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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

The Challenge of Charlottesville: Race, Religion and Public Monuments


On September 26, a group of distinguished Boston College faculty engaged the role of public monuments following the death of thirty-two-year-old Heather D. Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia in the midst of white nationalist protests against the removal of former Confederate army commander Robert Edward Lee in Charlottesville's Emancipation Park. Each panelist, drawing upon his or her theological or historical expertise, engaged the symbolism of public monuments, considered arguments against removal, and adjudicated on circumstances meriting the removal of public memorials.    

The first issue discussed was the significance of public monuments. Professor of systematic theology, Shawn Copeland, began her analysis with a historical fact: the majority of Confederacy-related statues were erected after the Civil War, between 1890 and 1920. Thus, in her estimation, these memorials attempt to reinstate normative anachronisms. Professor of history and African Diaspora Studies, Martin Summers, also argued along those lines. In his view, a statue’s meaning is dynamic. While memorials can initially be concordant with social norms, they can soon become discordant with prevailing perspectives. Using her knowledge of the institutional history of Christianity, Patricia DeLeeuw, professor emerita of theology, considered the removal of Lee’s statute an “iconoclasm,” like the Protestant Reformation. Overall, as moderator Mark Massa, S.J., added, these memorials prompt the onlooker to reconsider the United States’ civil religion and founding myth.

The panelists then shifted their attention to the arguments made in opposition to the removal of Robert E. Lee’s public memorial. Such contentions criticize the withdrawal of Confederate statues as historical erasure. In response, fifth year theological ethics doctoral candidate, Craig Ford Jr., distinguished “the past” from “history.” Whereas the former is objectively unchanging, the latter is subjective because it is an interpretation of past events. Ford noted, that American history has seldom considered the plight of poor, undocumented, and non-white people; therefore, to topple Lee’s statute is to afford such marginalized communities the rare opportunity to influence dominant historiographies. An instructive model for grappling with such a harrowing past, DeLeeuw insisted, is Germany’s commemoration of the Holocaust.

Equally, the panelists assessed the role of participatory democracy in the discourse on public memorials. Heather Cox Richardson, professor of history, stressed that the decision to erect, relocate or remove a monument must originate in informed, open public debate. Such colloquia, Richardson urged, should work to construct a “new American past,” one that borrows from liberation theology, theories of intersectional oppression, and Enlightenment principles.

In the question-and-answer session, the panelists addressed what are called “boundary cases.” Collectively, the speakers highlighted that, in relation to removing monuments, only those on public, not private, property are subject to consideration. They also agreed that such removals must generate a degree of scandal, as happened with Georgetown University’s Healy Hall controversy and resulting preferential admission policy for a subset of African American students.