While now mostly playing an assortment of recent films, the television channel TNT (Turner Network Television) was, when I was growing up, the go-to place for action, adventure, and masculine entertainment. As a youngster, while other kids watched Saturday morning cartoons, I got up at 6 AM with my brothers to watch The Wild Wild West, Hondo, and John Wayne movies.
Every football season, usually during a big game, TNT would host a “Civil War Sunday,” broadcasting films like Gettysburg, The Hunley, and Gone with the Wind. There was no narrative forced, just one Sunday a year to pay tribute and respect to the boys in blue and gray – mostly because Ted Turner, the owner of TNT, is a Civil War buff who spent much of the 90s and early 2000s financing high-quality television movies based on events from American History, especially the Civil War.
General Lee Becomes a Hero
My earliest exposure to the character of Robert E. Lee came from watching Gettysburg every football season, as my dad preferred “Civil War Sunday” to watching football. We’d view the 4-hour film with pizza, root beer floats, and a historical narrative from Dad starting up again during each commercial break. Then, if we were lucky, we’d get to stay up to watch Gone with the Wind.
When Gods and Generals was produced by Ron F. Maxwell in 2003, my family sat alone in the theater for the 3-hour+ film. This time, instead of Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, who I knew from the movie Secondhand Lions, played Lee. Despite the change in actors, General Lee’s character was essentially exactly the same in both films – kind though stern, impeccably dressed, the picture of a gentleman, and with the Bible always on his lips.
My dad would explain Robert E. Lee’s faith, devotion to his state, and care for the soldiers serving under him. At some point, General Lee became one of the primary historical heroes in life – a man with a George Washington-like mythos that I could aspire to. I never questioned this narrative because it was confirmed by everyone and every institution around me – including the television. As I got older, I started to read biographies and Civil War histories featuring General Lee, and I was never disappointed by his exemplary character. I didn’t just think of him as a great historical figure, but also as a model Christian gentleman. From nature and nurture, Robert E. Lee became my hero.
A Burning Face
It’s hard to put into words the level of dysphoria that is felt going from the process of General Lee becoming a primary hero in my life to seeing what is left of his likeness glowing in a blast furnace as it’s melted down. It’s one thing to accept that we’re at the point where our history is being purposely destroyed, but to have it being cheered on by those who are supposed to be his fellow brothers and sisters in Christ is a much harder pill to swallow.
Indeed, from the political right, left, center, and mainstream Christian establishment, it’s been nearly universally decided that Robert E. Lee represents not Christian virtue, but instead the greatest form of evil that the world has ever seen (Antebellum slavery in the Southern United States). What’s added to the dysphoria is the bullet train speed that Lee (along with many other historically renowned figures) has gone from near-universal respect to near-universal disdain.
Sure, there has always been a cadre of historians (of which Columbia Professor Eric Foner is probably the best known from his presence on TV) that have sought to undermine the cause for which Lee fought, but rarely his character, with even Foner remarking that Lee, “always prided himself on following the strict moral code of a gentleman.”
After all, this is a man that Dwight D. Eisenhower had a portrait of because he considered him “one of the four greatest Americans.” Ronald Reagan quoted Lee positively while president without any great controversy. Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke at an unveiling of a statue of General Lee. He said, “We recognize Robert E. Lee as one of our greatest American Christians and one of our greatest American gentlemen.”
In His Own Words
There’s no shortage of examples of positive affirmations of Lee’s character – but Lee’s own words ring truest. On being informed of the revival taking place across the Army of Northern Virginia (a phenomenon that also occurred in the Union Army), Lee said, “I sincerely thank you for that, and I can only say that I am just a poor sinner, trusting in Christ alone for salvation and that I need all the prayers you can offer for me.” Again, there are scores of examples of similar language being used by Lee, as his customary speech was seasoned with scripture and Christian sentiment.
One of my personal favorite quotes from Lee comes from a letter sent home to his wife while away at Christmastime in 1856: “The doctrines & miracles of our Saviour have required nearly two thousand years, to Convert but a small part of the human race, & even among Christian nations, what gross errors still exist! While we see the Course of the final abolition of human Slavery is onward, & we give it the aid of our prayers & all justifiable means in our power, we must leave the progress as well as the result in his hands who sees the end; who Chooses to work by slow influences; & with whom two thousand years are but as a Single day.”
We are expected to believe that the man who wrote those words is, on one hand, a wicked tyrant who was effectually complicit and even active in genocide (left-wing tactic), and/or a traitorous “loser” who squandered his military career for nothing (right-wing).
How do we go from near-universal respect and commendation to the (now former) president of the political wing of the Southern Baptist Convention (Russell Moore) penning an article titled, “Good Riddance to the Robert E. Lee Statue?” And how does the conservative establishment in the US so quickly turn on a man they held up as a virtuous example about 5 minutes ago? Some have been softer in their history cleanse, while establishment Republicans have mostly taken to the “they were all Democrats anyway” when a Civil War era Southern leader’s likenesses are defaced, removed, and most recently, melted down. At this point in time, the right and left, the godless and Christian all take part in the smear campaign against Lee.
How Christians Should Treat the Memory of Robert E. Lee
While an endless amount of ink could be spilled delving into the ins and outs of every controversial facet surrounding the events that defined Lee’s life, the important takeaway for Christians is realizing that taking part in the salacious slander and character erasure is horrendously unwise at best, sinful at worst. James 4:11 commands us: Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. A few verses later in James 5:9 we are likewise commanded: Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. Romans 12:10 reminds us to: Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor.
There is no indication in Scripture that because a saint has physically passed on then Christians no longer have any obligation to show honor, love, and charity to them, even if it’s just to their memory. In no way does this mean that criticisms and critiques cannot be made, as whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction (Romans 15:4), and this obviously includes both the good and bad examples from saints in Scripture.
But there is most definitely a line between pointing out the shortcomings of a fellow believer, even one that lived long ago, and advocating that their memory be expunged, their legacy completely destroyed, and any likeness of them smashed, trashed, and melted down. What makes the rapidly increasing hate for Lee among American Christians even more senseless is the tendency to prop up other historical figures as Christian bulwarks – even if they weren’t Christians.
Give Honor to Whom It is Due
Romans 13:7 says, Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. The truth of the life of Robert E. Lee has not changed. The facts of his life have not changed. All of the reasons he was given honor and respect in the first place have not changed.
What has changed is the trajectory of our society to become actively anti-Christian and rabidly interested in destroying, deconstructing, and demeaning Christians (both historical and current). Paying respect and honor to Robert E. Lee and similar historical figures as Christian examples is now profoundly costly – politically, socially, financially, and in some circumstances, probably physically as well. In order to have friendship with many of those who surround us, we must join in the slander.
There’s just one problem. As James 4:4 tells us, Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. As a Christian’s likeness melts in the furnace of the Spirit of the Age, it’s worth asking: who will we pursue friendship with? Should we join in the defaming to spare ourselves?
No, rather we should “leave the progress as well as the result in His hands who sees the end.”
Reject the malice, contempt, and lies – honor Robert E. Lee, the Christian.