State News

Robert E. Lee descendant and pastor: Backlash over racial justice comments cost him health, job

Posted September 5
Updated September 6

— A descendant of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee says he stepped down as pastor of a North Carolina church after negative reactions to his comments supporting racial justice during an MTV awards show "made it clear that I was no longer welcome there."

The general's distant nephew, the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV, issued a statement Monday saying he resigned from Bethany United Church of Christ near Winston-Salem after the congregation decided to put his tenure to a vote.

On Tuesday, Lee told WRAL News, "The toll this has taken on my family and my own health has been striking. What's sad is that many are making my pastorate an issue of attention when attention should be fully centered on the continued struggle for justice for persons of color in this country. I know I will be fine, and my prayer is that Bethany UCC will be as well. But I know deep down that the real presence of justice in this world lies with our continued willingness to move forward. I covet your prayers in these next stages of my ministry."

Lee said some church members were uncomfortable with his remarks praising the Black Lives Matter movement during the Aug. 27 MTV Video Music Awards. He was introducing the mother of Heather Heyer, who was killed during demonstrations over a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lee also used the televised remarks to lament that his ancestor has become a symbol of racism.

"We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism and hate," he said. "As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America's original sin."

The MTV appearance brought unwanted attention to the small church about 100 miles west of Raleigh. The church has a Winston-Salem address, but serves the town of Midway, Lee said.

"A faction of church members were concerned about my speech and that I lifted up Black Lives Matter movement, the Women' s March, and Heather Heyer as examples of racial justice work," Lee said in the statement explaining his resignation.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Lee declined to elaborate on what was said by the church members who disagreed with him, but said it was clear he couldn't remain as pastor.

"The uncomfortable media attention and differing views with me by some of the congregation — and I want to make it very clear that it was not all of the congregation — made it clear that I was no longer welcome there," he said, adding that he's also received positive messages.

He said he received a supportive call Tuesday from the Rev. John Dorhauer, the national president of the United Church of Christ.

Two local congregation leaders listed in state nonprofit filings didn't respond to messages seeking comment Tuesday. The church's phone rang unanswered.

Lee also issued an apology to church members for causing them pain with his remarks on MTV. But he said he continues to "strongly support" removal of monuments to his ancestor and other Confederates.

Lee, a recent graduate of the Duke Divinity School and the great-great-great-great nephew of the Confederate general, was appointed pastor of the church in April, according to its website.

While Lee spoke out against racism in a 2016 Washington Post opinion piece that linked him to his namesake, he said his MTV appearance has garnered a much stronger reaction. But most of all, he said, he doesn't want the news about him to take attention away from larger conversations about racism in the U.S.

"I don't want this to be about me," he said.

Lee's remarks on MTV came in the aftermath of a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, that turned violent as the demonstrators clashed with counterprotesters. Heyer died when a driver plowed into a crowd that had gathered to denounce the white supremacists.

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Follow Drew at www.twitter.com/jonldrew

16 Comments

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  • John Archer Sep 6, 2:52 p.m.
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    You don't seem to be able to comprehend what I'm saying. I don't hate Christians at all. I absolutely respect people who follow what Jesus taught. It's the ones that do the opposite and still call themselves Christians that I call out.

  • Teddy Fowler Sep 6, 11:56 a.m.
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    John Archer... wrong as usual.... he is still spouts bigotry when it comes to Christians... I simply do not understand why you and Archer seemingly hate Christians.... I haven't been to a church in a godzillion years but still to total disrespect a whole swath of people is clearly bigotry

  • Brenda Lawrence Sep 6, 11:49 a.m.
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    John Archer, right as usual!

  • John Archer Sep 6, 11:45 a.m.
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    That's not anything near what I said. I said these people at this church, and all the other churches that send money to the SBC, the FRC, the Grahams, etc, etc. It's amazing how many that is, by the way. Of course there are good Christians, this guy in the story is one of them. But doing the Lord's work does not include supporting policies that discriminate against other people. It's just the opposite.

  • Teddy Fowler Sep 6, 11:17 a.m.
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    Wow you really need that mirror.... you just might see a bigot looking right back at you.... just because they don't agree with your politics and your overly self aggrandizement..... it doesn't mean you can clump all Christians under one umbrella and call them racists... In fact many Christians are black, Hispanic, not just white...

  • John Archer Sep 6, 10:46 a.m.
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    Except that's not really true. Organized religion has pretty much succeeded in having a huge influence on policy in our governments. These "just people" are the ones that fund the continuation of organizations which call for discrimination against everyone who isn't a white Christian like them. This particular church certainly showed they won't tolerate any discussion of racial inequality.

  • Teddy Fowler Sep 6, 8:29 a.m.
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    Maybe I can let you borrow my mirror.... people in churches are just people too.... they are no better or no worse than people not in churches...

  • John Archer Sep 6, 8:18 a.m.
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    Not sure how preaching about how God loves everyone is making himself the issue. Isn't that supposed to be the basis of religion? If a preacher cannot point out hypocrisy in his own congregation, maybe they need a big mirror.

  • Teddy Fowler Sep 6, 7:50 a.m.
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    Reverend Lee made himself the issue in this ongoing debate over racial injustice. Now he finds himself no longer having the support of his congregation.... who he essentially works for.... Even reverends can lose their jobs.....

  • Brenda Lawrence Sep 5, 11:00 p.m.
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    Deborah, suggest you read Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America. This may open your eyes as to why a group like BLM is necessary.

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