I found myself asking this question amid the growing political fight about monuments. What once began as a debate over monuments to figures of the Confederacy has since expanded to Teddy Roosevelt, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other luminaries of American history. I clearly stand against what I see as an effort to shame Americans about a history of which, recognizing the good and the bad, we should feel extremely proud. Despite the haters' protestations, no nation has done more to advance the cause of freedom and the human condition than the United States of America. When looking to historical figures, we must judge them both based on the times they live in and in the totality of their actions.
None of us dispute that owning slaves is morally abhorrent; Washington and others are guilty of this moral crime. But, Washington was born into a slave-owning society, he was instrumental in founding this country, and he perhaps set the most critical institutional norm in our history—the peaceful transfer of power after two terms in office. That is a man worthy of celebration.
But this brings me back to my original question. Did owning slaves preclude Washington from gaining entrance into Heaven, presuming there is a heaven? We could expand the list of sins beyond owning slaves to other views that we view as morally repugnant today, such as whether women should be allowed to vote. We all agree today that thinking women are unfit to vote is deeply misogynistic and immoral. But by that standard, we would eliminate virtually every public figure before 1900.
Was Heaven empty before one hundred years ago?
I suspect many on the “woke Left” don’t believe in God; declining religiousness is perhaps the defining cultural trend in America over the past thirty years. So, for some the question may be moot, but I’d be curious to know their answer for those who do believe in God and Heaven.
I’m no religious scholar, but I struggle to believe that before our very recent state of enlightenment, all of humanity was sentenced to eternal damnation. If there is a Heaven, I would wager some of our founding fathers and some slave-owners, flawed products of their time they may be, are there.
Indeed, this visceral debate over statues seems like an inevitable aftershock of our society’s turn away from organized religion. Whatever its flaws, religion seeks to provide perspective on the “big picture” versus daily noise, and in addition to a moral code, a recognition that forgiving others’ shortcomings is virtuous.
Consumed by moral relativism, we feel good about ourselves, not by judging ourselves against a fixed moral code, but by being offended, or at least pretending to be, constantly and at everything. Politics has become our new religion; that is why people are so quick to smear opponents as “evil” rather than well-intentioned but incorrect. The Left no longer believes, "if you disagree me, you are well-meaning but misguided." Instead, those who dare to disagree are evil, and because they are evil, the social media should try to destroy their life and even pressure their employer to fire them. The tearing down of monuments is so dangerous, not only because of this effort to erase our history, but also because this illiberal, if not downright fascist, effort to cancel men of the past is being joined by an effort to cancel our fellow citizens.
And in this world of ideological absolutism and cancellation, we struggle to balance one’s flaws against their strengths. That is why there is little effort to contextualize our founders in the time in which they lived. They aren’t perfect; therefore, they are bad. Or so we are lectured.
Given ever-changing cultural standards, it is hard to see any statue surviving more than thirty years. America is great not because we are perfect. We are great because we were founded with extraordinary, timeless ideals, that people should be equal, govern over themselves, and have agency over their own lives. We have often fallen short of these ideals; but we are defined not by these shortcomings, but by our striving to live up to them. And, no nation has lived up to them better than we have. We should honor the men who built this governing structure and those who advanced our realization of our ideals, even if they had personal failings.
I just hope that when I reach those pearly gates, God proves to be a bit more forgiving than our woke leftists. Otherwise, I know I don’t have a chance of getting in.