Beliefs Culture David Gushee: Christians, Conflict and Change Opinion

From LeBron to Beyonce to Trump, we hold few heroes in common

American superhero illustration.
American superhero illustration.

American superhero illustration.

The United States is currently a nation without heroes. And that’s a pretty sad thing.

Our culture seems to lack people who are viewed as consensus exemplars — the ones we all look up to, admire, and imitate, the people we all agree represent the good, the noble, the best of us.

Try to think of someone. Give it a go. I’ll wait…

Donald Trump? Barack Obama? Taylor Swift? Hillary Clinton? Beyoncé? Lebron James? Jimmy Carter? Rush Limbaugh? Jon Stewart? Ronald Reagan? Rick Warren? Captain America?

And the winner is? I think it’s the athletes, singers, and fantasy superheroes.

All of this came to mind because of three particular figures in the news:

1) Jimmy Carter announces he has cancer. Tributes pour in from his particular niche tribe of admirers, many of them from my particular subculture of southern progressive Christians. Meanwhile, social media erupts with obscene expressions of hatred for a man voted out of the presidency 35 years ago.

READ: “Crowd packs former President Carter’s Sunday school after his cancer spreads”

2) Donald Trump rocks the house in Mobile, bringing in 20,000 happy mainly white southern Christian types to hear his “make America great again” message. There is no question that he is the star of the presidential campaign so far. Some people appear to be investing their hopes for a great leader onto him. But others could not disagree more…

READ: “Donald Trump and the politics of white male anger”

3) Barack Obama, that former Paragon of Hope and Change, takes a golf vacation, lining up putts assiduously. When he returns, so will conflicts over every single thing he proposes to do. The Nobel Peace Prize winner can’t get past 50% in US approval polls.

Factoid: a global YouGov survey of 25,000 people from 23 countries listed Bill Gates and Angelina Jolie as the most admired man and woman in the world in 2015, followed by Barack Obama, Xi Jinping, Malala Yousafzai, and HIllary Clinton. Your view?

The fall semester has begun. This term I am teaching about people many consider great moral heroes in history. My list includes William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Abraham Lincoln, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Would they make your list? Many admire them. But of course four of them were murdered, several were imprisoned, and all were objects of great controversy in their time.

Maybe there are no consensus heroes when people are actually alive; it is only after we murder them that we honor them. Jesus himself fits this description.

No, that’s too stark. Surely there was a time in American history when we had consensus heroes. It used to be that certain major religious leaders played that role. For a long time Billy Graham was among America’s most admired people. America’s pastor.

Today his son Franklin has moved from aid worker to culture warrior and evokes strongly opposing reactions. And closer study of Father Billy has offered up some less than exemplary moments, notably when he was in the company of anti-hero Richard Nixon.

Often our heroes have been war leaders. General Ulysses S. Grant. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. General Colin Powell. The latter could have sailed into the presidency like his war hero predecessors. Instead he tarnished his reputation selling bad intelligence for George W. Bush’s Iraq War.

We do still seem to need our military to play the hero role for us. In our major civic celebrations anyone in uniform gets the hero treatment. Whenever I go to my (miserably bad) Atlanta Braves games they honor someone who has served or now serves in the military. The standing ovation is obligatory, and seems sincere. A nation in need of heroes turns to its military — even if the soldiers themselves would rather be left alone to watch the game.

This week three Americans and a Brit who broke up a terror attack on the Amsterdam to Paris train are (rightly) being honored as heroes. They will, at least for a few days, serve as consensus heroes for us.

Still, my observation remains on the table. We are a nation almost entirely without heroes today. Because we don’t agree on what’s worth admiring, we can’t agree on who’s worth admiring. A divided nation divides on heroes, too. It’s worth noticing.

Look me up on Facebook and Twitter. All relevant, civil comments are welcome.

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David Gushee


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  • When in the history of the United States did we have consensus heroes. Almost by definition heroes are controversial and are usually recognized as heroes in their lifetimes only by a small minority. Why do you believe it is bad that in our diverse society (with multiple channels of expression) that there is no unanimity of values?

  • My consensus heroes? Those who perused the religions of the world and decided said religions are all flawed and no longer worthy of our time and money.

    And the number grows daily:

    Religion………………………… Adherents

    Christianity ……………………..2.1 billion

    Islam…………………………… 1.5 billion

    Irreligious/agnostic/atheism…… 1.1 billion

    Hinduism 900 million
    Chinese traditional religion 394 million
    Buddhism 376 million
    Animist religions 300 million
    African traditional/diasporic religions 100 million
    Sikhism 23 million
    Juche 19 million
    Spiritism 15 million

    Judaism…………………………………….. 14 million

    Baha’i 7 million
    Jainism 4.2 million
    Shinto 4 million
    Cao Dai 4 million
    Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
    Tenrikyo 2 million
    Neo-Paganism 1 million
    Unitarian Universalism 800,000
    Rastafari Movement 600,000

  • That sounds about right, Bill. The only heroes that win unanimous applause are those who have passed on to their reward. When they were alive, they were controversial and divisive — because the very nature of heroism requires taking courageous stands that often go against the grain.

    A possible exception was President Kennedy, who at the time of his assassination was clearly liked by the majority and was on his way to a landslide win had he lived. Yes, he had his share of people who despised him, but the majority of the America people had more than warmed up to him.

    Of course, even with JFK, there were a host of momentous decisions he never had to make due to his assassination, some of which might have ultimately destroyed. Vietnam comes to mind. And of course, his affairs, had they been revealed in his second term, would have harmed him.

    But still, JFK is the closest we have to America’s consensus hero.

  • Bernie, shouldn’t you be out on the campaign trail rather than posting on this obscure message board?

    Seriously……Does your post imply you love the Castro brothers and loved Mao and Stalin and Pol Pot and other grisly goons? The point is that the mere fact of being an atheist does not automatically make one a hero (or villain). It obviously depends on the character of the particular person.

  • Obscure message board? Not when you have Google et al tracing our comments.

    And since we are naming infamous atheists, how about some famous atheists such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

  • Bernardo, I never denied that plenty of atheists have done well for humanity. A disproportionate percentage of human rights activists are atheist and as a fellow human being, I’m proud of such people.

    All I’m doing is correcting your lurching to the opposite extreme, which you did by saying, as you did, that to be an atheist is necessarily to be a hero.