Ruth Braunstein is associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Connecticut. A cultural sociologist interested in the role of religion in American political life, Braunstein is author of Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy across the Political Divide and co-editor of Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories About Faith and Politics.
Where were you the moment you saw a man waving a Confederate flag in the halls of the U.S. Capitol? Physically, I was at home, where I tend to be during these long pandemic days, scrolling with crushing anger as I watched armed supporters of Donald Trump attack the seat of American democracy in an effort to overturn the results of the 2020 election. But mentally, I was in the Georgia of my childhood. I was around 12, sitting on a picnic blanket with friends, slapping mosquitoes on a hot summer night. A large cardboard box in the shape of a house held our dinner: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and sweet tea. As dusk fell, the music began. We stood and danced to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. and what I imagine was a fair amount of Garth Brooks. The crowd cheered as lasers pierced the darkness and lit the side of Stone Mountain, revealing a giant bas-relief carving of three men on horseback. The lasers brought the men—Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis—into sharper focus, and then, through some technological marvel, showed them galloping across the side of the mountain, temporarily risen from the dead.
Strange as it sounds, I don’t recall anyone speaking of this event as if it was controversial. My parents—Jewish and Catholic transplants from the Northeast—would never have condoned a celebration of Confederate history. But that was simply not how people I knew viewed the “Lasershow Spectacular.” Of course, most of those people were white southerners; and this was before the country’s most recent reckoning over these Confederate symbols and their meanings. But even today, and even for many Black residents of the neighborhoods surrounding Stone Mountain, the “3,300-acre natural paradise 20 minutes from downtown Atlanta” is, in the words of one local reporter, viewed as “ideal for family outings, relaxing and exercising.” It is not that people don’t notice the 200-foot-tall carving, which is larger than Mount Rushmore; it is that so many are somehow able to look past Stone Mountain.
It is not that people don’t notice the 200-foot-tall carving, which is larger than Mount Rushmore; it is that so many are somehow able to look past Stone Mountain.
Still, I have often tried to recall what I knew about those illuminated men on horseback who galloped across the side of Stone Mountain as I drank sweet tea on a summer night. Did I understand who they were or what they represented, or was I just a young girl grateful to feel like part of something? I recall knowing little about the mountain itself, beyond the much-touted fact that it is “the largest exposed piece of granite in the world.” Did anyone discuss its history or meaning with me? Beyond the mountain, did I realize yet what all of those Confederate flags and bumper stickers and belt buckles that casually littered my youth meant, beyond the fact that, whatever “Southern heritage” was, it certainly did not seem to include or belong to me?
It was not entirely random that when I saw a Confederate flag in the halls of the U.S. Capitol, my mind went to Stone Mountain. Only hours before, I had been glued to my couch, watching a Black man and a Jewish man elected senators of my home state. “Southern heritage” was not theirs either, but it suddenly seemed possible that they represented the South’s future. The two historic firsts seemed to confirm that Georgia’s swing leftward during the general election had not been a fluke, that the Deep South—and perhaps the country—was changing. It had been nearly 58 years since Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. declared, “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.” And now Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where King once preached, would be heading to the Senate. On election night, he channeled King’s faith in the future of America: “It’s dark right now,” he told viewers, “but morning comes, and scripture tells us that weeping may endure for the night but joy comes in the morning. Let us rise up, greet the morning, and meet the challenges of this moment. Together we can do the necessary work and win the future for all of our children. Thank you, God bless you Georgia, and God bless these United States of America.”
'Southern heritage' was not theirs either, but it suddenly seemed possible that Warnock and Ossoff represented the South’s future.
The morning came, and it was January 6. I was upstairs in my office, revising a passage from a manuscript as the ping-ping-ping of text messages and news alerts drew me away from my desk. The passage I was revising contained yet another reference to Stone Mountain—not its contemporary life as a tourist attraction, but its historical role in the founding of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan. Shortly after the release of D.W. Griffith’s popular film The Birth of a Nation—which “glorified the Reconstruction-era Klan [by depicting it] as the guardian of persecuted white Southerners”—a former Methodist preacher had led a group of followers to the top of Stone Mountain on Thanksgiving 1915, where he initiated his new group “with a flag fluttering in the wind beside them, a Bible open to the twelfth chapter of Romans, and a flaming cross to light the night sky above.”
