We love to look back on the past and select stories of people who embody our values, people who inspire us because of great deeds, people who make us feel proud. That’s one reason why we erect monuments—to remember great men and women who have accomplished significant feats. We want to enter into and identify with their greatness.
In the United States, our presidents often receive some of our grandest accolades. We have even carved their faces out of rock in the hills of South Dakota. The four men whose faces are depicted there capture for us the hope that Americans can aspire to greatness and do magnificent deeds.
But all our heroes fail us.
And when our heroes fail us, it is easy for us to turn on them. That is what many Americans are doing now as they tear down monuments that were raised to men once thought great. These men have lost the respect of their successors.
Significantly, many such monuments are associated with the Confederacy, which fought a bloody civil war in large part to defend its reprehensible practice of chattel slavery, the perpetual bondage of Africans and African Americans and their children. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota, these monuments have been targeted because they symbolize the American sins of slavery and racism. (For further reflection on Confederate monuments, see Thomas Kidd’s “American History Is Not Canceled.”)
Protesters, city councils, and institutions, however, have not confined their focus to Confederate monuments but have broadened the net to include those who fall into the more general category of racism. A statue of George Washington, who was perhaps the pivotal figure in the establishment of the United States of America and whose face is one of those displayed on Mount Rushmore, met the fate of being toppled and graffitied in Portland, Oregon, on the eve of Juneteenth this year. Though Washington, unlike many other founders, freed his slaves upon his death, that doesn’t wipe away the fact that he did own them during his life.
Washington has failed us.
Another recent target is the evangelical revivalist George Whitefield. The University of Pennsylvania announced on July 2, 2020, its decision to remove a statue of Whitefield from its campus. University officials describe Whitefield as leading “a successful campaign to allow slavery in Georgia,” which “is undeniably one of Whitefield’s principal legacies.” As Thomas Kidd discusses in his biography of Whitefield, Whitefield’s legacy is certainly mixed because of his support of slavery.
Whitefield has failed us.
The failures of men like Washington and Whitefield are real. We need fuller pictures of people from the past, and we can be grateful for historians who help us better see that complicated reality.
At the same time, despite their failures, Washington and Whitefield also accomplished praiseworthy deeds. That leaves us with a question: How do we acknowledge and lament their faults while celebrating their successes? It seems that much of what we are witnessing in the cases of monuments to people like Washington and Whitefield is a tendency not toward a more complicated view of the past but toward a reductionistic view of individuals, defining them by a single issue.
In Whitefield’s case, can the memory of this itinerant preacher and philanthropist, who devoted his life to inexhaustibly and indiscriminately promoting a message of heart religion and who founded an orphanage in Georgia, be boiled down solely to his support of slavery—as genuinely frustrating and inexcusable as that aspect of the man is? Kidd’s biography of Whitefield suggests a more complicated legacy (though see below for more on Kidd’s view of monuments).
I think we can note at least three observations as we process some of these recent events.
The single issue on which people are judged is fluid. The issue of racism that is being discussed today very much deserves close attention—attention that is long overdue. The history of white mistreatment of Africans and African Americans—not to mention Native Americans, Hispanics, Chinese, Japanese, and so on—in America is depressing, even horrific. And the problems of racial animosity and disunity that plague our nation need to be addressed head-on.
We should also acknowledge, though, that the single issue shaping modern discourse shifts easily, changing with context and time. While the monuments being targeted today focus on racism, the single issue in a different context today may be sexuality. And in another time, the driving issues may be completely different.
Recently, Emma Nicholson, who served in an honorary role as vice president of the Booker Foundation and whose husband helped establish the Booker Prize in literature that the foundation awards, was stripped of her title because of her alleged “homophobia.” Never mind all that she did to establish the foundation; she can be reduced to one thing: her views on homosexuality.
The effects of single-issue evaluation of people is increasingly visible in our day. Take, for example, the public shaming of J. K. Rowling for her comments about the dangers of transgenderism—to the point that some independent bookstores have stopped stocking her best-selling Harry Potter books and that her book sales in June lagged behind, uncharacteristically, sales in the larger industry. (See Carl Trueman’s incisive analysis of the Rowling backlash.) That kind of single-issue evaluation has led Rowling and others—such as David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, and Molly Worthen—to argue in an open letter in Harper’s Magazine that we need to defend freedom of speech and the public debate of ideas, not squash thinking by silencing those on the “wrong side” of the latest hot-button issue.
But what about monuments as symbols? This is an important question. Sometimes monuments do symbolize one issue—at least predominantly. That is, whatever other ideas they may symbolize, those ideas cannot be disentangled from that one overarching issue. A strong case can be made, I think, that statues of Confederate officers symbolize the defense of a system of race-based slavery and racism, whatever else they may also represent, and we do well to listen to our African American brothers and sisters who explain how these monuments negatively affect their lived experience. Theon Hill provides an eminently helpful discussion of Confederate monuments with thoughtful approaches toward removal in his essay “What Would Jesus Say about Confederate Symbols?”
While monuments can take on the meaning of a single issue, though, not all of them do, and people can also misidentify what the monuments predominantly represent. I wonder if our sound-bite culture is more and more marked not by careful analysis of our past but by pithy statements that can reduce the past to tweets. Many people, such as Washington and Whitefield, ought to be remembered not simply for their great flaws but also for their achievements—both being held in tension.
We are foolish to expect too much of our heroes. Ultimately, all our heroes fail us. Washington and Whitefield, despite their accomplishments, have failed us. And one wonders whether anyone can stand up to the pressures put on those molded into bronze. One can find a legitimate reason to tear down any monument.
Christian theology explains this reality through the doctrine of the fall. If we only ever speak about the successes of our heroes, we are not being honest with ourselves or with our critics. We may uphold Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and Martin Luther King Jr. as great men, but each was marked by serious flaws—anti-Semitism, slaveholding, and infidelity, respectively. All of them are thus susceptible to having their names torn off the sides of buildings and institutions because they all have failed us.
It’s for these kinds of reasons that Thomas Kidd warns against hero worship in his essay “American History Is Not Canceled,” particularly cautioning Christians not to fall into some form of civil religion, failing to differentiate our Christian faith from our patriotism. Likening statues of American figures to the golden calf, he rightly calls us not to turn our monuments into idols.
There is one hero who won’t fail us. The God-man, Jesus Christ, is the only human who knows no flaw. That is why the church needs all the more to rehearse the story of what Christ has done, is doing, and will do and needs to not focus too much on what we and our flawed heroes have accomplished. The more we point to ourselves, the more we expose ourselves to the (all-too-often accurate) accusation of failure.
All our heroes fail us—except one. Monuments come and go. But we have a greater confidence because we have a king in the heavens who will never fail or fall. As the church points more to him, we are pointing to a cornerstone that can never be removed.