Thomas Gallatin / October 31, 2017

Episcopal Iconoclasts Come for Washington

Christ Church, where Washington worshipped, removes plaque honoring him due to his having owned slaves.

Historic Christ Church in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, suddenly found itself in the national news after its leaders’ recent decision to remove plaques honoring its most famous parishioners, George Washington and Robert E. Lee. “The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome,” the church’s leaders explained. “Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

Since it’s all the rage today to take down monuments honoring Confederate leaders, the church’s decision to remove Lee’s plaque, while regrettable, is at least somewhat understandable. But why also take down Washington’s plaque? Were Church leaders fearful that an unhealthy degree of idolizing of the plaque had taken hold of the congregation to venerate Washington over Christ? If fear for the health of members’ souls was the impetus, then by all means remove these stumbling stones. Of course, that was far from the reason. Instead, the decision was made out of deference to the vacillating opinions of mere mortals. Christ Church leadership was afraid of offending someone because of the historic fact that George Washington owned slaves — the unforgivable sin of today.

To be clear, Christ Church has every right to remove this plaque honoring its past members, even when one of those members just happens to be the first president of the United States. But Christ Church’s rationale for removing the plaques speaks more about a troubling spirit of our modern age, where those individuals of the past who accomplished great achievements are condemned for accepting that which was culturally common within their own day. Our inability as a modern culture to judge with a nuanced understanding those from the past says more about our own prejudice than it does our forefathers.

And of all places a Christian church is built upon the foundation of recognizing that people are sinners who are saved by faith in the only perfect sinless individual, the God-man Jesus Christ. The parable of the woman caught in adultery comes to mind. The leaders of Jesus’ day brought the guilty woman before him saying that according to the law she deserved to be stoned. Jesus didn’t deny her guilt but made a simple and yet profound statement: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” Beware of overstating the sins of those in the past while ignoring the sins of the present.

And a footnote: Apparently the parents of George Washington Carver, another great American, did not have a problem with President Washington’s legacy.

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