The Confederacy in the National Cathedral

I wanted to attend the 9:00 service at Washington National Cathedral. Unfortunately, and contrary to the cathedral’s website, there was no 9:00 service this Sunday. However, I did get to sing the last hymn of the 8:00 service! It was a good hymn, and I enjoyed exploring the place afterwards. It is immense, with all sorts of details to notice. I confess that I was particularly keen to see what had happened to the Confederate stained glass windows. A parishioner named Jared kindly showed me where they were. One was dedicated to Robert E. Lee, and the other to Stonewall Jackson. I reproduce the windows, and their inscriptions:

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“To the Glory of God, all righteous and all merciful and in undying tribute to the life and witness of Robert Edward Lee, servant of God, leader of men, general-in-chief of the armies of the confederate states whose compelling sense of duty serene faith and unfailing courtesy mark him for all ages as a Christian soldier without fear and without reproach this memorial bay is gratefully built by the United Daughters of the Confederacy.”

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“To the glory of the Lord Jesus whom he so zealously served and in honored memory of Thomas Jonathan Jackson, Lieutenant General C.S.A. Like a stone wall in his steadfastness, swift as lightning, and mighty in battle, he walked humbly before his creator whose word was his guide this bay is erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and his admirers from south and north.”

The sharp-eyed reader will notice that some Confederate flags remain in the windows above: there are two instances of the Stars and Bars, and one of Hardee’s Battle Flag (the blue one with a white circle in the center). Other flags include the U.S. flag, the flag of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (red field, white castle) and the flag the U.S. Army Field Artillery (red field, crossed cannons).

But you’ll notice that no Confederate Battle Flags are in evidence. These were replaced with blank flags, a blue one in the Robert E. Lee window, and a red one in the Stonewall Jackson window.

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For reference, from NPR.org, here are what they looked like in 2015, before the Charleston shooting:

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What to say? In general I am not in favor of the Confederacy, but I am not in favor of Jacobinism either. And yet, monuments like these express endorsement of their subjects – it’s a little bit more than a case of acknowledging “our heritage,” as supporters would have it. Apparently the former dean wanted to get rid of the entire stained glass display, and the inscriptions, on the principle that no Confederates should be memorialized, certainly not in the National Cathedral. But then people raised the usual objections – near these windows, for instance, is the tomb of Woodrow Wilson. Should we dig him up and bury him elsewhere, on account of his unfortunate racial views? Should we not celebrate important people, warts and all, particularly when reincorporating the defeated southern states was at one point a major priority, and if that meant honoring Confederates, so be it? On a practical level, does the Cathedral not have better things to worry about, particularly the $34 million dollars worth of damage caused by an earthquake in 2011?

Frankly it does seem like the choice here should have been all or nothing. Either leave the windows alone, or get rid of all traces of them. Blanking out the one “offensive” image seems somewhat faint-hearted.

Failing that, why not replace the Battle Flags with other, proper flags, and not just blank spaces?

In the meantime, note that the Cathedral displays the flag of Mississippi, with its canton of the Battle Flag, in the nave.

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