Will the Virginia Flaggers “Restore the Honor” at St. Paul’s Episcopal?

The recent decision by the community at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond has received a great deal of media coverage. It is certainly one of the most significant decisions on the part of an institution to remove Confederate iconography since the lowering of the Confederate battle flag in Columbia, S.C. this past summer. St. Paul’s has a deep historical connection to Richmond’s Confederate past. General Robert E. Lee and his wife attended services at St. Paul’s whenever possible throughout the war. In 1862, Confederate President Jefferson Davis was confirmed as a member of the parish. Many members of the community gave their lives in service of the Confederacy. The site was also used to treat wounded soldiers. On the morning of  April 2, 1865, President Davis was delivered a message from General Lee stating that Petersburg, could no longer be defended thus rendering Richmond indefensible. Davis quietly left the church, and evacuated the Confederate government and army from the city that afternoon.

Given the significance of the site, the amount of media coverage and its location in the heart of the former Confederate capital, the silence of the Virginia Flaggers is surprising. Over the past few weeks the Flaggers have devoted their energies to raising Confederate flags along roads in Danville, Virginia to protest the lowering of the flag at the Sutherlin Mansion, which is commonly known as the “Last Capitol of the Confederacy.” It is certainly not a high trafficked site and neither is it all that important. As a protest location it offered very little media coverage for the Flaggers.

In contrast, St. Paul’s is a potential media bonanza. Just picture Flaggers out in front of the church on Sunday protesting as Richmonders enter the church and leave. Since the announcement earlier this week we have heard nothing. Nothing posted to their Facebook page or Twitter feed. Remember, this is an organization whose core membership is based in Richmond, where they have protested for the past few years the removal of a flag from the Confederate Memorial Chapel, on the grounds of the VMFA, just up the street from St. Paul’s. It wouldn’t take much effort at all to move the circus to the church.

Perhaps their silence is evidence of serious planning that will be revealed in the coming days or perhaps it points to confusion as to how to move forward. Previous protests of public sites tended to frame local government as comprised of outsiders or individuals lacking a legitimate claim to represent their constituents. St. Paul’s is a different beast altogether. Its members live in the Richmond area and I suspect that many parishioners can trace their family’s membership back to the Civil War. Some of the Flaggers may be members and/or may know people who are members of the church.

This is going to be tough to negotiate, assuming the Flaggers do anything. This is not simply about whether history will be remembered and honored, but whether it will be worshiped. In other words the removal of Confederate iconography is not simply about distancing the community from a certain history and historic figures, but their identity as religious icons as well. [I say this with the understanding that stained glass windows depicting Lee and Davis will remain.]

It will also be difficult for the Flaggers to point to illegitimate stakeholders in this debate or that the church simply caved to certain pressures. Even a cursory reading of the news reports, and documents released by St. Paul’s, suggests that this decision was the result of careful consideration and prayer.

Regardless of what the Flaggers choose to do, this is a huge blow to their campaign. Yes, they can continue to raise their silly flags along major highways and other roads, but they have done nothing to advance their cause. Four flags or 400 flags will do nothing to bring the flag back to the Sutherlin Mansion or anywhere else for that matter.

If ever a decision pointed the way forward for other communities and institutions struggling with these questions, the decision made by St. Paul’s this past week is it.

26 comments… add one
  • christinemsmith67 Nov 27, 2015

    This is a decision which was made by St. Paul’s vestry, after due consideration and prayer, I am certain. (In the Episcopal church the vestry members are elected to represent the interests of the congregation. If the church wants to buy a broom, everyone doesn’t have a vote on it.). The church itself is the property of the Diocese of Virginia, and such decisions have to made by the vestry. If this is what the vestry, supported by the church, want, and the Diocese approves, then the Flaggers have no say, although we all know that doesn’t seem to have stopped them before.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2015

      No doubt. Like I said in the post, the documents released by St. Paul’s clearly demonstrate that this subject was given careful thought.

  • David Kent Nov 27, 2015

    My wife and I have friends in South Boston, Va who we visited this summer. We frequently make this drive southwest on US 360, and I decided to see how many confederate vs US flags were along the way, (as this is serious rural Virginia). It was a week or so after the removal of the Georgia state house flag, and I was interested to see how many of each I saw. To my pleasant surprise, there was one old battle flag that had been hanging there forever, and the rest were all US flags, (other than one pick up truck that was dressed up like a Christmas tree with the battle flags). Many of the US flags were evidently new. It did my heart good to see it, as I half expected the opposite.

