Representations and reputations of historical personages have been controversial across human civilizations. Political iconoclasm began when Egyptian pharaohs obliterated images of their predecessors. Mayan rulers in Central America adopted similar tactics. Religiously based iconoclasm across the Abrahamic faiths originated in the biblical prohibitions of graven images (Exodus 20:4) and idolatry. Oliver Cromwell, the Puritan Parliamentary leader in England, destroyed statues in Anglican churches. With similar motivation, the Taliban in Afghanistan destroyed Buddhist statues, and the Islamic militants of ISIS destroyed “pagan” pre-Muslim artifacts in Iraqi museums. Whether the representation of images prohibited two as well as three dimensions has been the source of much debate in Judaism and Islam. The consensus across the Middle East is that full-figure statues of humans are definitely illegal, so don’t expect to find many in Israel or its Arab neighbors. The toppling of Saddam Hussain’s statue in Baghdad in 2003 had religious as well as political justification.
By way of contrast, human bodies in statues and sculpture were a favorite art form in the classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. Hence, they are more a feature of culture and art in the West, in both Catholic and secular traditions. The Roman elite in particular loved to perpetuate their image and memory in busts and statues. Roman emperors claiming their own divinity placed their statues in temples to be worshipped. The motivation was probably more political than theological; nevertheless, it led to the Roman-Jewish War and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. In a similar vein, Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France had statues, busts, portraits, and medals of himself, often dressed in classical Roman toga and laurel wreath, mass produced for public consumption across Europe.
Over the centuries, symbols and monuments of glory became important features of national cultures and heritages. A visitor to Paris cannot avoid noting the more than one thousand statues on its city streets. Given the fraught history of France since 1789—five republics, two monarchies, two empires, a commune, and German occupation—it is not surprising that President Macron has recently decreed that in the interest of conflict avoidance, the French Republic will not remove vestiges of its history.
Other nations that have undergone revolutionary change and historical revisionism have adopted different policies. A unique tourist attraction in Budapest, Hungary, is Monument Park. This exhibits the statues and sculpted plaques of the former Communist regime (1949–1989) that have been removed from the city’s streets. The statuary features several versions of the celebrated Communist trinity—Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin—along with former party secretaries, trade-union leaders, foreign Communist dignitaries, and Soviet Army “liberators.” Some of the heroic worker movement concepts have artistic merit if one admires socialist-realist art.
The Republic of South Africa is an obvious example of revolutionary change in a country with a complicated past that is now promoting reconciliation among its various population groups. Following the Russian post-Soviet example, whereby Leningrad and Stalingrad reverted to their former Tsarist-era names, some towns and cities have indigenized their names. Jan Smuts, the former Boer and later British Commonwealth general, pre-apartheid prime minister, and international statesman, lost his naming rights at Johannesburg international airport to African National Congress Party hero Oliver Tambo. Yet Smuts still has his statue alongside Queen-Empress Victoria outside the South African Parliament Building, a popular tourist site in Cape Town.
Political rivalries and feuds have long produced arguments over leaders’ reputations and careers. Shakespeare, in act 3 scene 2 of his play Julius Caesar, provides a potent illustration of such a conflict that is relevant for our own time. This is Mark Anthony’s persuasive funeral oration directed to the plebian mob: “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones.”
Anthony of course tries to invert this outcome in Caesar’s case and instead destroy the reputations of the assassins Cassius and Brutus who are constantly and satirically referred to as “honorable men.”
Probably most freethinkers and atheists have been untroubled by the demolition of statues and the reputation of Christopher Columbus, who was a Catholic hero and inspiration of the conservative Roman Catholic fraternal order the Knights of Columbus. But a full-fledged Maoist-style cultural revolution that seeks to reorder and rewrite the past, to throw out the baby with the bathwater, poses dangers to the secular movement in the United States.
In some ways, as the British novelist L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country.” The founders of the American secular tradition were mainly slave-owning Virginia gentry. Yet anything that undermines or devalues Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration and Danbury Letter, or James Madison’s 1791 Bill of Rights based on George Mason’s Virginia Bill of Rights, is a net loss for our movement and a gift to our opponents. Like Mark Anthony, we must defend the good name of our friends. We must teach the younger generation to have a realistic view of the struggle for liberty and America’s historical personalities. All of them had flaws, yet they still contributed a lot of good ideas that produced an ideology that in turn contributed to America’s and the world’s progress toward human betterment. Even though Enlightenment giants such as Jefferson and Voltaire exhibited poor judgement, bad conduct, and unwarranted prejudices overall, the good they did outweighs the bad. So, we cannot allow them and their essentially liberal and worthy ideas to be erased from history.