Last month, Loyola University in Maryland removed the name of the novelist Flannery O’Connor from a residence hall. The administration of the Jesuit university had judged that some of O’Connor’s writings “revealed a racist perspective.” In this summer of statue toppings and building renamings, similar accusations have been leveled against figures as various as Christopher Columbus, St Junipero Serra, Winston Churchill, Robert E Lee and Abraham Lincoln.
Some assume that what’s being contested in these debates is the evil of racism and slavery. On this theory, people who oppose tearing down a statue or renaming a building must have a covert love of the lash.
In fact, almost every participant in these debates acknowledges these evils as evils. Only by recognising this impressive consensus can we begin to see the real battle lines. On one side stands the party of piety; on the other, the party of purity. The parties disagree as to the proper attitude toward the past.
The party of piety is marked by gratitude for a common inheritance. It believes that we live in a fallen world, in which God must bring good out of evil and use jars of clay as vessels of grace. While acknowledging the faults of a writer like O’Connor, it sees a good in her work far greater than that of many writers more committed to racial uplift. She helped us to see our common faults, knowing that she was implicated in them.
The party of purity hopes through a political programme to expunge the sins of past and present. Both sides acknowledge the reality of historical evil, but the party of purity believes that it can overcome that reality through political action. Men are better today than they were yesterday, and so long as the forces of reaction are kept at bay, they will be still better tomorrow.
The party of piety is more cautious about assuming chronological superiority. It views the evil of the past as one manifestation of an unvarying human condition: the fallenness of man. It believes that moral judgment will be superficial unless it is alive to the tragic and ironic nature of history.
Of course, anyone who denies that we have a common inheritance will have no reason to join the party of piety. There is no point honouring an “imagined community” or “invented tradition”.
The party of purity denies both that our inheritance is common and that it is worthy of gratitude. It rightly reminds us that our leaders have often governed for the sake of a select group rather than for the common good. So in what sense is our inheritance truly “common”? And how desirable is an inheritance that is soaked in the sweat and blood of the poor?
But those who disparage our civic and communal inheritances generally enjoy their own forms of community, which they do honour and cherish: selective liberal-arts colleges, wealthy school districts, prestigious forms of employment.
Neither the party of piety nor the party of purity will always be right. Each represents an instinct or a disposition, rather than a clear principle. Their contrasting intuitions will shape particular judgments, but they do not dictate clear rules for hard cases.
Christians, who understand the necessity of moral judgment and have their own eschatological vision of history, will sometimes be tempted to join the party of purity. Understanding that every person is made in the image of God and deserves respect, they may submit to a gender ideology that paints all dissenters as trans-hating bigots. Knowing the importance of racial justice, they may find it convenient to endorse a movement that regards their country as irredeemably racist.
But joining the party of purity is a mistake. This party seeks not just the abolition of the nation, but the suppression of the Church. It has no more sympathy for heavenly loyalties than for the political and familial ones that train us in habits of reverence.
For Christians, piety is the correct disposition. Just as we honour our mother and father, we should honour our civic forebears. Doing so inculcates in us a disposition of submission to the Father above. Of course, precisely because the Christian’s loyalty is ultimately to something higher, he will sometimes break with earthly pieties. But these breaks, when they come, will be distinct from the quest for a worldly purity.
Matthew Schmitz is senior editor of First Things
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