  • Jimmy Dick Nov 27, 2015

    The main thing is to ignore the flaggers and to keep taking down the CBF and put it where it belongs, in the museums. This is the 21st century, not the 19th. The cause the CBF stood for was defeated. Its symbolism since that defeat is one of negativity, that of racism. The people of this nation are looking at the vestiges of racism staring them in the face, especially as they are being magnified during the presidential campaign circus and they do not like what they see.

    The CBF is being rejected by America because America is rejecting what it represents. All the flaggers can do is wave their flags and repeat the same old lies over and over to an audience that is not listening to them any more. They can fly 1000 flags and it will make no difference because when people do actually pay attention to what the flaggers have to say, the people see the racism inherent in the message. Then the people reject that message.

    The removal of the Confederate iconography at St. Paul’s is just another example of the modern people rejecting the racism that so many tried to sustain for centuries in America. Like it or not, the confederate iconography represents racism. If the flaggers want to embrace actual southern heritage, they need to stop waving flags and start learning actual history instead of the myths they choose to believe.

  • Julian Nov 27, 2015

    although one could also say that the “careful thought” unfolded in a mobile and changed public agora – where the complex and thoughtful response perhaps feels the weight of public and media visibility and the strong consensual pressure for a multiplicity of reasons that make removing confederate symbols the easier and more civil option. Certainly in the glare of publicity and the vehemence of public debates in recent months no-one wants to be seen as a racist – which in effect is as good as being a bona fide racist (and no one seems to be want to engage with the fact that invoking racism shuts down the debate) nor would people want to be seen as unChristian in an era when public values around race, ethnicity and religion not only in the US but globally raise highly strident controversy. In this volatile and highly fraught arena, the flaggers’ gestures may lack intellectual subtlety and are hopelessly overwhelmed by a weight of issues that are larger and more complex than they are engaging with, the sad thing is that the symbols are removed not because they are a priori offensive, but because of either thoughtfulness/discretion or an inability to be an effective player in a changed forum of debate no one can actually frame counter arguments or even the possibility of counter arguments. Is the collapse of the defense of Confederate symbols the sound of one hand clapping? Or has the tipping point shifted enough to change the whole landscape

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2015

      All good points, though I can’t speak to the extent to which this particular church faced external or internal pressures over the past few months. That would certainly make for an interesting story.

  • Patrick Jennings Nov 27, 2015

    I imagine it all depends on what we mean by “flaggers.” if we are discussing that low-brow group that operates under an umbrella of historical ignorance then, yes, there will likely be some noise. If, however, we are talking about the member of the congregation or those concerned about genuine heritage and preservation actions then I don’t imagine we will hear much.

    As Kevin has noted, the church has provided a clear and thoughtful explanation for their decisions and that should calm most reasonable voices. Of course, we are not always dealing with reason on this issue.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 27, 2015

      If, however, we are talking about the member of the congregation or those concerned about genuine heritage and preservation actions then I don’t imagine we will hear much.

      And I assume that within this group we will find individuals representing more than one position.

      • Patrick Jennings Nov 27, 2015

        Of that there is little doubt. As long as they are willing to have an open and constructive conversation things should turn out well. I, for one, hope they do.

  • Mousy Tongue Nov 27, 2015

    Hubert Wayne Cash, proud Virginia Flagger & Virginia Flagger landlord, addressed St. Paul’s Episcopal in a newspaper article’s online comments:

    Did your freaking windows have a damned thing to do with the murder of these people? I’v heard so much crap about these murders that I’m of the mind that they were murdered to cause all this anti Confederate crap and as a result have lost all compassion I felt for their deaths. Don’t like your freaking stained glass windows? Throw a brick thru them and be done with it you stupid ass hats.

  • Patrick Jennings Nov 27, 2015

    Mousy,

    Is there a trick to getting the comments section to open? All I get is the spinning wheel. Thanks.

    • Marian Latimer Nov 27, 2015

      It may be your server or something like that, because for once, I did not get that proverbial buffering thing. Although God knows, I kept wanting to reply to Dear Susan’s comments by asking her if she didn’t have a Klan meeting to be at since Anonymous outed her as a member a few weeks ago. How does her ladyship keep up with all of her obligations to the lost cause?

  • Sherree Nov 28, 2015

    I can’t get my head around the original decision when the window went in that an allusion to Moses was chosen for Lee’s window. All that I can think of in that context is about the words to the old spiritual, Go Down, Moses, which we used to sing years ago in my family’s congregation, and which coupled the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt by Moses to the freeing of the slaves:

    “Go down, Moses, way down into Egypt’s land. Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go. ”

    What irony. In a real sense, Lee served in Pharaoh’s army, rather than repudiate it.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 28, 2015

      It’s a bit dated, but I highly recommend Charles Reagan Wilson’s book, Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 (University of Georgia Press, 1980).

