(This piece originally appeared at First Things)
The Dean of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., which is an Episcopal Church institution but serves as a place for national religious pageantry, wants to remove two over sixty-year-old stained glass windows honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson.
“There is no place for the Confederate battle flag in the iconography of the nation’s most visible faith community,” explained Dean Gary Hall in a news release about the windows that include small Confederate flags as part of their interpretation of Lee and Jackson. “We cannot in good conscience justify the presence of the Confederate flag in this house of prayer for all people, nor can we honor the systematic oppression of African-Americans for which these two men fought and died.”
Hall specified: “Here, in 2015, we know that celebrating the lives of these two men, and the flag under which they fought, promotes neither healing nor reconciliation, especially for our African-American sisters and brothers.” In a June 28 sermon, Hall complained that the windows put a “decidedly saintly spin on two leaders of the Confederate Army,” whose “inscriptions portray them as exemplary Christian gentlemen,” but “contain no reference to the sin of slavery which both men fought—and one died—to uphold.”
Hall admitted the windows had been installed by his predecessor as cathedral dean, Francis Sayre, “one of the great activist civil rights clergy of the 1950s and 1960s. . . . [Sayer] could live in that tension, but I cannot, and I believe this cathedral cannot. It is time for those windows to go and live elsewhere in our buildings as part of a historical display,” replaced by “new ones for the nave that will tell the full, painful, yet hopeful story of race and justice in America.”
Sayre accepted the windows from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. It is not clear who will pay for replacement windows, as the National Cathedral still struggles to raise millions of dollars for repairs dating from 2011, not to mention basic ongoing maintenance for a sprawling magnificent church that lacks a strong supporting congregation. Regarding the Confederacy, I recently wrote a book on the last major initiative in 1861 to avert the Civil War—the Washington Peace Conference—where both sides extensively made their arguments. For me, it confirmed that the Confederacy had no persuasive arguments for its case. Dean Hall and others who urge elimination of any symbols relating to the Confederacy, however, propose their case is a simple moral argument about slavery. If only the issue were that simple.
Ivisited National Cathedral on July 4, for perhaps the hundredth time across decades, never having before noticed the now controversial Lee/Jackson windows. As Dean Hall noted in his sermon, they stand near the crypt of Woodrow Wilson. Lee’s window portrays his service as U.S. Army engineer and Superintendent at West Point, his victory with Jackson at Chancellorsville, and as a robed saint in ascension, exclaiming: “Lord lettest now thy servant depart in peace.” Lee was a devout Episcopalian who joined the church in early middle age after a spiritual rebirth. The inscription beneath the window reads:
To the Glory of God, all righteous and all merciful, and in undying tribute to the life and witness of Robert Edward Lee, servant of God, leader of men, general-on-chief of the armies of the Confederate States whose compelling sense of duty, serene faith, and unfailing courtesy mark him for all ages as a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach, this memorial bay is gratefully built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.
Jackson’s window, in similar vein, recalls his teaching at Virginia Military Institute, his U.S. Army service in the Mexican War, his praying during the Civil War, and his own reception into eternal Glory after his battlefield wound. Jackson was a devout Presbyterian whose church service included teaching Sunday school to black children. His window inscription reads:
To the Glory of the Lord of Hosts whom he so zealously served and in honored memory of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, lieutenant general, C.S.A., like a stone wall in his steadfastness, swift as lightning, and mighty in battle, he walked humbly before his Creator, whose word was his guide, this bay is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and his admirers from South and North.
Such flowery verbiage is not unusual at National Cathedral, conceived early in the twentieth century as an American version of Westminster Abbey to enshrine the spiritual achievements of American Christianity, statecraft and civil religion. Its soaring goals were never fully achieved. Wilson is the only major statesman buried there, along with Admiral Dewey, plus Helen Keller and her teacher Ann Sullivan. The Episcopal bishop of Washington once pleaded with FDR, as he slipped into his car after a service, to entrust his own corpse to the cathedral. FDR was disgusted by the appeal and left strict instructions: “Don’t let anyone ever try to bury me in any cathedral.”
The national personalities honored at National Cathedral are accordingly an haphazard lot, seemingly sometimes dictated more by donors, like the UDC, than by national or spiritual significance. There are statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. A porch is dedicated to Winston Churchill. There’s a window for Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. A more recent “civil rights porch” includes carvings of Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Mother Theresa and Bishop Oscar Romero. A pulpit carving portrays the Magna Carta signing with King John and Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton.
But most of the other honored are more obscure. There are memorials to General Nelson Miles the Indian fighter, Major Archie Butts, a military aide to Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and Taft who sank with the Titanic, and even more obscurely, U.S. Marine Commandant George Barnett and General Hugh Scott, honored for his proficiency in “Indian sign language.” Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon is also memorialized.
The National Cathedral is wonderfully esoteric. In homage to American pop culture, there’s even a Darth Vader gargoyle, with reproductions sold in the gift shop. It’s not Westminster Abbey by a long shot, which includes the remains of scores of monarchs and other notables, from Elizabeth I and “Bloody Mary,” to Charles Darwin, to Neville Chamberlain and Laurence Olivier. The collection is clearly not confined to sanctified saints and includes more than a few rogues who contributed to Britain’s march of history. Some bodies have been abruptly removed. King Harold I was later dug up and thrown in a marsh. Oliver Cromwell was disinterred for beheading. When back in vogue during late Victorian times, Cromwell got a statue outside the House of Commons.
Should the Lee and Jackson windows be figuratively disinterred for their own rebellion on behalf of a slave culture? And if so, will National Cathedral’s historical purging continue, perhaps to remove the body of Wilson, whose administration re-segregated the federal workforce, or the statues and windows that honor slave owners like Washington, Jefferson and Madison? Perhaps too Admiral Dewey the imperialist and General Miles the anti-Indian expansionist need also go, among many others.
Dean Hall outspokenly espouses same-sex marriage as an essential human right and the National Cathedral hosted a service to celebrate the recent Supreme Court ruling. Perhaps biblical figures like Moses and St. Paul should also be derecognized for their brazen intolerance of same-sex behavior. National Cathedral’s full name is The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, so maybe a name change is in order.
All the figures memorialized at National Cathedral are sinners—excepting Christ Himself, of course. Whether biblical or national, they are there because of their providential roles in history, to be remembered, for honors, but hopefully also for flaws and sins needing divine grace.
Dean Francis Sayre, grandson of Woodrow Wilson, who installed the Lee/Jackson windows, led the cathedral for twenty-seven years, during which time he marched with Martin Luther King Jr from Selma to Montgomery, said:
Cathedrals do not belong to a single generation. They are churches of history. They gather up the faith of a whole people and proclaim the goodly Providence which has welded that people together as they have hoped and suffered and believed across the centuries.
These words might inform how National Cathedral should address controversies about its memorials.