The horrific and terroristic murder of 9 black Americans in Charlestown, South Carolina, while they worshiped at one of the oldest African-American congregations in the United States has become the main news story of the week, rightfully. The suspect, who is in custody, is alleged to have admitted that he came to the church “to kill black people” and to “start another civil war” about race. There’s no question in my mind given the accused killer’s sentiments that this was a premeditated and racially motivated attack.
And what are we to make of the Confederate flag? The question arises naturally because South Carolina still flies the battle colors of the Confederacy on government grounds. Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a compelling case that the Charlestown massacre cannot be separated from the legacy and ideas represented in the flag: “The flag that [the alleged killer] embraced, which many South Carolinians embrace, does not stand in opposition to this act—it endorses it.” Coates is certainly no conservative and I doubt he and I would find much agreement elsewhere on political or social issues. But on the issue of the Confederate flag, Coates isn’t being a liberal: He’s just being an American.
In fact, my news feed today has been dominated by conservatives making eloquent and impassioned pleas for the removal of the Confederate symbol. Here’s just a few of them:
1 ) Philip Klein, The Washington Examiner: “Why Conservatives Should Hate the Confederate Flag.”
To this day, any argument modern conservatives try to make about restrictions on federal power inevitably leads back to the question of whether the same principle of federal restraint should have allowed segregation to persist. Conservatives who try to defend the flag (or who are afraid to criticize it) are only reinforcing the perception that supporters of limited government don’t really care about the historical or modern day struggles of black Americans.
Even though the flag no longer rests on the top of the South Carolina capitol dome, it still remains on the grounds of the capitol, serving as an ugly reminder of dark legacies in American history that continue to haunt the nation and damage the cause of limited government. It’s long past time to tear down this flag.
2) Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention: “The Cross and the Confederate Flag”
The Apostle Paul says that we should not prize our freedom to the point of destroying those for whom Christ died. We should instead “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19). The Confederate Battle Flag may mean many things, but with those things it represents a defiance against abolition and against civil rights. The symbol was used to enslave the little brothers and sisters of Jesus, to bomb little girls in church buildings, to terrorize preachers of the gospel and their families with burning crosses on front lawns by night.
That sort of symbolism is out of step with the justice of Jesus Christ. The cross and the Confederate flag cannot co-exist without one setting the other on fire.
3) Reihan Salam, National Review.
Granted, it could be that the Confederate battle flag has come to mean something entirely different in 2015 than it did in the mid-1950s, when it was closely tied to resistance to federal desegregation efforts. But is its value such that we ought to continue giving it quasi-official status, even when doing so alienates the descendants of enslaved southerners, who have just as much claim to deciding which symbols ought to represent southern heritage as the descendants of Confederate veterans? I don’t believe so.
As these writers make clear, you don’t need to be a progressive to see the folly of maintaining the symbolism of the Confederate flag. In fact, I would argue that the kind of genealogical idolatry that often characterizes defenses of the flag is not conservative at all. Conservatism values the lessons of the past for the sake of the future generations. To proclaim that the flag doesn’t actually mean what it historically has meant is to claim a sort of autonomous self-determination over history, as if history stops meaning what it has meant the moment I say so. This isn’t conservatism, it’s chronological snobbery and arrogance, the kind that we see too often in much of contemporary liberalism.
There are few things more conservative than taking the past seriously. And the past symbolized by the Confederate flag should be taken seriously as a reminder of our national sins, not just back then but here and now. As Coates said, we should keep the Confederate flag in a museum, as an artifact of an America of which we are deeply ashamed. The last thing we should do is fly it over the very citizens it once sought to destroy.