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  • Religion, Murder, and the Confederate Battle Flag in South Carolina
  • Gerald R. Webster (bio) and Jonathan I. Leib (bio)

Contentious debates over the meaning and appropriate display of Confederate symbols have been waged across the American South for the past three decades (Leib and Webster 2007). While these debates are clearly racialized, they are also imbued with religious arguments and fervor (Webster and Leib 2002, 2012). One major reason is the aggressive religiosity characterizing the South’s cultural landscape, in which religion plays a central role in social, economic and political relations (Webster 1997). While less well understood, it is also the case that many white southerners saw the Civil War as a religious conflict against Northern apostasy. As Wilson (1995, 19) states, “Ministers and churches . . . insisted that the Confederacy was a crusade against the evil empire of the Yankee. It was a holy war.” As a result, Confederate symbols like the battle flag and heroic figures like Robert E. Lee took on religious overtones that continue to exist today among traditional white southerners.1

The debate over the Confederate flag in South Carolina has been waged for over two decades, with particularly vitriolic arguments about the continued flying of the battle flag over the state capitol dome beginning in the latter part of the 1990s. In 2000, a legislative compromise led the state to move the battle flag off the capitol dome to a Confederate soldier’s monument on the state capitol grounds (Webster and Leib 2001, Leib and Webster 2004). The compromise was strongly criticized by many on both sides of the issue, with African American legislators supporting the compromise being characterized as “weak-kneed” and white supporters of the compromise labeled as “turncoats” (Webster and Leib 2001, 294). The debate over whether the battle flag should remain flying on public space on the South Carolina capitol’s grounds remained at a standstill for fifteen years, from May 2000 until July 2015.

On Wednesday evening, June 17, 2015, a young white racist enamored with Confederate symbols, including the battle flag, joined a Bible study group of African American worshipers at the historic [End Page 29] Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. At approximately 9:00 pm he pulled a Glock 41 .45 caliber handgun from his pack and opened fire, killing nine while shouting racial epithets. The shooter used hollow-point bullets to cause the maximum damage to his victims. The shooter’s intention was to start a race war (Smith 2015).

On July 10, 2015, twenty-three days after the Charleston murders, the Confederate battle flag was removed from the Confederate soldier’s monument on the South Carolina state capitol grounds. In this essay we examine the reasons for the battle flag’s removal with an emphasis on the South’s religiosity. We argue that religion is a central foundation for why the flag debates in the region have been so fervent. We further argue that the fact that the murders occurred in a church during a Bible study on a Wednesday evening was an important reason why South Carolina leaders were successful in removing the battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol.

This paper first provides a brief overview of the South’s strong religiosity. We then examine the origins of the religious fervor associated with the Confederacy, major Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee, and Confederate symbols such as the battle flag. The paper then concludes with a discussion of the role of religion in the reaction of political leaders and the removal of the flag from the state house grounds following the Charleston murders.

The connection between religion and the battle flag is important given that the Southern states are generally regarded as being the most deeply religious, even “Christ-haunted” (Wood 2004) region of the United States, and that much of the American South is in the Bible Belt (Brunn, Webster and Archer 2011, Webster et al. 2015).2 National polls consistently find that church attendance is highest in the American South among U.S. regions. For example, a recent Gallup Poll found that 11 of the top 12 states in terms of the highest weekly church...


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pp. 29-37
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