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making a false idol of history

August 2, 2011

I will admit it. I have some idols. Some figures who represent to me something beyond their actual persons. One of them recently linked to this blog and it was, like, my best day ever. Obama, on one level, represents something more to me than just himself; he is our first black president and therefore representative of a moment when our culture shifted in a very profound way. I have been far less disappointed by him than many liberals, mainly because I paid attention when he outlined his policies and I believed him when he said he would compromise to get things done. So I haven’t been surprised by much that’s happened. He turns out to be about as progressive as I expected him to be, which is to say not very. Still, on one level I always see him glowing in the light of that historic moment.

In general, though, I try to value people, things, and ideas for what they really are, not what they represent. I actually think they are far more interesting that way. Just as the real Obama is more interesting than the false idol the left made of him, the real Reagan was a far more nuanced and complicated man than the right’s deification of him is. Ditto the real Founders. Those men not only disagreed with one another on major principles of governance, but they also held contradictory views within themselves. (You can’t really oppose slavery while still owning slaves.) Real people are like that (contradictory), and we can learn a lot more from them once we accept it.

That’s the thing about false idols. They are doubly false. God doesn’t warn us against worshiping them just because they are not Him, but also because they are, in and of themselves, lies. The golden calf not only wasn’t God, it didn’t even actually represent God, as the Isrealites thought. In fact if it was a symbol at all, it represented their weakness, their fear and lack of faith. So not only should we avoid turning the Founders and Reagan into gods because they aren’t gods, but we should also avoid falsifying them. We should not make them into lies, should not turn them into something less real and less complex than they really were. The American leaders of history are interesting because they were men, because they were fallen human beings struggling to do something right. Unfortunately, in an attempt to turn them into gods the right has actually turned them into platitudes, has simplified them beyond all recognition and all value. They, like the golden calf, have not become symbols of something profound but rather of our own inability to see and understand the truth.

Through really understanding history, closely studying the writing and actions of leaders of the past, we can restore the value of these real people. Understanding not just what they got right but also what they got wrong, what they were confused about, and when and why they changed their minds can tell us more about what it takes to be an American leader than our current golden calves ever will. Of course for that to happen, we will have to get through this moment when all history, all facts are viewed with suspicion of bias (thank you post-modernism). But I think we will. I think the truth will out.

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