Let’s talk about heroes.
I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty. As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed. Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America. And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought. Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example. Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty. Let’s think about this.
Metaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument. He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good. (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.) Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality. The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.” Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.” Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”
I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this. For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern. The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes. What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic. But “heroes” of a different sort abound. If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant. Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin. Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field. Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.
Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case? This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully. Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual. But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple. For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s. The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people. We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.
First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation. As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015. There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.
But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance. My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes. For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes. His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality. As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France. Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.” While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals. “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”
In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines. Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.
Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols. Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives. They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!” And yet, there is danger in the quest. As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”
The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example. This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time. To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.
One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap. (I review it here.) He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws. Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror. By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently. He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.
This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately. The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible. Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth. The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?” Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.