by John Ellis
When I was a kid, my family had a book promoting the national parks. I don’t remember the exact year it was published (I would’ve looked it up, even as a kid), but based on the photos and words that I can still see and read in my mind, the book was published sometime during the late 50s or early 60s, well after WWII but before Vietnam escalated, hippies, and the Summer of Love. In other words, it was a prototypical apple-pie, happy families in gleaming American-made station wagons work of jingoistic Americana view of vacationing at the national parks marketing by the National Park Services. And it did its job quite well, at least on me.
I devoured that book over and over while longing to visit Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and their sister national parks. My longing was balanced by my understanding that my family was poor, and trips farther away from the Florida Panhandle than Birmingham, AL, where my grandparents lived, would not be forthcoming. I promised myself that I would go to every park as an adult.
While I’ve visited many of the national parks, I have yet to completely fulfill my childhood promise. For example, while I’ve been in Montano, and, while there, watched the most baffling circus that I’ve ever seen, and although I have stretched Wyoming’s liberal speed limit laws beyond what’s prudent, I never made it over to Yellowstone. Even though I was scheduled to spend some time in Death Valley, I inexplicably decided that it was a better idea to drive straight from San Francisco to San Antonio. Those are just two of the many national parks that remain on my bucket list. Thankfully, during the summer of 2014, I finally made it to one of the national parks that has been at the top of my want-to-visit-list since I was a kid: Mount Rushmore.
Over the years, as I’ve stopped at parks and other tourist attractions that have occupied space in my hippocampus since I was a kid, I’ve often been disappointed. Standing on top of the Hoover Dam, I turned to my wife and sighed, “This is it?” And I must admit that the Gateway Arch is quite underwhelming. The Grand Canyon, though? Beyond spectacular! Arches National Park? Stunning! Yosemite? Breathtaking! And a theme emerges: National parks created by God exceed my childhood expectations. Manmade parks, though, do not match my childhood expectations. I’d much rather be standing atop Pike’s Peak than the Space Needle (not a national park, I know, and Pike’s Peak is in a national forest and is not an official national park, but my point still stands).
While it’s a combination of God’s handiwork and man’s, I was blown away while walking down the wide avenue that leads tourists to the first vistas of Mount Rushmore. Exceeding my childhood expectations, I thrilled at the sights as we walked through the sprawling, gorgeous park. The time spent there with my wife and two kids will remain as one of my favorite memories.
All that is the background for my response when I first began seeing tweets and news stories popping up about the problematic nature of Mount Rushmore. Some have gone so far as to call for the faces to be dynamited off the side of the cliff. Initially, even as an individual who has supported the removal of all Confederate monuments and statues from public lands and properties my entire adult life (I’ve even marched and protested), my response was one of opposition. “Come on,” I thought, while mentally rolling my eyes. “That’s too far.”
But is it?
Too far, I mean. Is the removal of the faces of the four presidents gracing the side of a mountain cliff in South Dakota, by dynamite or through some other means, too far?
After my initial, knee-jerk response, I settled in and thought about it. I’ll get to whatever other conclusions I have towards the end of this article, but while reflecting on the question, I concluded that it’s unethical for me to base my response solely on my existential connection to Mount Rushmore. My enjoyment of something is not necessarily an accurate ethical barometer. If I’m not even willing to listen to and consider the perspective, experience, and insight of others, what does that say about me? If that’s true of you, too, what does that say about you? About any of us?
Speaking to The Washington Post, Ricky Gray Grass, a member of the Oglala Sioux’s executive council said, “The whole Black Hills is sacred. For them to come and carve the presidents, slave owners who have no meaning to us, it was an insult.”
What informs Grass’ perspective and beliefs? What undergirds the long-standing legal fight between the Sioux and the U.S. government over the Black Hills? Why do some have such strong negative reactions to Mount Rushmore?
