Historic Virginia church to remove plaque honoring former congregant -- George Washington

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome,” the church’s letter to congregants intones. Unsafe? Bad enough that college kids have to deal with “safe space” nonsense but now Sunday worshipers do too?

A terrible decision on the merits but a political gift to the GOP. So inexplicable is it, in fact, that I wonder if Washington was actually just “collateral damage” in the decision-making process.

Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia will take down a memorial marking the pew where Washington sat with his family, saying it is not acceptable to all worshipers.

“The plaques in our sanctuary make some in our presence feel unsafe or unwelcome,” leaders said, a reference to the fact that Washington was a slaveholder.

“Some visitors and guests who worship with us choose not to return because they receive an unintended message from the prominent presence of the plaques.”

“Many in our congregation feel a strong need for the church to stand clearly on the side of ‘all are welcome- no exceptions,'” they concluded.

You can read the full letter here. A crucial detail: There’s an identical plaque inside the church opposite Washington’s that memorializes another famous congregant — Robert E. Lee. The Lee family worshiped there and donated to the church lavishly. Washington’s plaque went up at the same time Lee’s did, in 1870, upon the Confederate general’s death. Clearly it’s the tribute to Lee, not to Washington, that’s generating most of the controversy post-Charlottesville among parishioners. The question for the church’s higher-ups, having resolved to remove Lee’s plaque, was what to do about Washington’s. They were both slaveholders, right? Plus, the church’s leaders note, the plaques “visually balance each other, maintaining the symmetry of our sanctuary.” You can’t very well destroy that symmetry by removing Lee’s plaque while leaving Washington’s in place.

…Except of course you can do that, and should. Washington founded the United States, Lee tried to break it up. Slavery is part of Washington’s otherwise momentously impressive legacy. For Lee, slavery is his legacy. He’s a figure of historical import only because he was willing to go to war to protect the Confederacy’s right to hold slaves as an independent nation. It’s not hard to recognize the moral distinction between the two unless you’re trying not to. Removing Lee’s plaque while leaving Washington’s alone would have been a powerful statement about that moral distinction. Lee’s plaque could have been replaced with one memorializing American slaves, which would be poetic justice for that space and would implicitly remind viewers of Washington’s biggest failing opposite his own plaque. Instead they’re yanking them both down. It amazes me that any governing body in the United States, even at the smallest community level, when tasked with a sensitive political decision might come to a conclusion that somehow involves renouncing George Washington. It’s as FUBAR as public relations gets. The church’s leaders are going to eat endless sh*t for this revisionism, and they deserve to.

But there’s a silver lining for righty opponents of the statue-smashers. Remember this poll of Virginia from a few days ago?

That was in response to a question about Confederate monuments. Imagine how much stronger opposition to removing a monument to Washington would be, especially with Trump and others having already warned that it’ll be a slippery slope once Lee’s memorial are torn down to tearing down ones to the Founding Fathers as well. This is no idle thought experiment either: Ed Gillespie, the GOP’s gubernatorial candidate, has been closing in on Democrat Ralph Northam in the polls thanks in part to ads highlighting Northam’s support for removing Confederate monuments. A splashy story like this about Washington’s old church yanking down a plaque in his memory is perfectly timed political manna for Republicans. Gillespie’s sure to make some noise about it this week. Even some statue-smashers themselves might be unhappy with the church’s move: If in fact the endgame here is to knock down statues to Washington and Jefferson, the public’s going to need a lot of conditioning before they’ll go along with that. Jumping from Lee to Washington so soon, confirming Trump’s fears, is apt to ignite a backlash before the anti-memorial push has even started rolling.

Meanwhile, although the plaque is coming down, the Christ Church website continues to mention its connection to Washington (and to Lee). Ah, you say, but that’s on its “history” page. Naturally the church should be candid about its history; it’s the *tribute* to slaveholders in the form of the plaques inside that’s supposedly objectionable. Okay, well, here’s video of the church’s 240th anniversary celebration from 2013, also posted on the website. See for yourself who makes a “cameo” at 3:20. The fact that the church carved out time to highlight its most august congregant at a ceremony like that is proof of how much pride they understandably take in their connection to him. No one in the video looks as though they feel “unsafe.” Exit question: Have any current parishioners spoken up about the plaque to Washington making them feel uncomfortable or is this a pure politically correct hypothetical?

240th Christ Church from Christ Church Alexandria on Vimeo.