Iconoclasm – and Us

Iconoclasm refers to the practice of breaking religious images (Gk. Eikonoi). American culture is currently under iconoclastic attack not mostly for its religious images. Rather, if you turn on the TV, you will see attacks by mobs attempting to destroy the historical monuments of “secular” icons of American culture, such as Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and confederate generals.

How should we judge whether to remove these historical monuments? Alan Jacobs, a leading scholar of English literature, writer, and literary critic, helps us to think about this question with a pair of vital distinctions. He draws a crucial distinction in his book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds between “those who held what we now believe to a profoundly mistaken view, or tolerated such a view, simply because it was common in their time, and those who were the architects of and advocates for such a view.”

Jacobs considers the example of Margaret Sanger (1879-1966), the founder of Planned Parenthood. He argues that Sanger fits the latter category because she was a passionate advocate for eugenics that she linked to the practice of contraception. Sanger stated, “Like the advocate for Birth Control, the eugenicists, for instance, are seeking to eliminate the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” Jacobs argues that Sanger did not just “hold eugenicist ideas.”

Another example to which he applies his vital distinction is the historical figure of John C. Calhoun (1782-1850), who was a pro-slavery advocate. Jacobs argues, “Calhoun did not merely accept slavery, he was the single most passionate and influential advocate for slavery. He believed that slavery is a ‘positive good’, railed against ‘the fell spirit of abolition’, and called those who believe that slavery is sinful ‘this fanatical portion of society’ who wish to perform their insidious ‘operations’ on ‘the ignorant, the weak, the young, and the thoughtless.”

In sum, both Sanger and Calhoun “did not just hold the views of their time that most of us now find deplorable; they made those views.”

Furthermore, the great Hungarian-British intellectual, Michael Polanyi (1891-1976), argues in his 1958 Lindsay Memorial Lectures, The Study of Man, that we may commit three fallacies when criticizing historical actors: fallacies of rationalism, relativism, and determinism.

The first fallacy is committed when we “apply our own standards, without allowing for the difference in the historical setting of the acting persons.” Examples of those who committed this fallacy are the “historians of the eighteenth century, like Voltaire and Gibbon, [who] tended to judge the past in this narrow-minded manner.” Other examples currently abound in the recent iconoclastic attacks. On this view, unless there is no trace of racism in secular icons, such as Jefferson, his Memorial should be destroyed. Of course, Jefferson had slaves, as did others, e.g., Washington, and so the question is whether he merely held the view of his time or was an architect of slavery.


Clearly, owning slaves is in profound tension with the foundational principle of equality, and hence the deep truth about our God-created humanity, that Jefferson, the architect of the Declaration of Independence, expressed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.” Lincoln helped to fulfill the “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” asserted by the architect of the Declaration, or the “promissory note,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it. Lincoln rescued it from the charge of contradiction with the Emancipation Proclamation.

Those who commit the fallacy of rationalism neglect not only the cultural differences in the historical setting between them and us, but also the clarifying distinction between holding and making the views of their time. We commit this fallacy, argues Polanyi, from a lack of “regard for the limitations imposed on a person’s responsibility by the acceptance of his native intellectual framework.” This fallacy abounds among the iconoclasts of our time.

The second fallacy – of relativism – is committed when people “judge past actions by the standards of their own time.” Polanyi adds, “When taken to its limit, [this approach] would sanction absolute conformity [to the times] and render thereby any criticism of the standards of a time meaningless.” Thus, on this view, the historical actors, such as Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others, would be immune from criticism because they are not only influenced by but also bound to, the standards of their time. This fallacy presupposes that there are no objectively valid truths about human beings – such as that all men are created equal – and hence no truths independent of the standards of a time. This is cultural relativism and those who oppose rationalism sometimes embrace it.

The third fallacy – of determinism – is committed with “a materialist conception of history in which all actions appear determined by impulses of power and profit. Interpreted on these lines, all actions are devoid of moral meaning, and man is deprived altogether of responsibility to ideal obligations.”

Shelby Steele describes this materialistic conception by adding the deterministic impulse of race. Racism is a social determinism of “structural or systematic racism.” Steele explains:

Determinism was the idea that moved racism from the level of discriminatory events to the level of “impersonal” and “structural” forces that worked by the “invisible hand” to stifle black aspiration when real racists were nowhere to be seen. When racism is defined as a determinism, then whites and American institutions are part of a cultural pattern (“white privilege”) that automatically oppresses blacks; and blacks are automatically victims of this same pattern.

Being white as such is sufficient to condemn you to being a racist according to this social determinism. But this would mean that American institutions, like the police, and “ennobling conditions that free societies aspire to,” though democratic, merely reflect the social determinism of racism, depriving people “of responsibility to ideal obligations,” and emptying actions of moral responsibility.

Jacobs and Polanyi provide a helpful perspective in these challenging times for avoiding iconoclastic attacks against America.


*Image: Beheaded statues by Kristen Zeis, The Virginian-Pilot, June 10, 2020 [Confederate monument, Portsmouth, VA]

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.