Well, and I can only partially answer these questions from within my context, in 1868, the U.S. government made a treaty with the Sioux promising that the land that includes the Black Hills would belong to the tribe in perpetuity. Following the pattern established by generations upon generations of European immigrants to the Americas, that treaty proved to be a farce. After gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the U.S. government decided that their “yes” would not be yes, but would be a big fat “no,” instead. For some context to help jog your memory, Custer’s last stand in 1876 was part of the ensuing fight for the land. The faces of four of the presidents from the treaty breaking side of the conflict that are carved into a side of one of the mountains that was promised to the non-treaty breaking side of the conflict stands as a testament to which involved party ultimately triumphed. The question, I guess, is did the good guys win?
I’ve known that history for decades. But my response to Mount Rushmore gets to bask in the luxury of ignoring that history. Regardless of the despicable ethics, my side won, after all. I get to stand and look up at the faces of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln and enjoy the glory and wonder associated with the monument. After all, Mount Rushmore is not a reminder of how my family and kinsmen were lied to, abused, subjugated, and plundered. I have the luxury of distancing myself from those despicable ethics by sputtering, “Well, I didn’t do it” as I enjoy a day at the beloved national park with my family. Going a step further, the ease and privileges I enjoy can be directly traced back to the lies, theft, and murders perpetuated by “my side” on those to whom the mountain was promised (even that is unethical – it would be like an identity thief hacking all your accounts and then promising you that he’ll allow you to have whatever was in the kids’ college fund while acting like he’s doing you a favor … and extending this intuition pump, to better parallel Mount Rushmore, the hacker would then refuse to turn over even the kids’ college fund).
The thing is, though, I don’t have the right, as a follower of King Jesus, to ignore the felt needs, pains, and injustices suffered by others when forming my opinions and responses to monuments, statutes, and even Mount Rushmore. And I don’t have a right to ignore the many sins committed by “my side,” especially considering that I enjoy the fruits of those sins.
At the moment, I’m working on a larger piece defining systemic racism (I paused to write this post). In it, I detail how neo-Stoicism is part and parcel of Descartes’ understanding of true generosity. In turn, since Descartes’ high valuation of free will and subsequent idolization of personal agency has greatly informed our own anthropology, we have a secularized ethic. Even conservative Christians, by and large. Our pejorative use of “secular” applies to us more than we realize and definitely more than we are willing to admit offhand. For now, though, for the purpose of this current article, I simply want to submit that charge and apply it to our perspective on American history, specifically, Mount Rushmore. If you disagree or are merely curious, you’ll have to wait a few days for my argument’s heavy lifting. Until then, I want to ask, are we sure that our initial response to news stories about the calls for the removal of the president’s faces off a cliff wall is informed by a Biblical ethic or a secular ethic?
As I’ve already stated, I think an argument can be made and needs to be interacted with that our responses are secular in nature and not Christ-like. And I’m posing it as a question because, to be honest, I’m not sure that our neo-Stoic ethic of detachment doesn’t play into specific responses to Mount Rushmore any less than it does in our personal involvement in systemic racism.
It should go without saying that our nation has a long, inglorious history of mistreating people. Worse than some countries; less than some others. But balling up and protesting, “Hey! But look at how many peasants were murdered between Lenin and Stalin’s dictatorships” is the response of an overly defensive, childishly selfish individual. And, frankly, if we were to compare numbers, I’m not sure that the scales would be tipped in the direction many Americans believe.
Setting aside “whataboutism” deflections, the history of the European settlers’ treatment of those already living in the “new” world is a sordid one. True, there are incidents of graciousness and kindness, but, in the main, the overwhelming response was one of violence and exploitation. No doubt, there is little need for me to rehash some of the more well-known atrocities – the massacre in 1864 of nearly three hundred Cheyenne and Arapahoe in Sand Creek, CO, the Indian Removal Act and subsequent Trail of Tears, the General Allotment Act, and the SCOTUS decision in Lone Wolf vs. Hitchcock, to name a few. Instead, I want to draw your attention to a little-known letter from Pastor John Robinson to Governor William Bradford.
