Ryan J. Lanier
Much has been said about the rise of “secular saints” in modern society. As commitment to true religion has declined, the cult of great historical figures has risen and grown. In America, this celebration of historical figures has gone far beyond the simple veneration of great figures from the American heritage. Rather than cautious veneration, many Americans, particularly on the right, have turned to outright worship. Indeed, figures including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln are viewed more as gods than saints. At the same time, recent years have seen growing calls for the destruction of these gods and their removal from our civic religion. In this way, America faces a divide between those who call for civic paganism and those who strive to establish a civic atheism.
For the best example of how America’s “secular saints” have ascended to the status of gods, one needs only to visit our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. Although cities and states throughout the nation adopt one of these gods as their patrons, Washington truly serves as the American Mount Olympus. On a trip to the national mall, the pilgrim can easily pay tribute to “The Big Three”: Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. Our nation’s first president receives an obelisk that towers over the city, our third is memorialized in an Americanized version of the Roman Pantheon, and the “Great Emancipator” stares across the Mall in a pose reminiscent of the long-lost statue of Zeus at Olympia. Lesser gods find recognition dotted around the American Olympus. The pilgrim can venerate Ulysses S. Grant, victor of the Civil War, at his statue a short walk from the west side of the Capitol Building. Those looking for a more immersive experience can traverse the long, winding tribute to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, one of the more prominent minor gods of the American pantheon. Finally, no pilgrimage could be complete without a stop by the Temple of the Law under the protection of the great lawgiver John Marshall.
The dominance of such historical figures in the American psyche extends far beyond a simple veneration of the past. As true religion aimed towards a higher power declines, a new faith must rise to fill the void. When the faith turns to the human to replace the divine, saints no longer have any use. Indeed, those we formerly venerated receive a promotion. This, in part, explains the shift from veneration to worship that many Americans show to the leaders of the past. These gods of the American heritage offer something for people to develop an attachment to as they come to terms with the death of God and His disappearance from modern society. With this, the civic becomes the religious.
At the same time, however, the decision to promote human beings from sainthood to the status of gods comes at a great cost. Indeed, as our society begins to come to terms with the sins of our gods, calls to overthrow them continue to grow. In many ways, we have brought this hatred for the past upon ourselves. When historical individuals are granted undue attention that then rises to the level of worship, their fall from grace becomes inevitable. The debate over the veneration of our nation’s Founders arises in large part from a dispute between those who remain committed to the myth of a perfect Founding and those who refuse to celebrate men who have committed what they conceive to be unforgivable sins.
Thus, the fight over America’s gods comes as the natural result of the miseducation of America and the poor practice of history. On the Left, education centers on forcing white Americans to atone for the sins of their predecessors. Thus, the American gods must be killed. The existence of slavery in America dating back to 1619 is viewed as an unforgivable sin that cannot be cleansed from the past. Furthermore, the continuation of slavery deep into the nineteenth century and the racism that permeated after slavery’s abolition place an unremovable stain on white Americans that can never be washed away. Thus, as whites are forced to come to terms with their whiteness, any past figures who had any connection to the racial sins of the past are wiped out of society. Consequently, America’s gods must die. Like the removal of true faith from American society, the erasure of the American pantheon leaves a void that must be filled. For the Left, this gap is filled with secular martyrs. These martyrs—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, to name just a few—receive recognition and praise not because of their contributions to society or even their humanity. Indeed, contrary to most criticisms of the Left’s obsession, they are not even recognized because of the color of their skin. Instead, they matter only because of how they died. Thus, with no real concern for who they really were or their intrinsic value as human beings, these people become the martyrs of our society. To refuse to “say their names” marks one as an outcast and pariah in today’s America. Thus, a new lie is born.
On the Right, pundits insist that schools continue to teach the various older myths of American history. Rather than bow down to the racial martyrs of today, the dominant voices on the Right call on the dwindling members of the Church of America to remain committed to the old faith. With responses such as the “1620 Project” and the 1776 Commission these secular priests demand that their followers maintain a rigid attachment to an older American myth. Whether its an attachment to the faulty notion that the Pilgrims of 1620 alone provided the principles that allowed America to become a “shining city on a hill,” the belief that the American Revolution was an event unique in history with no precedent or flaws of its own, or the idea that Abraham Lincoln deserves our worship as the great preserver of the Spirit of ’76, each notion brings its own problems. Just as the Left promotes their own noble lie with the elevation of select individuals killed at the hands of police, so too does the Right require a firm commitment to the beneficial myths of American history.
The dominance of American myths that arose from the malpractice of history seems to provide two options. First, one can accept the destruction articulated by the modern Left. This view, however, radically misconstrues history and runs into the same problems that led to its rise to power in the first place. Just as the American gods fell into disrepute, so too will the Left’s secular martyrs eventually fall from grace. Indeed, when the only reason for the celebration of such figures comes as a result of how they died, rather than their achievements in life, their fall becomes inevitable, leading to the creation of yet another void to be filled. Second, one could continue to buy into the myths promoted by the American Right. This view, however, runs into the same problems identified above. To uncritically praise the past and the great leaders of American history leads to a misunderstanding of history and a failure to properly understand the past. Further, both notions reject true faith and create a false vision of history.
Ultimately, the progression from saints to gods to martyrs of wokeness reflects the loss of true religion in modern society. In a world that lacks a true appreciation for the place of the divine, such societal confusion and chaos comes as no surprise. Without a grounding in the permanent things, our culture has broken free from its moorings and now finds itself adrift. With our attempt to substitute the transcendent with the temporal, we have immanentized the eschaton and found it wanting. As our experience with secular saints, neo-paganism, and faithless martyrs shows, a world lacking in the faith falls short in offering true consolation. I dread the next step in this ungodly progression into nothingness that such a culture necessarily brings.
About the Author
Ryan Lanier is the Editor-in-Chief of American Discourse.