conservative Christians were particularly wary of the CSA and its attempts to establish “Jab Crow” policies for COVID shot refusers.

Douglas Wilson, a Presbyterian pastor who is as controversial within the world of evangelicalism as he is with MSNBC viewers, went so far as to say that Christians could refuse the COVID shot and procure fake vaccine passports in good conscience. His hypothetical scenario involving nurses who refused the jab en masse was punctuated by this conclusion:

This is not rebellion against lawful authority. This would be an example of a free people refusing to go along with their own enslavement.

I’ve met Wilson in person and have benefitted greatly from his incisive cultural commentary. But this comment was striking, given his attempts to defend American chattel slavery on biblical grounds and the principles that animated the Confederacy on constitutional grounds. Wilson’s view of Southern slavery is somewhat complex. He counts himself a “fan” of General Robert E. Lee but not of Martin Luther King Jr. or Abraham Lincoln.

While he acknowledges that the racial basis for the institution was unbiblical, he does not believe that American chattel slavery itself was, which means that slaves were biblically obligated to submit to their masters.

These two views of slavery — submission to actual enslavement but resistance to metaphorical bondage — create a theological, moral, and logical conundrum for many white evangelicals. How can a Christian who refused to submit to mask orders in 2020 argue that an enslaved man in 1820s Mississippi was obliged to submit to actual slave owners who had the legal right to sell his children and the social license to violate his wife?

I don’t think you need a degree from a divinity school to spot the serious problems with these irreconcilable positions, but I don’t believe the issue is racism.

Evangelical Christians affirm the imago Dei, believing human beings were made in God’s image as described in Genesis 1:27. But that theological position can be quickly overtaken when believers — regardless of color — practice the politics of the imago hominum, evidencedby biblical verdicts on controversial social issues that consistently reflect our image.

It is easy to believe God supports your politics, whatever they are, and find scriptures you claim support your positions. There are churches that say they support same-sex unions because the Bible is pro-love and pro-marriage. Likewise, some abortionists claim they work to give women reproductive “choice” because of their Christian faith.

I certainly believe the scriptures have something to say about slavery. The Old Testament says that anyone who steals a man — as well as anyone found in possession of him — should be put to death. Slavery also shows up in the New Testament, and yes, slaves were instructed to obey their masters.

These verses appeared in letters the Apostle Paul wrote to the early church that address order and obligations within a typical household. These passages are often included alongside his instructions to husbands and wives as well as parents and children. They reflect a cultural context in which both masters and slaves were among the early converts to Christianity.

While the New Testament does not include an explicit call for abolition, that does not imply an endorsement. In fact, 1 Timothy 1: 8-10 includes enslavers among a longer list of lawless and disobedient sinners, a little after murders and men who practice homosexuality and right before liars and heretics.

The most compelling biblical refutation of the belief that American chattel slavery was defensible from a Christian perspective is the “Great Commission” itself. Jesus appeared to his followers after his resurrection and gave them clear instructions on how to engage an unbelieving world. The biblical imperative for believers with respect to unbelievers — whether in 1623 or 2023 — is to preach the gospel and make disciples. It was not to use the Bible to justify buying them from man-stealers, then claim the same Bible would eventually — perhaps after 400 years — lead you to grant them their freedom.

In fact, Robert Lewis Dabney, a Presbyterian minister and chaplain in the Confederate Army, published a defense of slavery in 1867 — four years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. In it, Dabney used the Bible to defend Southern slavery — and criticize abolitionists — on moral, ethical, economic, and theological grounds.

Further, if slavery was a biblically mandated or permissible institution, then why would Christian defenders of the practice in this country believe it would have — or should have — ended? If you believe the Bible permitted slavery in the New Testament and the antebellum South, then why should we not engage in slavery today? Why can’t a Christian purchase another human being today and keep him and his offspring enslaved in perpetuity, as long as he treats the people kindly?

The truth is that the election of Lincoln — an anti-slavery Republican — made the South afraid that slavery would be on its way out. If “states' rights” were the main controversy and slavery was a dying institution in the South, you would expect this dynamic to be reflected in the writings of Confederate leaders.

That was not the case.

Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was clear in his Cornerstone Speech that the Confederacy’s new government was built on the foundation that “the negro is not equal to the white man” and that “slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

The Constitution of the Confederate States of America was also explicitly pro-slavery. Article I, Section 9, Clause 4 prohibited the Confederate States Congress from passing any law to outlaw slavery. Article IV, Section 2 said slave owners could travel across the Confederacy with their slaves without fear of having their ownership rights impaired. Section 3 said escaped slaves must be returned to their masters.

The Confederacy was as committed to preserving slavery in 1861 as conservatives believed the Coronavirus States of America was committed to preserving lockdowns and mandates in 2021. Whatever Robert E. Lee’s personal feelings on the issue of slavery, this was the social order the army he led was fighting to preserve.

The irony of this entire situation is that Lee himself rejected the idea of memorials to the Confederacy and said the following in a letter declining an invitation to join officers on the battlefield of Gettysburg in 1869:

I think it wiser, moreover, not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered.

Lee had enough wisdom to understand that a nation healing from internal conflict is better served by focusing on the principles that are the foundation of its unity, not the political battles that almost tore it apart.

Most people understand this in any other context. I doubt any evangelical would argue that a couple trying to work through a wife’s adulterous affair would be well served by commissioning a painting of her in a romantic embrace with her paramour. If healing is the ultimate goal, a much wiser choice would be to frame a picture of the wife and her husband reciting their wedding vows on their wedding day.

No historical figure is without sin, but the people we choose to honor communicate clear messages about our values. There is nothing Orwellian about exercising prudence in the selection of public symbols. I doubt any conservative would see fit to honor Fauci with statues and memorials because of his long career in medicine. When it comes to ideological foes, very few are willing to untether skill and competence from worldview and vision. That is a standard worth applying consistently.

Further, there is no biblical mandate to preserve statues of political figures and civil authorities. Christians should never be ashamed of the Bible. But we should also reject any attempts by our forebears, contemporaries, or descendants to twist scripture for worldly purposes.

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