On Confederate flag, southern white Christians do some soul searching

Updated 3:36 PM EDT, Tue June 30, 2015
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(CNN) —  

As more photos emerge of Dylann Roof, the confessed killer in the Charleston church massacre, holding a Confederate flag, calls are increasing to remove the symbol from public property.

And some of the urgings are coming from a community that has often defended the flag: white southern conservative Christian leaders.

“It is at a level of intensity that is new,” said Barnabas Piper, a Southern Baptist author who writes about the intersection of Christianity and culture. “This is not something you see tweeted about on a regular basis. But after the attack in Charleston and the prominence that the flag took, it feels as if it is now being rubbed in our faces.”

Piper, who is white, said he has never before seen white southern conservative Christians seriously discuss the role that the flag – which, depending on one’s point of view, recalls either rebellion, southern pride or slavery – plays in perpetuating racist values like the ones shared by Roof.

The Confederate flag represented the Confederate States of America, the group of southern slave-holding states that seceded from the union in 1861 before dissolving at the end of the Civil War four years later. It was the subject of a controversial debate in 2000 that ended with its removal from the top of the South Carolina statehouse dome, but it is still flown today at a nearby Confederate war memorial that is on state property.

But aside from its symbolism as a sign of southern resistance, the flag also has its share of Christian sympathizers, particularly in the South, in part because its design incorporates St. Andrew’s Cross. Some Christians believe the symbol represents the diagonal cross on which Andrew, one of Jesus’s disciples, was crucified.

Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is one of the most influential leaders in conservative evangelicalism. He oversees the public policy agenda of the convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which split from a group of northern Baptists in 1845 over the issue of slavery.

Moore’s blog on Friday, “The Cross and the Confederate Flag,” went viral when he wrote about the need for Christians with Southern conservative sympathies to let go of their allegiance to the flag.

“One of the issues hurting many is the Confederate Battle Flag flying at full-mast from the South Carolina Capitol grounds even in the aftermath of this racist act of violence on innocent people,” wrote Moore. “This raises the question of what we as Christians ought to think about the Confederate Battle Flag, given the fact that many of us are from the South.”

Moore, a white descendant of Confederate veterans, wrote about being “deeply conflicted” about seeing the Confederate flag incorporated into the flag of his home state of Mississippi.

“The cross and the Confederate flag cannot coexist without one setting the other on fire,” he said. “White Christians, let’s listen to our African-American brothers and sisters. Let’s care not just about our own history, but also about our shared history with them.”

Mike Cosper, a pastor at Sojourn Community Church, a Southern Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, told CNN that wrestling with the flag’s racial history is necessary to improving race relations in the United States.

“It’s a symbol that is just so powerful, so visceral because of where it comes from and what it means,” said Cosper, who is white. “I feel compelled to love my brothers and sister and to empathize with them when they say ‘This is what this means. This is what it communicates.’ The thing that needs to come down.”

But Doug Wilson, an influential author and professor at New Saint Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho, wrote Saturday that he would not jump to remove the Confederate flag, saying that associating the flag with only slavery is incomplete.

“The Confederate flag can mean that you are at a KKK rally, that you are looking at a truck decal in a NASCAR rally parking lot, that you are at a (Lynyrd) Skynyrd concert, that you are looking a commemorative calendar painted by a memorabilia artist, that you are driving by a car dealership in rural Virginia, or that you saw a photo of Kanye West taking his confusions to a whole new level,” wrote Wilson, who is also white.

“It is not enough to debate the political aspects of such shootings at the right time, it is also necessary to debate the right thing at the right time,” he added. “Otherwise, the clouds of grief just cover for the emptiness of the gestures.”

Leading Republicans divided

The apparent evolution by some southern whites comes as leading political figures struggle with how to respond to the issue in the wake of the Charleston tragedy. On Friday, several Republican 2016 presidential hopefuls declined to take a position on the issue, saying it’s a decision that should be made by South Carolinians.

Those declining to step into the debate include several candidates who are trying to court southern white Christians.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum said he didn’t “know all the complexities” on South Carolina’s debate, while former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who backed the state’s right to decide its policy during his 2008 campaign, has yet to make public comments about the flag since it came back under the spotlight this week.

But on Saturday, two leading Republicans came out against the flag. Mitt Romney, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012, flatly called for the flag to be taken down. And former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, while not explicitly calling for South Carolina to remove the symbol, touted his state’s decision during his governorship to move the flag from state grounds to a museum “where it belonged.”