Whosoever curseth his father or his mother His lamp shall be put out in deep darkness
Proverbs 20: 20
This past December I was standing outside a Louisiana filling station, waiting for my children to do what children do at filling stations on a long drive. To pass the time, I idly read the portion of the first page of the Times Picayune that was visible through the window of the newspaper dispenser. This included a headline announcing the New Orleans City Council decision to remove four Confederate monuments from prominent places in that city, an act in line with the flurry of iconoclasm that had been roiling the South since the Charleston shootings earlier that year.
Specifically, the Council had passed an ordinance declaring the monuments a “nuisance” because they “honor, praise, or foster ideologies that are in conflict with the requirements of equal protection of citizens.” While there were no plans to deface or desecrate the statues of Robert E. Lee, P. G. T. Beauregard, and Jefferson Davis, Mayor Landrieu said that they, and an obelisk commemorating the 1874 insurrection known as the Battle of Liberty Place, would be removed to an out of the way park “where history can be remembered and not revered.”
As the geographer David Lowental wrote, “wholesale destruction of a dreaded or oppressive past has marked iconoclastic excess since time immemorial” (1). In the past, however, iconoclasts physically destroyed the icons that they hated. They smashed them with hammers and burned them with fire. Today’s iconoclasts preserve the body of a hated icon, but destroy its soul by inverting its meaning. In the hands of modern iconoclasts, a revered icon becomes a regretted icon; that which was venerated becomes an object of contempt or shame
In 1643, the English Parliament ordered that “that all representations, of any person of the Trinity, or of any angel, or saint, in or about any cathedral, or collegiate, or parish church or chapel, or in any open place within this kingdom, shall be taken away, defaced, and utterly demolished” (2). If they had been modern iconoclasts, they would have ordered these representations housed in museums, to which busloads of gaping schoolchildren would be sent to learn of the horrors of idolatrous Papistry.
The Parliamentary order of 1643 renewed the Puritan iconoclasm that had ransacked Roman Catholic churches in the Netherlands a hundred years before. Here’s a description of one of these desecrations.
“High above the great altar [of the Antwerp cathedral] was an image of the Savior, curiously carved in wood, and placed between the effigies of the two thieves crucified with him. The mob contrived to get a rope round the neck of the statue of Christ, and dragged it to the ground. They then fell upon it with hatchets and hammers, and it was soon broken into a hundred fragments. The two thieves, it was remarked, were spared” (3).
If the vandals of Antwerp had been modern iconoclasts, they would have expelled the numen of the crucifix by declaring the curious carving a “cultural artifact” or “work of art.” The docents at the museum in which they would have carefully hung it would have told visitors who had carved it, and when, and out of what wood. Then perhaps they might have mentioned, with a chuckle, a groan, or a sneer, “what people used to think it meant.”
This method of the modern iconoclast is derived from the modern attitude towards history. Moderns think it surpassingly important to preserve the corpse of history: to collect and catalogue its artefacts, to protect its buildings, to arrange its facts in prodigious books. But they are at the same time scared of the ghost of history—of the very idea that there might be traditions to which men owe a debt and feel a duty. They look upon history much as a big game hunter looks upon a lion. It is something that one shoots, stuffs, sets on display, and thereafter employs as a prop when telling self-aggrandizing stories. It is not something that should thrill a man by roaring in the night.
* * * * *
Insofar as these New Orleans monuments “honor, praise, or foster” an “ideology,” it is an ideology in which disregard for the “equal protection of citizens” plays a rather small and incidental part. Indeed, the gravamen of this ideology is that the Southern Rebellion was not undertaken simply to preserve the institution of slavery. This ideology, normally referred to as the Lost Cause, sanctifies the Rebellion by asserting that the South fought to preserve something far more noble and precious than slavery. As articulated by men such as Robert Lewis Dabney, Albert Taylor Bledsoe, and Charles Colcock Jones, it said that the Cause the South had lost was righteous resistance to the advance of modern materialism in all of its hideous guises.
John Donald Wade explained that the ideology (he called it “dogma”) of the Lost Cause represented the Southern Rebellion as a last defense of Western Civilization against the devouring Moloch of modernity (4). It taught that men such as Lee, Beauregard and Davis (not to mention the nameless insurgents of Liberty Place) had fought to foil the “glut of predatory lords” that were leading “the entire western world to . . . dissolution.” Beginning with Federalists such as Alexander Hamilton and Daniel Webster, these “predatory lords” were national magnates, the big men in the eastern cities who lusted to rule a continental empire. They were the bankers, industrialists and statesmen known as “robber barons” in the Gilded Age (and globalists today).
In the ideology of the Lost Cause, these national magnates were not merely proud and avaricious men. They had a deeper meaning, and were in truth “emissaries” of spiritual powers that Wade called “the jealous gods of Speed and Mass, who . . . brook nothing that does not favor them.” By way of their emissaries these gods blasted and destroyed anything that was slow, small, and singular. “In efficiency’s name” they demanded “an unremitting uniformity and mechanization of men and things.” They flattened the poetry and peculiarities of this world under an iron grid of “rationalistic materialism.”
Of course the Confederates who opposed these gods and their predatory lords also had a deeper meaning in the ideology of the Lost Cause. They were not merely proud and avaricious men with a sordid interest in the preservation of slavery, but rather patriots offering “resistance . . . to a cultural and industrial uniformity with Great America.”
