You would think the past few years wouldn’t be a particularly great time to be a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but Robert Wright Lee IV has been making hay while the bonfires of racial discord shine.
If you’re unfamiliar, Lee is a fresh young liberal preacher from North Carolina who’s the fresh-faced future of the Christian church. If you don’t believe me, just ask Lee, who’ll be more than happy to tell you all about it:
“Rob believes preaching and writing are his native languages and expressions of the abundance of God,” he says on his website’s biography portion. “He has written extensively for both secular and religious news outlets. Rob’s work has appeared in outlets such as NPR’s Weekend Edition, All Things Considered, and multiple appearances on WUNC’s The State of Things. He has regularly appeared on CNN Tonight with Don Lemon and other national news outlets, and has a popular podcast, Beloved Journal. He has written for Ministry Matters, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Huffigton [sic] Post, the Common English Bible: Student Edition, and the Washington Post.”
This paragraph goes on for several more sentences, all of which have to do with his CV. I’ve spared you that part, dear reader; I’ll merely say Rob also believes larding up his resumé is one of “his native languages and expressions of the abundance of God.”
There’s a reason why Lee finds himself in demand from these outlets, which Lee is also more than willing to fill you in on: “Rob is a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and has been engaged as an activist in the field of racial reconciliation. He participated in the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and was on ABC’s the View where he spoke about the need to confront white supremacy and white privilege in white churches,” he wrote.
He’s also campaigned to have statues of his ancestor and other Confederate statuary taken down, mentioning he’s a descendant of Robert E. Lee in legal filings.
“In July of 2020 he testified before the United States Congress on H.R. 970, a bill to remove a statue of his ancestor at the Antietam battlefield and on Capitol Hill. In January of 2021, Rev. Lee participated in the Inaugural Interfaith Prayer Service for President Joe Biden. Currently he writes a weekly devotional for First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.”
That’s partially true. In fact, almost all of it is. There are just 10 words that aren’t: “Rob is a descendant of Confederate General Robert E. Lee.”
Unfortunately, those are 10 pretty important words.
Yes, it seems the only reason anyone wants to listen to Lee in the first place is demonstrably false, at least according to a Washington Post fact check. No less than Glenn Kessler — a man who, if not duty-bound, would be more than willing to let this one slide — admits Lee is related to the Confederate general in roughly the same way any other descendant of Adam or Eve might be, but that’s about it.
In a Friday fact check, Kessler wrote “there is no evidence that Rob Lee, who was born in North Carolina, is related to Robert E. Lee, according to The Fact Checker’s review of historical and genealogical records. We were aided in our search through these records by a retired Los Angeles trial lawyer and Civil War chronicler named Joseph Ryan, as well as an official at Stratford Hall, the ancestral home of the Virginia Lee family.”
Kessler wrote that Lee IV suggested to a Tulsa crowd in 2020 he was related to the general through Charles Carter Lee, General Lee’s older brother.
“So we looked for evidence that Rob is related to Charles Lee or any other brother of Robert E. Lee. He did not respond to repeated requests for comment — via email, text message and Twitter — but his own writings are vague on the connection,” Kessler wrote.
“For Rob Lee to be a descendant of Charles Carter Lee, who lived in Powhatan County, near Richmond, one of Charles’s five sons would need to be his great-great-great grandfather: George Taylor Lee, 1848-1933; Henry Lee, 1849-1901; Robert Randolph Lee, 1853-1940; Williams Carter Lee, 1855-1882 (who died unmarried in a railroad accident); and John Penn Lee, 1867-1924,” he noted.
“But when we traced the genealogy, the trail quickly ran cold. None of the direct descendants of these Virginians led us to Rob Lee,” he continued. “Instead, when we worked backward from Rob Lee’s family — the various Robert W. Lees — we ended up in Alabama, not Virginia. Lee’s book makes a nod to that fact, quoting his grandmother as saying: ‘The original Lees came to Virginia and then made their way down to Alabama. Some of those Lees came back to North Carolina.’”
Instead, Kessler’s team found that a Robert S. Lee, who fought for the Confederacy and was once regarded as the oldest native Alabaman, was likely Rob Lee IV’s great-great-great grandfather.
