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Historical Statues and the Problem of Idolatry

Panoramic’s Karim reflects on the ethical considerations involved in the call for the removal of statutes across the UK and USA over the past year.

Illustrations by Maya Templer

In recent years, debates around the removal of controversial historical statues have proliferated across the Western world - becoming initially widespread after activists campaigned for the removal of statues idolising British colonialists (in the UK) and monuments celebrating Confederate generals (in the US). Progressive activists have celebrated these removals, insofar as they have occurred, as victories for equality and justice in the face of oppressive iconography, whilst conservative critics have decried these actions as assaults on what they consider to be desecrated national cultures. Beyond the expected criticism that removals are motivated by presentist judgments unfairly foisted upon historical figures, prominent critics such as Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson have claimed that the removal of statues “edit[s] our past.” In these disputes, the focus of the debate has been limited to three primary questions: What is the function of a statue? How can we appropriately judge historical figures? And, in light of the first two questions, how should we approach the question of which statues we ought to preserve and indeed, which we ought to erect in the first place?

there is no reason to think that statues serve a primarily educational function, or that the removal of them will be an act of effectual censorship

From the perspective of Boris Johnson, and others who claim that the removal of statues will constitute a form of censorship or miseducation, there is an implicit assumption that statues have a primarily educational function. This is particularly evident in the attempt by Robert Jenrick to equate statues with books in his condemnation of their removal, particularly in the wake of British slave trader (Edward Colston) having his statue forcibly removed by protestors:

We cannot - and should not - try to edit or censor our past. At the heart of liberal democracies is a belief that history should be studied, not censored. We should apply the same scorn to the mindless destruction of statues as to the burning of books that we disagree with.

The problem with this argument is that there is no reason to think that statues serve a primarily educational function, or that the removal of them will be an act of effectual censorship. If we consider a historical example of statues being removed this may become clearer: in 1956, during the Hungarian Uprising against Soviet rule, protestors decapitated a statue of Stalin that reigned over them in Budapest. No one could have reasonably claimed that they were attempting to whitewash the reign of terror suffered under the recently deceased Stalin: it was obviously an ethical rejection of a glorified symbol of Soviet oppression. Of course, one could object that this example is unique, or at least narrowly relevant to the context of autocratic idols, and yet the use of a statue in this way says something about the purpose that statues will always serve: the extreme glorification of the figure represented.

With the ease of this rebuttal, however, we run into a deeper problem. Isn’t this obvious? Do we not all know that the primary reason a statue is made is to glorify the one it represents? It would be very hard to argue that statues are ever erected for figures we wish to view even ambivalently. Why, then, does one side of this debate, disproportionately represented by Conservative MPs in the UK, pretend to think that statues act as value neutral representations of public figures. Even if one believed that they were maintaining an educative function, by allowing us to remember how our past societies viewed certain figures, as well as what those figures did, there is little reason to think that their being removed from the public would undermine this function. Many activists, calling for the removal of public statues, are happy to place these statues within museums, leaving no reason for people to worry that a learning opportunity would be lost.

Having tackled the function of statues, the question of how we ought to judge the historical figures they represent remains. This can be treacherous territory, as we should always be careful not to generalise past societies and inaccurately stereotype what they all thought at any one time. Nevertheless, there are certain issues that are seriously challenging in this regard and slavery is chief amongst them. As Jonathon AC Brown highlights in his book Slavery and Islam (2019), slavery, insofar as it can be defined with transhistorical consistency, was an almost universally accepted practice in the premodern world with only Gregory of Nyssa (d. CE 378) condemning it in and of itself until the sixteenth century. To say then, that Plato and Aristotle, for instance, condoned slavery because its acceptance, in one form or another, was universal in their contexts would be true. And to then condemn them for this position, from the standpoint of our modern opposition to slavery, is seemingly unfair. Though we can still criticise the exactitudes of their ideas, such as Aristotle’s conception of the “natural slave”, we surely cannot criticise a figure for failing to observe a moral ruling that was utterly unknown to them.

for the average American, Jefferson and Washington are far more than objects of sober admiration; they are the very embodiments of goodness

For those who wish to use the excuse of historical ignorance to defend their nationalist heroes of the last few centuries, however, the picture continues to be bleak. The presence of condemnations of slavery qua slavery from French Polymath Jean Bodin (d. 1596) and North American Quaker George Keith (d. 1716) make it clear that the idea of abolition was certainly a thinkable thought for early British colonialists and the US founding fathers, in their times, and so an excuse from context is unlikely to work. Of course, one could say that this is based on an expectation that revered figures ought to have adopted minority opinions in their contemporary cultures and acted as moral pioneers on all the great issues of their day, isn’t this too much to ask?

