As one who was born and raised in the Deep South, I've thought a lot about the meaning of the Confederate flag. The controversy, of course, centers on whether it is a commemoration of slavery or a symbol of Southern heritage. I've always thought the answer is fairly clear. Honoring one's "heritage" by raising the Confederate flag seems to me a lot like keeping a shot glass in a shadow box to honor the heritage of an alcoholic father.
In any case, there's a brief but enlightening article in the Washington Post (read it here) about the arguments for and against each view. In citing actual quotes from Confederate leaders in the 1860's the piece essentially shows that the idea that the South wasn't really fighting for slavery but rather against big government is a conscience-coddling fiction made up by later generations.
But aside from that, here's a revealing quote from the book cited in the article:
"James McPherson’s study of soldier motivations suggested that most Confederate soldiers did not fight consciously for the preservation of slave property. Confederate soldiers believed they were fighting, above all, to defend their states, their country, and their homes from invasion and to preserve the individual and constitutional liberty that Americans won in 1776. . ."
Well, of course! It's really hard to motivate men to endure the hardships and horrors of war for anything less than the defense of "their states, their country, and their homes." Imagine battle-worn Confederate soldiers on the eve a confrontation with the Union Army. They've seen friends and brothers killed. They haven't been home in months or years. They're sick, exhausted, and starving. But their commanding officer calls them in, and with grit and deep emotion he speaks to their heart:
"I know we're down, but dig deep, men. Muster your courage. With a victory on the field tomorrow, it will all be worth it. We'll have won the right to keep owning blacks like the rest of our barnyard animals." Obviously, this wouldn't work.
It is deeply revealing of human nature that, throughout history, when evil people have sought to get others to fight for an unjust cause, they could only do so by masking it with a just one. As C.S. Lewis explains in Mere Christianity, usually people will do the right thing simply "because it's the right thing to do." But it's extremely rare that a person will do something wrong simply "because it's the wrong thing to do." Usually, when someone commits an evil act, they do it for a perceived greater good. With this in mind, patriotism and an appreciation of "heritage" are often used as a golden gloss to cover horrendous deeds. The Nazi's weren't enacting a genocide of innocent people; they were creating a greater Germany. The soviets weren't systematically murdering millions of peasants and political opponents; they were bringing about an egalitarian utopia, a "dictatorship of the proletariat."
The lesson in this is not for the evil masterminds who instigate atrocities. It is for us common people who are called to follow them. We must learn to discern a hierarchy of good--to see the difference between what's good and what's best. It is good to defend one's country, but not if the leaders of that country are calling its citizens to maintain a way of life that denies the inherent, God-given value of other human beings.
In the closing scene of the movie Gettysburg, after the Confederate defeat at the great battle, Robert E. Lee (played by Martin Sheen) says to one of his fellow officers something to this effect: "When we stand before almighty God, all that will matter is that we've done our duty." This is true, but our most important duty is not to our state or country, or even our family. It is to God who, in light of the example of Christ, expects us to do what's right no matter how much our state, country, or family want us to do wrong.