Lee’s speech at the VMAs on Aug. 27 followed the glitz and glam of red carpets and all-star performances by the likes of Lorde and Ed Sheeran. But his appearance quickly caught Internet fame as among the night’s most memorable. As he appeared before the cameras, Lee stood in stark contrast to the sleek, geometric set behind him, dressed simply in a black cleric’s shirt and collar. Soon he would introduce Susan Bro, whose daughter Heather Heyer had been killed 15 days before, after being mowed down by a car as she protested white supremacy in Charlottesville.
“My name is Robert Lee IV, I’m a descendant of Robert E. Lee, the Civil War general whose statue was at the center of violence in Charlottesville,” he said. “We have made my ancestor an idol of white supremacy, racism, and hate. As a pastor, it is my moral duty to speak out against racism, America’s original sin.
“Today, I call on all of us with privilege and power to answer God’s call to confront racism and white supremacy head-on.
“We can find inspiration in the Black Lives Matter movement, the women who marched in the Women’s March in January, and, especially, Heather Heyer, who died fighting for her beliefs.”
On Monday, Lee announced he would be leaving his church — Bethany United Church of Christ in Winston-Salem, N.C. In his statement, published on the website of the Auburn Theological Seminary, Lee wrote that while he did have congregants who supported his freedom of speech, many resented the attention the church received after the VMAs.
“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,” he wrote, adding that his “church’s reaction was deeply hurtful.” Lee wrote that he never sought the kind of attention that has followed him since the protests in Charlottesville last month, even while his visibility as a religious leader and staunch opponent of Confederate memorials garnered international recognition, a turn of events no doubt fueled by his namesake. (Technically, he’s an “indirect” rather than a “direct” descendant.)
Lee did not describe specific responses he received from congregants. But the comments section on an article about his VMA speech in the Winston-Salem Journal gives some sense of the backlash. One commenter wrote that there was “no way” Lee was a Christian and that “it seems anybody that wants to protect our country is a racist, or white supremacist. … It’s a sin to use your position to name-call and judge.”
Another commenter wrote that rather than appear on television, Lee should devote his time to ministering: “You have how many faithful members? Maybe if you spent more time around the church that number would increase.”
In an Aug. 18 interview with BBC News, Lee argued that statues of his ancestor honor white supremacy and endorse a system in which it is acceptable to be racist in America. He pointed to the complete lack of markers to fascists in Europe following World War II as evidence that there is a way to “remember your history and not commemorate it.” Lee talked of how he had spoken with a descendant of a slave owned by the Lee family, describing his heartbreak over hearing the firsthand experiences of those “hurt and oppressed by statues.”
Lee has spoken openly about how he arrived at his own conclusions about his lineage, saying he has at once felt pride in the fact that Lee family members signed the Declaration of Independence and shame over Robert E. Lee’s leadership over the Confederacy. In one NPR interview, he spoke of how he was often given mixed messages on whether the elder Lee was a proponent of slavery or states’ rights.
From his pulpit, Lee implored his parishioners to condemn the racism swirling around them, insisting they would be doing the church wrong if they remained silent.
“It’s not the message that we’re used to hearing from our pulpits. But maybe now is the time to start having those messages,” Lee said in the NPR interview.
In his first appointment out of seminary, Lee has been the pastor of Bethany Church since April, according to the church’s website. The church was founded in a log meeting house around 1789 and is one of the oldest Reformed churches in North Carolina, having been originally founded as a “union effort of persons of Reformed and Lutheran faith.” The church’s website still listed Lee as its pastor as of early Tuesday.
A graduate of Appalachian State University and Duke University Divinity School, Lee is the author of “Stained-Glass Millennials”— a book about the relationship between millennials and institutional church — and is a regular columnist for the Statesville Record & Landmark, which has covered Iredell County, N.C., for more than a century. Lee did not return requests for an interview Monday night.
“I wish I could say it was easy to speak up and speak out in God’s name,” Lee wrote in the column. “But it wasn’t.”
Story and headline was updated to reflect the fact that while Lee calls himself a descendant, he’s an indirect descendant.