In his essay, “Faithless Colleges,” Pat Buchanan points to St. Louis University’s willingness to remove an historic statue, and the potential for Harriet Tubman to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. In his conclusion, he leaves the reader with the thought provoking question:
What all these arguments are at bottom all about, however, is a deep divide among us over the question: Was the European Christian conquest of America, given its flaws and failings, on balance, a great and good thing. Or not?
While I agree with Buchanan that the attitude he identifies is a significant concern, I do not find his answer satisfactory. As conservatives, it is not enough for us to cling to a whitewashed narrative which portrays Andrew Jackson as “arguably the greatest soldier-statesman in American history.” Jackson was a prideful, arrogant oath-breaker responsible for the savage death of thousands of Cherokee. Upholding the inherent goodness of Euro-centric civilization is not sufficient; we need a more profound understanding of history.
What’s at stake in removing these statues, images, and symbols is not just condemnation of sins in the past but excising part of a complex narrative. Christianity claims to be the truth, and Christians have committed atrocities in the advancement of their faith. Both of these claims must be held together, in tension, to produce a complete understanding. St. Louis University would remove the image reminding students of Christianity’s arrival amongst the Indians; Buchanan would have us ignore Jackson’s poor treatment of the Cherokee. For history to remain true to itself as the story of mankind, both halves of the narrative must speak.
Human history is never complete when flattened to either a tale of pure progress (God’s blessed America on the route to redeeming the world through the manifest destiny of spreading democracy), or a cry of endless oppression (the evil white men arrived and began raping, pillaging, and polluting the nice Native Americans who were sinless peace loving Disney characters). History is always a mixture of sin and grace, progress and regress, hope and despair. Our founding fathers remind of us this truth: for all his love of freedom and human rights, Jefferson owned slaves and had his time with Sally. For all his great political wisdom, Lincoln married a shrew. The coming of Spaniards to Latin America ended empires constructed on fountains of human sacrifice, and exchanged smallpox for syphilis. Ignoring either of these elements in historical study removes their humanity and cheapens our historical consciousness.
When we are faced with the cultural narrative of white oppression and dominance, we should never flatten history like cultural Left. Instead, we should demonstrate how their objections limit the complexity of history. We are all heirs of a cultural tradition, and it is our responsibility to seek a full understanding of both the honor and the shame which make up our heritage and pass it on. St. Louis University ought to keep the statue, and perhaps they should add one of Sitting Bull. Building the complexity of the historical narrative rather than redacting it will lead to a better expression of humanity, and a richer understanding of our western inheritance.