Another look at the soul of Gen. Robert E. Lee, as well as the times in which he lived

Debates about Confederate monuments remain in the news and there is little sign that this story is going away anytime soon.

In fact, it could broaden. For example, there are now questions here in New York City (where I am teaching right now) about the majestic tomb of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, because of anti-Semitism. As president, Grant repented of his actions. Meanwhile, defenders of Gen. Robert E. Lee insist that he repented of his sins against the Union and took strong stands for reconciliation.

This brings we to the think piece for this weekend, which probes deeper into discussions among Episcopalians about Lee and his faith. Earlier this week I praised a Washington Post report that paid careful attention to voices on both sides of that debate in Lexington, Va., where a parish is named in Lee's honor, on the edge of the campus of Washington and Lee University.

That headline: "This is the church where Robert E. Lee declared himself a sinner. Should it keep his name?" A key paragraph:

Church debates about the name have focused on the fact that Lee chose after the war ended not to continue -- as some Southerners wanted -- an insurgency, and instead to move on, “to try and rebuild and reconcile and repair damage he had no small part in creating,” said David Cox, a historian of Lee, a former rector and current member of the parish.

An independent journal for Episcopalians, The Living Church, took the discussion of some of these issues further with an interview with Father Cox. The byline on "Drowned Out by Outrage" will be familiar to longtime GetReligion readers, since Doug LeBlanc was the co-founder of this weblog nearly 14 years ago.

So who is Cox? He is the author of "The Religious Life of Robert E. Lee," which was published in April by Eerdmans. Here is a passage that sets the tone:

When members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis marched through Charlottesville in a torchlit parade and chanted “Jews will not replace us,” Cox said, “that had nothing to do with Lee.”
“In that sense, I think nobody is paying attention to him and who he was,” Cox said. “We are dealing with a human being, and we’re not treating him as such. “Yes, he was a Confederate general, who opposed slavery and secession, even though he fought for what would perpetuate both. And after the war, he dedicated himself to reunifying the nation and restoring its prosperity.”

However, LeBlanc stresses that Cox did not write a work of hagiography. The goal was to understand what Lee believed, how those beliefs created tensions with his actions and to set him in the context of the common doctrines of his age.

Take, for example, this famous quote on white supremacy:

“I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races … I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be a position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Actually, that was Abraham Lincoln, in his famous debates with Stephen Douglas. These kinds of words were tragically common at the time -- almost everywhere.

LeBlanc notes:

Cox documents that Lee, like so many other people of the time and in both North and South, agreed with notions of racial superiority, but he did not believe it should lead to racial suppression. He oversaw slaves inherited from his father-in-law. But he also wrote to Jefferson Davis in 1865, urging that the Confederate States of America free all slaves.
“He really tried to treat people as people, no matter their color, no matter their class, no matter their station in life,” Cox said.

This subject is not going away. Read it all.

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