As is well known, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock ill-prepared for what lay before them. They were farther north than they had anticipated, for one thing. For another thing, and a fact that was conveniently left out of the Christian school history textbooks of my youth, they packed the hull of the Mayflower with barrels of beer. Assuming that they could grow or catch other foodstuffs, they were afraid that the “new” world would not be hospitable to the growing of hops, one of the main ingredients of beer. With that last assumption, they were right (at least, on the east coast). As to the first, they overestimated their farming and hunting abilities. Now, as all good school children know, this is the point of the story where Squanto enters to save the day and the Pilgrims’ emaciating butts.
What many history books fail to reveal is that Squanto’s help, and the help of other natives, did not come without strings attached. The Pilgrims quickly found themselves participants in tribal squabbles, using their guns to thin the ranks of their new allies’ enemies, even if those “enemies” hadn’t done squat to the Pilgrims.
Well, in a letter dated December 19, 1623, John Robinson chides Governor Bradford for the Pilgrims treatment of the natives, specifically the mass slaughters that took place at the hands of the Pilgrims. Robinson goes so far as to confront Bradford with the fact that, “Besides, you not being magistrates over them, had to consider not what punishment they deserved, but what you were by necessity constrained to inflict.”
Robinson pastorally lectures the Plymouth governor that he should have demonstrated mercy and charity towards those who are also made in God’s image. And in one of the most prescient statements written in early American history, Robinson warns, “I am afraid lest, by this example, others should be drawn to adopt a kind of ruffling course in the world.”
And, boy, did others follow the Pilgrims’ “ruffling” example, as history attests – as Mount Rushmore attests, for that matter. Over the course of the centuries of settling, formation of a new country, westward expansion, and even extending all the way to 2020, our collective treatment of the people who were already living in America when Columbus “discovered” it is one of viewing them as commodities or obstacles to enriching ourselves. While you and I may view Mount Rushmore as an homage to the greatness, sacrifices, and accomplishments of the four presidents, the Sioux view it as a monument to how the United States lied to them and stole land that had been promised would be their land for perpetuity.
So, what’s to be done? Should Mount Rushmore be dynamited?
First, before moving on, I want to clear something up: the removal of monuments and statues is not erasing history. That notion is absurd to the point of idiotic. If you can’t teach your children about the Civil War unless there is a statue of Jefferson Davis standing in Richmond, VA, you shouldn’t be allowed to homeschool your kids. Harsh, but true.
Look, and after asking you to read over 2,000 words, my answer is that I don’t know what’s to be done. That’s not my point, nor is it what I want readers to takeaway. I don’t think that I’m qualified to have a definitive opinion on what, if anything, should be done with Mount Rushmore. What I’ve concluded is that whatever opinions I have should also be informed by and greatly weighted towards the voices from those for whom the granite monument is hurtful. I’ve concluded that for me to simply dismiss the conversation as “too far” is wrong because it reflects an unbiblical ethic of detachment from other image bearers, which, consequently, perpetuates the silencing of minority voices for the sake of my own comfort and desires.
I may have loved my time at Mount Rushmore with my family, and I did, but that doesn’t justify the park’s existence. An argument can be made that the four presidents carved on the mountain deserve to be honored by our society, but even that doesn’t justify Mount Rushmore. Learning to separate arguments is a skill that many of us lack. Above all else, though, we need to listen to the voices of those who are still suffering from our government’s deceit, dishonor, and violence. If they say that Mount Rushmore needs to come down, the least we can do is listen before shutting down the conversation and hiding behind tribalistic patriotism (and Kingdom ethics doesn’t call us to do the least). A hard ask, I know. Sadly, the response from many will reflect that Pastor John Robinson’s fear is still haunting our society. The Pilgrims’ “ruffling response” is an American birthright that continues to reap harm.
 William Bradford, History of Plymouth (Roslyn, NY: Classics Club, 1948), 180.
 Bradford, History of Plymouth, 180.