Gettysburg’s Lutheran Seminary Takes Courageous Stand on Confederate Flag

During my recent trip to Gettysburg I made time to visit the Seminary Ridge Museum, which is located on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary. It’s a wonderful museum and I highly recommend a visit given the important role it played during the battle and for what you will see and learn inside.

Following the Charleston shootings the seminary issued a statement banning the display of Confederate flags that features the St. Andrews Cross on the grounds. This directly impacts living history events sponsored by the museum. In fact, it impacts an event that is taking place this weekend. You can read the announcement on their website.

It should come as no surprise that many people, especially Civil War reenactors, are disappointed with this decision. I applaud it, though not without some concerns, which I will explain in a minute. First, I find the explanation to be compelling, especially the emphasis placed on the connection between two of the victims and the alleged shooter to the broader Lutheran community. I don’t see how anyone can be surprised by a seminary (of all places) responding to recent events and the broader discussion about the history of this incredibly divisive symbol. [Unfortunately, much of the outrage that I’ve seen has been directed at the museum.]

The seminary has every right to respond to the national discussion about the meaning of the Confederate flag and control public perception as it relates to events on its property. I suspect that a general ban was deemed easier to implement as opposed to addressing possible scenarios on a case-by-case basis.

My concern is not with the ban, but with seminary spokesman John Spangler’s distinction between understanding the Confederate flag in its Civil War as opposed to Civil Rights contexts.

The problem with the symbolism in question is not about its historical use in the context of interpreting the Civil War, it is rather the subsequent use in resisting civil rights and overt and violent racism by individuals and groups that continue to this day. We simply can’t ignore this deeply disturbing and historical usage.

This is just another example of trying to thread the needle between history and heritage and it has to stop. It’s as if the Confederate flag only became associated with racism and white supremacy beginning in the 1950s. This is history at its worst. Do I really have to quote Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens and countless others again?  Whatever else it might mean, from day one the Confederate battle flag was wrapped up in white supremacy, first as part of an attempt to establish an independent slaveholding republic and later in the broad push against black civil rights.

The surrender of Confederate armies and the furling of flags in the spring of 1865 ensured that such a nation would not exist.

Let me be clear, as a rule I do not have a problem with the display of the Confederate battle flag as part of carefully choreographed living history events. It certainly doesn’t mark a Confederate reenactor as racist simply because he is associated with it. Living historians/reenactors who wish to utilize the Confederate flag, however, will not be able to proceed in the wake of recent events as business as usual.

To do so is not only to ignore recent history, but to pretend that the origin of the flag itself is not central to the story.

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16 comments… add one
  • M.D. Blough Jun 28, 2015

    Kevin-I have to differ with you to some extent. I certainly don’t think the Civil War history of the “Confederate Flag” is irrelevant, but, the fact of the matter is that there were other flags used by the rebels that simply don’t produce the same aversion. In fact, I can’t think of another flag that comes under that category that does, including the First National (the real “Stars and Bars”) and the current South Carolina state flag (the one that is still on top of the capitol building) which is similar if not virtually identical to the first flag raised in support of the rebellion, when South Carolina initiated Secession Winter. The difference is the use of the “Confederate Flag” in support of resistance to desegregation, including as official acts of state and local governments, beginning, roughly, with its use as the banner of the Dixiecrat Party in 1948. These are not unconnected events. The choice of “the Confederate Flag” did not occur in a vacuum. It’s association with the rebellion is why it became the symbol of a 20th century version of that rebellion. In a place like Gettysburg, where, in 1863, it would have been in use in its original incarnation as the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, context is everything. Of course that means an unblinking acceptance of reality. I was very active in the fight, especially at Gettysburg, to stop the whitewashing of Civil War history in battlefield interpretation and educating visitors to NPS Civil War sites as to WHY these troops were trying to kill each other and the well-documented fact that the Army of Northern Virginia spent a significant portion of its time above the Mason-Dixon Line as a runaway slave catching patrol (and not really bothering to find out whether the men, women, children and babies seized WERE, in fact, escaped slaves). In many ways, Gettysburg is a living museum and, properly interpreted and placed in context, there is a role for the actual Battle Flag in this living museum

    I do agree that times are rapidly changing and any display of this flag must be done with considerable thought and caution.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2015

      Hi Margaret,

      I don’t see where we disagree.

      In many ways, Gettysburg is a living museum and, properly interpreted and placed in context, there is a role for the actual Battle Flag in this living museum.

      Yes, it will be displayed in the Seminary Ridge Museum.

  • cagraham Jun 28, 2015

    Meanwhile, North Carolina State Historic Sites, which has several sites that fly CS flags out front next to the US flag, appear to be doing everything they can to remain indifferent to any meaningful conversation on this.

    http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article25369417.html

  • Sherree Jun 28, 2015

    Kevin,

    Thank you for posting this. The pastor of the Lutheran Church that my family attends not only went to seminary with Reverend Pinckney, he was friends with him as well, I have learned. The pastor and parishioners were literally sobbing last Sunday, overwhelmed with loss, shock, anger, and bewilderment, my sister has told me. The pastor took a firm stand right there in the sanctuary and said, “No!” There is no place for the Confederate flag anywhere!”

