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Presidentwoodrowwilson-e1448043956405-1280x960“We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed’.”

So says Wilglory Tanjong, writing for the Black Justice League, to explain why Princeton University should strip its buildings and titles of any reference to one of the school’s most notable alumni, former president Woodrow Wilson. The Black Justice League believes Wilson’s achievements as president a century ago are overshadowed by atrocious views on race and segregation.

How has Princeton responded to the demands to demote Wilson?

According to Tanjong, the administration claims “we owe a great deal to people who are deeply flawed, and not many people can transcend the prejudices of the times they lived in.” Instead of sitting in judgment, the administration recommends we “assess ourselves with great humility because we, too, are flawed, and it’s likely that we will also be guilty of sins and prejudices that to future generations who look back on our own legacies will be very obvious.”

We could sum up Princeton’s position as an application of the Golden Rule in temporal terms: Do unto others (in the past) what you would have others (in the future) do unto you.

Tanjong’s response rejects that possibility out of hand: “We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed.’” Wilson’s sin in one area outweighs anything good he may have done in another. He is due no honor.

Who is right here?

The Conservative Error

The conservative tendency is to dismiss out of hand the demands of groups like the Black Justice League. If conservatives err, it’s on the side of tradition, by whitewashing history and minimizing the sinfulness of our nation’s heroes.

Tanjong makes a good point when she says that describing the subjugation of other human beings as merely “a flaw” minimizes the seriousness of the sin. The Bible challenges the conservative tendency to minimize past sin, giving us words like “wicked” and “evil” to better describe the reality.

The Progressive Error

But progressives err on the side of the present, by whitewashing ourselves and minimizing our own complicity in unjust systems and structures. When we cast ourselves as pristine in our righteousness, we find it harder to see redeemable qualities in those who have gone before us. We judge ourselves by the lenient standards of the present and thus become blind to our own wickedness and evil.

The biblical worldview also challenges the progressive tendency. We owe everything to people who are ‘deeply flawed.’ Our cultural inheritance does not come to us untainted. Sin has infected all who have gone before us, and sin infects us still today.

An Ever-Present Problem

Americans are not the only ones to wrestle with questions like this.

While I was living in Romania, my in-laws’ street underwent a name change. The street had once been named for a Romanian leader in the 1930’s. After the fall of Communism, many claimed the leader’s dictatorial tendencies outweighed the good he did for the country, and the name was switched.

Major world cities have seen their names come and go: Russia’s St. Petersburg became Leningrad and is now St. Petersburg again. Reassessments of leaders and legacies happen in every country.

Pop culture is not immune to these controversies. Should The Cosby Show be forever banned from television? Is it right for the brilliant cast of The Cosby Show to be relegated to obscurity due to the wicked actions of its star? Does the groundbreaking element of this sitcom’s legacy forever disappear?

The Line of Good and Evil

I am not proposing quick and easy answers to these questions. I agree with Tish Harrison Warren, writing in Christianity Today about our “beautiful, broken Christian ancestors” and the twin dangers of airbrushing the people in our past or deriding our heritage altogether.

I also find it helpful to listen to people who have faced suffering and oppression in ways I have not.

One example is Soviet dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who endured years of abuse in the Gulag for opposing the Communist regime. Solzhenitsyn recognized that most people cannot be easily categorized “good” and “bad.” Life is simply too complex. “The line of good and evil runs through every human heart,” he wrote. That insight comes not from a man of privilege, cloistered in an ivory tower, sheltered from suffering. It comes from someone who looked evil squarely in the eye, and yet was incisive enough to see evil lurking in his own heart.

Good and Evil Grow Together

In his excellent book on sin, Cornelius Plantinga, Jr. helps us understand why this categorization is so difficult:

“Evil always appears in tandem with good… Good and evil grow together, intertwine around each other, and grow out of each other in remarkable and complicated ways.”

Plantinga mentions several examples from history:

“Good biographers find character ironies irresistible. Hence the attraction of Martin Luther, one of the three or four most prominent Christians after Paul, a doughty champion of the gospel of grace and a ghastly anti-Semite who wanted his readers to break down Jewish homes and house their occupants in stables.

Other ironies appear in other characters, including Luther’s most famous modern namesake. Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the noblest and most eminent Americans of the twentieth century, adulterated his marriage and plagiarized some of the work that made his reputation. Thomas Jefferson held slaves.

The Bible itself gives us such alloyed heroes as King David, a great and godly and wicked man whose name has been blessed by centuries of Jews and Christians.”

He concludes:

“Observing character ironies of these kinds, we naturally conclude that human beings are inexpressibly complex creatures in whom great good and great evil often cohabit, sometimes in separate and well-insulated rooms and sometimes in an intimacy so deep and twisted and twined that we never get to see the one moral quality without the other.”

Flawed Legacies

Recognizing this human complexity is not to cast a blind vote for a pristine past – either by papering over the wickedness of national figures or by only lifting up past heroes who meet all our contemporary standards of righteousness.

Instead, it is to realistically assess the human heart, receive the good and the bad from the tainted legacies of our forebears, and pass on deeply flawed legacies of our own, ever hopeful that God will grant our descendants seeds of grace from the mixed inheritance we leave them.


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8 thoughts on “Should Princeton Strip Honor from President Woodrow Wilson?”