      • Sherree Nov 28, 2015

        Thanks for the reference, Kevin. I will check it out.

        St. Paul’s Episcopal is to be commended. It is astonishing how far the reach of Lost Cause mythology extends. It does not include or describe a single element of my experience of the South in white, Native, or African American communities. Yet, it still defines white Southern identity at least, since a starting point in communicating with those outside of the culture must be a repudiation of it. Amazing. Jubal Early must be proud.

        Lee and Moses. I have heard it all now.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Nov 29, 2015

    Don’t hold your breath. Protesting a church over such an issue would be a no-win for them, and they know it. What is occurring in the heart of the old Confederate capital It is just another example of how the public is moving beyond the one-sided imagery of the Lost Cause. It is also happening across the nation.

    In fact, one very important factor that the Flaggers folks, Chastain, etc, don’t understand, and likely never will, is that the vast majority of people really don’t “support” their view of the flag. I deal with guests and tourists who are actually visiting a Civil War battlefield site and the flag issue is so far down on the list it doesn’t even rank. The average person has a pretty good sense of where the flag, and other Confederate related items, belong and where they don’t. They don’t need a protest or a big flag on the side of the road to win their heart or change their mind. And going into the future it is those very people who visit historic sites, and set aside their time and money to do so, who will likely have the final say about what is relevant, and what is totally irrelevant.

  • Andy Hall Nov 29, 2015

    In fact, one very important factor that the Flaggers folks, Chastain, etc, don’t understand, and likely never will, is that the vast majority of people really don’t “support” their view of the flag. I deal with guests and tourists who are actually visiting a Civil War battlefield site and the flag issue is so far down on the list it doesn’t even rank.

    ____

    That’s a central conceit of the “heritage” folks generally — they have convinced themselves that support for Confederate symbols runs wide and deep, at least among “real” southerners, and if only they could be made aware of their heritage, they’d come out in full-throated support of it the old Confederacy.

    At the same time, though, they find it increasingly necessary to go through rhetorical gymnastics to show that people who disagree with them aren’t “real” southerners by one or another measure they find suitable at the moment. Fine, whatever. If they want to wall off increasingly-large swathes of the community — people who shop, and vote, and go to museums, and attend college, and go to church, and all the other things that people do — then they’re only marginalizing themselves as butternut revanchists, more worthy of ridicule and scorn than serious consideration.

    • Muhammad E.Lee Nov 29, 2015

      /slow clap for “butternut revanchists”

  • J.A. Morrow Nov 30, 2015

    This political-inspired “action” reminds me of the old Soviet Union’s “stripping the church”.
    This site is run by an activist-who is afraid of opinions other than his own agenda.

    • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2015

      This political-inspired “action” reminds me of the old Soviet Union’s “stripping the church”.

      How silly. This decision was made by the members of a community and was not imposed on it by any civil authority.

    • MSB Nov 30, 2015

      In what way is the congregation’s decision about their own church like a state authority “stripping” a church?

      • Kevin Levin Nov 30, 2015

        Do we really have to ask him a follow up question? 🙂

    • Andy Hall Nov 30, 2015

      This political-inspired “action” reminds me of the old Soviet Union’s “stripping the church”.

      ____

      That’s an interesting viewpoint, given that even now there are heritage folks calling for litigation under Virginia’s monuments protection statutes to prevent St. Paul’s from making these changes. That would be an actual case of the government going into a church sanctuary and telling the congregation what it can and cannot do.

      It amazes me how the heritage crowd talks up freedom, liberty, and local governance, right up to the point where a decision doesn’t go their way, then they scream like hell for big government to step in and impose their will on the locals. They actually have no principles, only demands.

  • Forester Nov 30, 2015

    As a Christian, I find the notion of enshrining modern figures in a church sanctuary repulsive. Also, I think adding dubious “memorials” actually degrades the historicity of the sight. When Robert E. Lee went there, he didn’t see his own image in the stained glass.

    At my St. Paul’s, in downtown Norfolk, they did extensive renovations to undo the changes of the 19th century and restore the building to a proper Colonial appearance. I think it would behoove Richmond’s church to do the same. The amount of history in that building is staggering, and it doesn’t need to be improved upon with Lost Cause garbage in the sanctuary. It’s bad Religion and bad history at the same time, and I’m glad the modern congregation of St. Paul’s is taking steps to fix it. Sorry to preach, it just bothers me.

    On a side note, if I’m ever in Richmond on a Sunday, I would love to observe the Eucharist in such a historically rich location. I really want to visit this church.

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