    Dylann Roof did not learn to hate in the Lutheran Church. I can promise you that. He learned it on the Internet, and from his dysfunctional family, apparently. And that is disturbing.

    This is where it is not 1965, but new territory for the promoters of hatred. In 1965 some churches and even entire communities were safe havens for racism and hatred. We really have moved beyond that. Even in the South. So desperate for new recruits, the haters have found a new weapon: the Internet. Good always wins in the end, though. We can all rest assured of that. God is shedding his grace on us. Yahweh. The Great Spirit. A blessing on your head for getting your old book published and as you write your new one.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2015

      Thanks for the comment, Sherree. Nice to hear from you.

  • Annette Jackson Jun 28, 2015

    I am not so sure that Roof was indoctrinated into racism by his family. They seem genuinely appalled by his actions. Roof is a 21 year old man, not a kid, who had lived apart from his family after dropping out of high school when he was 14…..Not every family that has a potential Roof is automatically dysfunctional. His friends were shocked by the recent change in him as well and did not take is ravings seriously….sigh. I am not sure how we are going to be able to easily identify the person who is about to commit an evil act..

    • Sherree Jun 28, 2015

      Hi Annette,

      I don’t think that Roof was indoctrinated by his family, either, although I do not know that for certain. I do think that he had a troubled upbringing, however, and that troubled upbringing most likely contributed to his personality being such that an obsession with a website like the Council of Conservative Citizens was viable. That is where he was indoctrinated–the CofCC. He says so himself. I am not giving him a pass, by any stretch of the imagination. I am trying to understand what motivated him to do what he did because he was driven by websites that promulgate hate. We need to go after that, and I am sure the FBI will.

  • Annette Jackson Jun 28, 2015

    Just in case anyone thinks I was defending a thug, that is not the case. One thing I have noticed over the past few years is in the wake of a tragic event the finger pointing starts in on the parents. We saw it with Treyvon Martin and Michael Brown, where the parents were attacked. We saw it here in Virginia when state senator Cree Deeds was almost killed by his mentally ill adult son…I was appalled at the public reaction.. placing the blame for the attack on Deeds, who was doing everything he could to get professional help for his son. Perhaps this is human nature…we want to find an answer quickly..

    • Sherree Jun 29, 2015

      You are right about this, Annette. In Roof’s case, his family actually contacted authorities when they saw surveillance footage of the murderer entering Emanuel AME and realized it was Dylann Roof. When I say he had a troubled upbringing, I am talking about reports I have read about the children in this family being shuffled around and a nasty divorce. He could have come from a stable family, too. But he didn’t. Still, there are no excuses for his behavior. He murdered, in cold blood, nine men and women in their church. He murdered them within a consciously contrived historical context. I don’t think he was smart enough to figure out the enormity of that context. In fact, he even considered a college in Charleston as his target. But Emanuel AME? That is to strike at the heart and soul of America’s past and an attempt to take away that elusive grace that President Obama talked about, and Roof had help figuring that out. This is what we need to fix so that there are no more Dylann Roofs.

      • Kevin Levin Jun 29, 2015

        That is to strike at the heart and soul of America’s past and an attempt to take away that elusive grace that President Obama talked about, and Roof had help figuring that out.

        Now that’s a nice sentence. Thanks, Sherree.

        • Sherree Jun 29, 2015

          No, thank you, Kevin, Brooks, Robert Moore, Vikki Bynum, for staying the course.

          My heart is broken and so are the hearts of many here in the South. I thought this was over. I really did. But it isn’t, and it won’t be until we make certain that it is.

          Whatever it takes, let’s do it. Peacefully.

          • Sherree Jun 29, 2015

            Please add Andy Hall to this list. What a fine job you are doing, Andy.

  • I can’t speak to how frequently the policy would be needed, but it certainly makes sense given the historical and contemporary connections between the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and churches in Charleston.

    I also found the wording to be odd that seems to portray the Confederate flag as a symbol corrupted in the 20th century. Revisiting some of the original May 1862 resolutions of the Lutheran General Synod prepared by a committee with several pastors trained at Gettysburg may be helpful:

    “Resolved, That it is the deliberate judgment of this Synod, that the rebellion against the constitutional Government of this land is most wicked in its inception, unjustifiable in its cause, unnatural in its character, inhuman in its prosecution, oppressive in its aims, and destructive in its results to the highest interests of morality and religion.”

    and

    “Resolved, That while we recognize this unhappy war as a righteous judgment of God, visited upon us because of the individual and national sins, of which we have been guilty, we nevertheless regard this rebellion as more immediately the natural result of the continuance and spread of domestic slavery in our land, and therefore hail with unmingled joy the proposition of our Chief Magistrate, which has received the sanction of Congress, to extend aid from the General Government to any State in which slavery exists, which shall deem fit to initiate a system of constitutional emancipation.”

    • Kevin Levin Jun 28, 2015

      Hi Vince,

      Nice to hear from you and thanks for the references. Very interesting.

  • Paul Jun 29, 2015

    While the Seminary has every right to so decide, it’s hardly a courageous decision to jump on the bandwagon. The impact on Confederate reenacting and living history units is to be determined, but you can’t help but think reenacting and living history are on their way out the door.

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