Bill Leonard, a founding professor at Wake Forest University School of Divinity, inadvertently anticipated the domestic terrorism that killed counter-protester Heather Heyer at the Aug. 12 Klan/Nazi rally in Charlottesville.
Months before that, after being tapped to give the divinity school’s fall convocation address, Bill had hit on the complex title of “Redeemer Nation and Lost Cause Religion: Making America Great Again (For the First Time).”
He could have just titled his message “Charlottesville,” as he acknowledged when he took the stage at Wait Chapel on the campus Tuesday. His theory suddenly had new meaning in the world far beyond academia. “Right now, a single word defines the importance of today’s topic: Charlottesville,” Bill said near the start of his talk to an enthusiastic audience of African-Americans and whites. “The rise in religion-related hate crimes, white supremacy rhetoric, KKK rallies, and race-based deviations in voting laws suggest that some of the worst Lost Cause-oriented ideologies are not lost at all in 21st century America.”
I’ve known Bill for years and count him as a friend. What academics like him say matters all the more in a country where violence often drowns out civil discourse. Bill is a nonviolent visionary with a big heart and a big brain who has long made courageous stands. We ignore guys like him and the historical dots they connect at our own peril.
In his address, Bill ticked through our history, from the early Protestant leaders who thought we’d be a “Redeemer Nation” (“an exceptionalism often linked to a covenant with the Divine”) to the Southern Christian leaders who helped invent The Lost Cause mythology after the Civil War. He said that the term Lost Cause, “introduced to explain the South’s defeat and memorialize its honored dead (hence the statues), morphed into a broader method for undergirding racial segregation, denying blacks’ voting rights, and promoting culturally entrenched white supremacy, zombie mindsets that stalk us yet.”
Zombie mindsets indeed. In America, and in the South especially, it often feels, at least to me, that we are existing in parallel time with our ancestors.
Bill said that “The racial, ethnic, and immigrant injustices of a Redeemer Nation are writ large in the Lost Cause, a metaphor by which the defeated Southerners cast ‘the [Civil] war and its outcome in the best possible terms,’ ‘often factually and chronologically distorting the way in which the past would be remembered.’ These ‘alternative facts’ minimized or dismissed the role of slavery as a reason for a war fought in response to ‘Yankee aggression,’ and black ‘betrayal,’” he said, quoting from the author Carolyn E. Janney.
Bill talked about the power of myth in America in general. “But such mythic identity may not hold forever; there are always prophets and other dissenting weirdoes who challenge them on the spot,” he said. “Myths that write people in often write other people out.”
Bill, who has described himself as a Baptist in the South, didn’t let his Baptist predecessors off the hook for creating deadly myths. “Lost Cause religion facilitated the formation of the Ku Klux Klan, whose violent racism was romanticized in books like ‘The Clansman,’ written in 1905 by Baptist preacher and Wake Forest graduate Thomas Dixon, to describe how ‘the young South, led by the reincarnated souls of the Clansmen of Old Scotland ... saved the life of a people,’ and formed ‘one of the most dramatic chapters in the history of the Aryan race,’” Bill said, quoting from the book.
He drove that theme home to current times: “Recalibrating multiple myths of American democracy was at the heart of Donald Trump’s election. His slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ captures these two themes of national consciousness: American exceptionalism, the unique place of the U.S. in world history; and Trump’s own Lost Cause ‘deconstruction’ in an ‘America first’ ideology, with decidedly racist overtones. Many of the 81 percent of evangelical voters who supported Trump apparently hoped he would renew America’s divine entitlement as Redeemer Nation, restoring the country’s faith foundation in Christian orthodoxy and morality.”
Bill said: “Efforts to ‘make America great again’ are not unique to the current president of the United States. In almost every era of our country’s history, someone has lamented the departure of American ‘greatness,’ fretting that national oblivion, if not divine retribution, was at hand. Still others, dissenters mostly, continually warn that claims of ‘greatness’ themselves betray a certain national hubris, a blindness to promises made but not yet kept.”
There are those glorious dissenters. Bill put Martin King in that group leading us to the “Beloved Community,” as well as an African-American preacher of today. “Others, like North Carolina pastor William Barber, challenge that vision, warning against those who ‘deny the God-given humanity and the human rights of individuals and then stack the courts to protect themselves and their power and then put pornographic sums of money into the political structure in order to dominate it,’” Bill said, quoting Barber.
Toward the end of his message, Bill tied King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963, to Charlottesville last month. “Fifty-four Augusts later, can we mirror Dr. King’s courage by confronting a renewed Lost Cause ideology spewed out in white supremacy-KKK-Nazi bigotry made tangible in torchlight parades, ‘blood and soil’ mantras, and the murder of a 32-year-old dissenter? If the hope of a Beloved Community means anything at all, then Heather Heyer must not have died in vain.”
That’s a challenge that should stir our souls.