Neither Lee nor his father responded to The Washington Post’s requests for comment or evidence that he was related to General Robert E. Lee.
Chris Hollinger, a lawyer who filed a claim on behalf of Lee to have a Confederate monument in Iredell County, North Carolina, removed — a lawsuit in which he posited Lee was a descendant of the general — refused to comment beyond pointing to The Washington Post’s own identification of Lee as a relative of the commander of the Confederate States Army when it published pieces by him.
“We are able to note that Reverend Lee has been identified as a descendant of Robert E. Lee by the Washington Post itself and the Post has published at least two essays by Rev. Lee wherein he discusses his lineage,” Hollinger said in an email. “Accordingly, we have no reason at this time to doubt the accuracy of the allegation in the Iredell County Complaint regarding Reverend Lee’s heritage or to doubt the sincerity of Reverend Lee’s public representations regarding his lineage.”
Whoops. The Post’s vice president of communications said the paper does “our best to verify a contributor’s credentials. This was clearly a more complicated case, though at the time, our research gave us no reason to doubt his lineage claims.”
While Glenn Kessler deserves kudos for finally exposing this as the lie it was, The Post still doesn’t escape blame here, nor do any of the other entities name-checked in Lee’s lengthy bio. The preacher became a left-wing resistance star based on this reason and this reason only: He shared a common last name with a Confederate general, said he was related to him and insisted it was his life’s work to right those wrongs.
Mind you, there was no evidence he had any more to do with the commander of the Confederate Army than the General Lee from “The Dukes of Hazzard,” but look at the list of publications and institutions that played along and didn’t ask for receipts. Then remember I truncated it because no one wants to read the full list, and then remember the full list isn’t even the full list. This is the first we’re hearing about the fact there’s no demonstrable connection, in May 2021, after years of this ongoing charade?
Kessler noted that “[f]amily tales and memories can often be inaccurate” and “Rob Lee may have firmly believed he was somehow related to Robert E. Lee,” but that “without new evidence that confirms his claim, the pastor should not state he is related to Robert E. Lee, especially in legal filings — and news organizations should not echo this claim.”
So, after refusing to work with The Washington Post or answer its emails, Robert W. Lee took to social media to set the record straight after the fact check was published.
“I stand by the records I have seen and worked with. They are not mine to share,” Lee wrote, according to the Statesville News & Record. “Family dynamics are at play, and after a column in 2016 and 2020 in the Washington Post, we believed we had provided enough verification.”
“My mission and ministry has been confronting white supremacy as a sin. Regardless of whether you believe me or the article, the fact remains that either lineage participated and profited from racism and slavery. That ends with me,” he continued.
“If you feel I have sought fortune for this I can assure you that was never the case. If you feel this discredit me or breaks trust, I’m sorry. And, for distraction and de-centering voices of color, I’m sorry.”
And, of course, no mea culpa of this type would be complete without a line like this: “In support of the fullness of the movement and mission, I believe I have addressed this with all upcoming events and will be taking some time away. This isn’t about me, it’s about the great love of God that demands we face our own complicity and heritage for a better future.”
Oh, spare me. Lee isn’t “taking some time away” because he doesn’t want to be a distraction to the anti-racist cause. It’s because the only reason he was famous in the first place is that he claimed Robert E. Lee was his ancestor and he was aggressively trying to extirpate any vestige of his legacy. Without the lineage, he’s just an angry radical of the cloth, a self-styled Protestant Berrigan brother trying to update the liberal social gospel to be angrier and woker.
Every male, female and non-binary leftist preacher from Lake View, Maine to Lihue, Hawaii, wants statues of Robert E. Lee torn down. These kinds of statements are anodyne enough that those preachers would be more likely to make news by demanding the statues stay up.
But a preacher who’s related to Robert E. Lee saying he wants the statuary toppled? Now that’s the kind of copy that’ll get you a gig writing weekly devotionals for Jill Biden. (Sorry — Dr. Jill Biden.)
Shame it all seems to have been a grift. At least that too-long resumé-padding paragraph on Lee’s bio won’t be getting more unwieldy, I imagine.
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