The ideology (or dogma, or myth) of the Lost Cause may be utterly mistaken about the motives of the Confederate States, but it was most certainly the ideology to which Southern men were giving expression when they raised their monuments to the Lost Cause in the last decades of the nineteenth century. They raised these monuments to assert that the War between the States was about more than slavery. Iconoclasts are now removing these monuments to places of odium and shame to deny this proposition, and to assert that the war was about nothing but slavery. They say such monuments honor men who defended nothing but the “peculiar institution” of the South. But the men who raised them believed they were honoring men who defended the Southern people’s right to be peculiar, live according to their own regime, and greet every form of officious interference by outsiders with fire and iron.
Among the men who raised these monuments, the more thoughtful regretted that the defense of Southern peculiarity had been occasioned by officious interference with slavery. This institution had been, they knew, both dubious and doomed, and therefore of a character calculated to cloud the principles of the conflict in a towering thunderhead of booming righteousness. And they were prescient, as we now know. Donald Davidson, a friend of Wade, who saw the South as a peculiar people threatened by the steamroller of “Leviathan,” warned against “the subtlest and most dangerous foe of humanity—the tyranny that wears the mask of humanitarianism and benevolence” (5).
* * * * *
One would have to be a very zealous ideologue to suppose the New Orleans monuments were raised to honor nothing but the ideology of the Lost Cause, for they were also, obviously, raised to honor flesh-and-blood men. And not only the flesh-and-blood men whose images are graven in the stone, but also the nameless ranks who marched behind them, who were men of flesh and blood also. In addition to their ideological message, these monuments were, in other words, gestures of filial piety, which an old nineteenth-century schoolbook defined as “love, gratitude and obedience to your parents” (6).
Love, gratitude and obedience is, in fact, the traditional analysis of the word “honor” in the fourth commandment (fifth in the Reformed tradition). Calvin described the “three parts of honor” as “reverence, obedience, and thankfulness” (7). He explained that we are properly thankful when “we do good to our parent,” obedient when we follow their orders, and reverent when we hold them in esteem. “It is forbidden,” he wrote, “to withdraw anything from their dignity, either by contempt, or obstinate [obstinacy] or unthankfulness.”
It should be obvious that each of the three aspects of filial piety has its season of special salience in the life of a man. When he is a child, he will honor his parents mostly by obedience. When he is grown and they are old, he will honor his parents mostly by thankfulness. And when he is himself old and they are gone, he will honor his parents mostly by reverence.
Reverence is, therefore, the aspect of filial piety that concerns us here, since this is what a man mostly owes to parents (and forebears) when they are dead. As Calvin chooses to oppose reverence with contempt, we may suppose he interprets the commandment to revere as forbidding a child to look down upon his parents (and forebears). Even after they have died, he is obliged to look up to them, as well as to those they looked up to. Calvin adds that an irreverent child is also one who “curseth his father or his mother” or in any way “dishonor[s]” them. I think we may take “curseth” to cover every possible expression of dispraise, and “dishonor” every means of defamation. Thus the reverent child must think well of his parents, speak well of his parents, and do everything in his power to defend their memory.
And he is not excused from this duty when his parents’ memory contains episodes he would rather not defend. “It maketh no difference, whether they be worthy or unworthy,” Calvin wrote, “for what sort soever they be, they have not without the providence of God attained that place.” Reverence is not given on merit; it is a duty that each of us has to those “that have brought us into this life.” This duty is abrogated on only one condition: “if they move us to transgress the law,” which is to say “labor to withdraw us from obedience to the true Father.”
Did the men memorialized in the condemned New Orleans monuments forfeit their due reverence by “moving” their sons and daughters to transgress the law? Did they “labor” to withdraw them from obedience to the true Father? It seems to me that the words “move” and “labor” imply something done by design, in this case a wicked design of deliberate moral corruption. And it seems to me that to impute the Confederates with such a wicked design would be a monstrous and insupportable libel. Whether or not they were altogether worthy, their claim on the reverence of their children is unshaken.
* * * * *
It was a chilly day by Louisiana standards when I stood outside that filling station, waiting for my children and scanning the front page of the Times Picayune. And when I read the headline about the resolution of the New Orleans City Council, I felt a deeper chill. It has taken me four months to discern the meaning of this deeper chill, but I now see it comes to this. I sensed with fear the implacable hatred of the iconoclasts, however much this might be hidden by the gentle odium of modern methods. I sensed with horror the pitilessness of Leviathan, whose gods of Mass and Speed were even then hurtling down the Interstate highway in front of me. And I sensed with disgust the monstrous act of impiety by children who no longer looked up to, or spoke well of, their forefathers.
I sensed, in short, a lamp that shall be put out in deep darkness.
(1) David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 67.
(2) Two Ordinances of the Lords and Commons Assembled in Parliament: For the Speedy Demolishing of All Organs, Images, and all Manner of Superstitions Monuments in all Cathedral, Parish Churches and Chapels Throughout the Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales (London: John Wright, 1645).
(3) William H. Prescott, History of the Reign of Philip the Second of Spain, vol. 2, ed. John Foster Kirk (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1882 ), pp. 274-275
(4) John Donald Wade, “Old Wine in a New Bottle,” pp. 149-160 in Selected Essays and Other Writings of John Donald Wade, ed. Donald Davidson (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1966).
(5) Donald Davidson, The Attack on Leviathan: Regionalism and Nationalism in the United States (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1938), p. 12.
(6) William Fletcher, The Child’s Handbook: Rudiments of Reading and Thinking, part 1 (London: Roake and Varty, 1837), p. 65.
(7) John Calvin, The Institution of Christian Religion (London: Reinolde Wolfe and Richarde Harison, 1561 ), pp. 57-58.