As everyone in America knows, on the night of June 17 Dylann Roof, armed with a .45 Glock, slaughtered nine black men and women in Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME church. Well before Roof was apprehended the following day, the mediasphere went ballistic. Hoping to start a “race war,” Roof generated instead what the Rev. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) called a “third great awakening of American society.” The hyperbolic Cleaver was referring to the impetus given by the shootings to renewed calls for removal of the Battle Flag from the South Carolina State House grounds; for the eradication of Confederate memorials and monuments in Georgia and elsewhere; and for a national “conversation” about racism in America, said to be enabled by the public display of Confederate icons. Cleaver’s mention of a third Great Awakening is puzzling, since historians have identified four such awakenings already. (Perhaps the reverend disputes the validity of the third and fourth, as indeed some do.) Nonetheless, I am grateful to be reminded that this most recent wave of iconoclasm sweeping the nation is rooted in our religious history, even if most of its exponents are today adamantly secular.
What is striking about the Second Great Awakening is that its postmillennialism led many to embrace a kind of social gospel, which sought a sweeping purification of American life. The radical Abolitionists, influenced by the spiritual currents of that era, could brook no compromise with “gradual emancipation,” and their militaristic rhetoric was in part responsible for the failure of more moderate initiatives. “Now the Word of God,” trumpeted George Cheever in 1858, “is for aggression and conquests, not compromise with sin. The Word of God is a park of artillery, a swift-rushing mountain of thunderings and lightnings against sin, to . . . get it out of the world.” In the view of radicals like Cheever, sin was embedded in virtually every institution of American society, and it had to be uprooted, violently if necessary, if their vision of a godly terrestrial regime were to be realized.
Today, our iconoclasts pontificate in faculty offices, nursing lattes and excoriating the proponents of “heritage,” who, it seems, are the ill-educated dupes of a racist status quo. Confederate icons, they avow, are a legacy of hate. End of story. The flag, we are told, is “unredeemable.” South Carolina removed it in 2000 from the capitol dome to a 20-foot staff standing behind a 30-foot Confederate memorial featuring the image of a South Carolina infantryman. No one in his right mind could believe that, in its present position, it represents “white supremacy.” Instead, it honors those who died “in the short, sharp agony of the field.” Now it appears that, in response to the Charleston shootings, the flag will be erased. No compromise will be allowed. It will no longer cause anyone the slightest discomfort. What remains for the descendants of the brave men who died beneath that banner? Nothing, it seems, but shame.