  1. Doug says:

    Thomas Sowell in his book RACE AND CULTURE described how early American industries made it a common practice to group and separate workers by race or nationality due to frequent strife when certain groups were mingled together. It was not an expression of racism, but a practical means to secure peace — and greater productivity. One could easily look back and misconstrue the practice as racism. I have no problem with Princeton stripping Wilson of honors, provided it can be proven that racism was indeed the case. Racism — manifestation of a superiority complex — has no excuse among those who name the name of Christ. Generational bias is certainly no scapegoat for such a blatant inconsistency with Christ.

    1. Wes says:

      It is easy to conclude those systems where racist because they were. The burden of proof is on you to show these systems untainted by the wide spread racist social order. And let’s not pretend the initiators of the strife were equally distributed by race. Whites resented the competition from blacks, hence Jim Crow laws ang the KKK. Please don’t come here to revise history unless your willing to go the distance and prove out what you say.

      1. Doug says:

        Wes,

        Are you implying that all are racist unless proven innocent?

        Sowell’s specific reference was to Irish and Italian immigrants:

        “Group segregation as a deliberate policy or action by employers is a very old and widespread phenomenon. During the era of mass immigration to the United States, American employers discovered that putting Irish and Italian immigrants in the same work crew produced a high probability of violence, especially if these were jobs that required the workers to live together for long periods of time…”

  2. Curt Day says:

    I find no problem with renaming any structure named after Woodrow Wilson at Princeton. The reason for the renaming is to recognize that some past sins were greater than what past good was done.

    That being said, the move to remove his name suffers from the same weakness as the position to keep his name: we are not being educated to the details of Wilson’s history. What did Wilson so that Princeton named structures after him? And how did Wilson express his racism and implement segregation? IN addition, we could add how Wilson not only had anti-war critics of his persecuted, he had them prosecuted and sent to jail. It seems that both sides are not doing what they can to educate us about Wilson’s history. And that education should take place before any decision to remove his name from campus takes place.

  3. Philmonomer says:

    The Progressive Error

    But progressives err on the side of the present, by whitewashing ourselves and minimizing our own complicity in unjust systems and structures. When we cast ourselves as pristine in our righteousness, we find it harder to see redeemable qualities in those who have gone before us. We judge ourselves by the lenient standards of the present and thus become blind to our own wickedness and evil.

    I think your understanding of the progressive error is mistaken. That is, in describing the progressive error (above), it seems to me that the error is just as applicable (if not more so) to Conservatives. If so, then I don’t see this as a particularly “progressive” error (rather, more a human error) at all. This isn’t to say that I think progressives are error free–indeed, they are chock full of them. One of the largest (IMHO), is a failure to understand past behavior (or other’s behavior–think Conservative’s), on its own terms. Rather, progressives reads back into the past the mores of today–and judge them by it. While they can still be blind to the injustices of today, I don’t see them any more blind than Conservatives. (In this regard, what mechanism do you see that Conservatives have that make them more able (than Progressives) to see the injustices of today? I cannot think of anything. But I’m curious if you (or anyone) can think of anything).

    The conservative error is to too quickly excuse poor behavior in the past.

    The progressive error is a failure to understand past behavior, on its own terms.

  4. DCal3000 says:

    Whether Woodrow Wilson’s name should or should not be removed from Princeton’s buildings is a complicated subject best handled by others. I am hesitant, however, about some of the recent push to change names in the United States in general. As this article suggests, we need to be careful categorizing historical figures too sharply as being either good or bad. If we look for perfect individuals to name our buildings and monuments after, the buildings and monuments will be left unnamed, as no one but Christ was ever perfect. Instead of looking at each historical figure’s faults to determine whether their name is good or bad, perhaps we should look at why we remember them and why we named buildings after them in the first place. If the reason for naming a building after a historical figure was a good or at least a neutral one, then perhaps a name change is unwarranted. On the other hand, if the reason was to promote sin, then perhaps a name change is warranted. Thus, we remember and respect Martin Luther because he started the Protestant Reformation, not because he was guilty of the sin of anti-Semitism. On the other hand, we remember and disdain Joseph Stalin because he promoted totalitarian government and accompanying atrocities. His name does not belong on a building in a decent society. Naturally, of course, some people are obviously on the side of evil and others are obviously on the side of good. But, as the article points out, in many people the line is much less clear due to our sinful natures.

  5. Ann Novo says:

    I frequently struggle with how to regard a person who has, in their life, done both great good and great bad. Today, I am thinking in particular of a now-dead clergyman I once knew who reached retirement age with a sterling reputation for great service in African missions, as a highly-regarded headmaster of a church prep school, as a pastor, and as a social activist. Then, just as he was retiring, it was established that he had been a pedophile, molesting boys in his time as headmaster, and causing untold emotional damage thereby. Now, I wonder, does the great evil done by this man negate any good he ever accomplished? If he were still in my life, how would I treat him?
    How would America have responded to Wilson if his racist views had been widely known? Were they widely known during his lifetime? It is easy enough to say that we all contain both good and evil, but how do we deal with these contradictory tendencies when we encounter them in others? When is it right to withdraw ourselves completely from a relationship because the other has “turned to the dark side,” so to speak?

  6. Nicholas Collins says:

    “We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed’.” That eliminates the human race, but more specifically it eliminates those most often admired:
    Mandela (terrorist, ethnic cleanser, racist, mass murderer)
    Martin Luther King (plagiarist, adulterer)
    Ghandi (wife beater)
    and so on. Shall we then eliminate naming anything after anyone? The idea “We owe nothing to people who are ‘deeply flawed’.” is just liberal cant.

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​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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