King and Warnock exemplify a prophetic Christianity that finds in scripture the inspiration to push Americans toward the “better angels of our nature” and America toward “a more perfect union” that accounts for the country’s historic sins and embraces its multiculturalism and pluralism. Yet that same scripture has also been marshalled by those who call for a return to a mythological white Christian America. The ritual surrounding the founding of the 1920s Klan is only one of many examples in which whiteness, Christianity, and American patriotism have been explicitly fused throughout American history; and in which Christianity has been used to legitimize a vision of American society rooted in white supremacy (and to varying degrees anti-Semitism and Islamophobia). So too on January 6, when the striking image of the Confederate flag was soon juxtaposed alongside images of “a mock campaign banner, ‘Jesus 2020,’ in blue and red; an ‘Armor of God’ patch on a man’s fatigues; a white cross declaring ‘Trump won’ in all capitals. All of this was interspersed with allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories, Confederate flags and anti-Semitic T-shirts.” The riot was a pitch-perfect performance of the kind of white Christian nationalism that has ebbed and flowed throughout American history—from 1860 to 1960, 1920 to 2021.
The riot was a pitch-perfect performance of the kind of white Christian nationalism that has ebbed and flowed throughout American history—from 1860 to 1960, 1920 to 2021.
I have spent years researching and writing about how Americans across the political divide assemble starkly different stories of America and how within each story, religion and race intersect in competing visions of Americanness and its enemies. But this research had not felt so acutely personal until I saw the Confederate flag in the Capitol on January 6, and my mind reached back through time and space—the past pierced the present, until the America that was moving forward collided head on with the America that was unable to escape its past. Rival versions of the American story—King’s and the Klan’s, Warnock’s and the insurrectionists’—swirled and collided, and my mind kept returning to Georgia, to Stone Mountain.
Why? I think it is because it is a place that reminds me that there is a difference between people who deploy Confederate symbols in order to terrorize those they do not view as “real” Americans and people who tolerate Confederate symbols in their midst. One is engaging in an act of fantasy; the other in willful amnesia. “Far-right fantasy,” as the sociologist James Aho calls it, involves the projection of a mythological white Christian America onto the past, as well as the elaborate construction of conspiracies, demons, and revelations. “Historical amnesia,” as the right-wing chronicler Anthony McCann calls it, is not unique to right-wing activists; it implicates all of us. Historical amnesia—especially about the meaning of Confederate symbols—is built into our culture and environment, into our history books and recreational activities. We depoliticize and normalize Confederate symbols through the idea that they are merely cultural and not political; that some activities are just good family fun, and why are people being so sensitive?; that it’s important to preserve some people’s history, but essential that other people move on. And when this kind of amnesia is normalized, it legitimizes nostalgia for a culture that was rooted in white Christian supremacy.
Will well-intentioned Americans continue to validate myths of a once-great white Christian nation, even when this vision excludes so many of us?
This kind of amnesia about the country’s past encourages an “epistemology of ignorance” that “affords denial of and inaction about injustice.” But the good news is that for people who have, knowingly or not, participated in this culture of amnesia, there is a path forward. It first involves speaking: condemning those who use Confederate symbols to terrorize others and the far-right fantasies they seek to promote. But then, it involves listening: to those who refuse to forget the brutality on which the country was founded and who wish to rewrite the American story as history rather than myth. It involves grappling with our own memories and our own role in the legitimation of some (hi)stories and not others. The current battle for the American story comes down to this: Will well-intentioned Americans continue to validate myths of a once-great white Christian nation, even when this vision excludes so many of us? Or will enough people embrace the messiness of a flawed country struggling mightily to live up to its stated principles? The choice belongs to all of us—which story will we choose?