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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 discussed the role of public monuments in the wake of the violent clashes between white nationalists and counterprotestors in Charlottesville, Virginia the previous month.

Each panelist engaged the symbolism of public monuments and considered arguments for and against removing those which honored historical figures associated with slavery and racism.

The first issue discussed was the significance of public monuments. Professor of theology and African and African Diaspora Studies (AADS), 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. Martin Summers, professor of history and AADS, 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 statue an “iconoclasm,” like those of 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 by those who oppose the removal of Robert E. Lee’s memorial in Charlottesville. 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 statue 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.

The panelists also 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.