For any other ethical issue, such an objection might have been effective. On the issue of slavery, however, our desire to expressively condemn what appears as unforgivably evil is too much for us to bear. From our perspective, slavery is the paradigmatic example of evil; there is never any excuse for it that we would like to accept, or even consider. In these circumstances, the excuse of historical context (no one thought it was bad at the time) struggles to justify the continued reverence of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson at the best of times. If we then find out that others were objecting to slavery, even before they began to engage in the practice, the foundations of these desperate rationalisations come crashing down.

This raises the question: why is this such a hard issue? If we really felt that slavery was evil, wouldn’t we be able to push the founding fathers off their literal, and figurative, pedestals without a second thought? To understand this, we must acknowledge that, for the average American, Jefferson and Washington are far more than objects of sober admiration; they are the very embodiments of goodness. Towering over citizens in various public places, the idolatry is more than an aesthetic. The founders as individuals, and what they represent, is fundamental to an idea of Americanness that becomes essentially determinative of the average citizen’s conception of good and evil. This analysis may seem hyperbolic or harsh, but noticing a certain habit of US political rhetoric can justify its strength. Most recently evidenced in the intolerable cringiness of 2020 presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke, one will often hear American politicians begin statements of moral approval with: “I can think of nothing more American …” To the normal person, this may seem weird. Who cares if something is American? What does that have to do with whether an action/belief is good or bad? To some Americans, however, whose very conception of goodness and badness is dependent upon an idea of Americanness, nothing is more important.

If we believe that perfect goodness exists only in God, and moral guidance comes from Him only, we are liberated from the need to idolise individuals, and the shallow ideologies that they embody.

With the nation becoming increasingly secular, and Christianity rapidly losing any moral authority that it may have once had, a faith in America is all that many folks have left. Lest one think that I am overstating the tension between American nationalism and Christian faith, it is worth recalling the words of Vice President George HW Bush in 1988, as he responded to the shooting down of Iranian passenger plane: “I’ll never apologise for the United States of America … ever! I don’t care what the facts are”. This absolute moral commitment to the actions of a state is akin to Martin Luther’s commitment to scripture, as Luther declared that his “conscience was captive to the word of God” in the Imperial Diet of Worms in April 1521. Contrary to Luther, Bush has clearly prioritised nationalism over faith. Yet with Matthew 6:24 declaring that “No Man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other,” one would have thought Bush would have been more cautious about making America his God. For those in the midst of the American religion, as distinct from biblical Christianity, then, it is perfectly understandable that confronting the slavery of the founding fathers is a deeply distressing topic. As long as they are simply deified in their public idols, a moral world built upon their goodness can survive, but if they were to ever be seriously subjected to ethical criticisms, the moral foundation of the nation would fall apart. It should thus be no surprise that so many were horrified by the toppling of Jefferson’s statue during last year’s protests in Portland, Oregon. For many Americans, canceling Jefferson feels like cancelling God.

With this being the case, a genuine monotheistic faith in God could provide a simple resolution to the crux of the statue problem for modern nationalists. If we believe that perfect goodness exists only in God, and moral guidance comes from Him only, we are liberated from the need to idolise individuals, and the shallow ideologies that they embody. Though one could point to the counterexample of Roman Catholics here, as folk who happily utilise status in worship, I would argue that this is a pagan hangover that is in a consistent tension with monotheism generally and biblical precepts specifically as outlined in Exodus 20:4-5 “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that it is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”

Of course, not all statues are quite so ideologically charged, and viewing statues through this apparently blanket perspective may seem narrow, but even any alternative examples, of artistic or differently oriented statues, would still run into the problem of materially deifying a flawed figure that does not deserve such a degree of exaltation. And with statues inherently demanding an excessive degree of acclaim, in their very function, an appropriately sober attachment to them will never be truly possible. Nevertheless, one could argue that this is understandable without God. Could a secular public not also realise the practical problems of idolatry and oppose the exaltation of flawed human beings or artistic expressions? Perhaps, but the tendency to idolise figures may say something about an innate human need to reverence greatness. We have a natural religious impulse and so it is not so much a question of worshipping or not worshipping, but deciding what we would like to worship.


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