Monument, Idols, and Tolerance

What we have now is rapidly changing because we do not really look at or understand the philosophies of the real iconoclasts of our time

Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again” (Jn 2:19).


One of the accusations made against Christ was that he threatened to destroy the Temple of Jerusalem. When King David planned to build the original Temple, Yahweh’s initial reaction was: “Who told you that I wanted a house of cedar?” (1 Chron 17; 2 Sam 7). But the final Temple was destroyed by the Romans under Vespasian in 70 A.D., mainly to get rid of the troublesome Jews. The Triumphal Arc of Titus in the Roman Forum shows a Jewish Temple menorah. Temples are erected, worshipped in, and often destroyed. They stand for something, both in their construction and in their destruction. They can themselves be houses of God built in cedar or stone. They can even analogously become what they symbolize. “The Temple is the Temple of His Body” (Jn 2:21). But temples can also be places dedicated to many different kinds of gods and ideologies, not always so edifying.

An idol is some figure or humanly made artifact that is to be worshiped as a god, usually under threat of punishment or death for refusing to do so. It figuratively embodies what it stands for. It is also possible to conceive of such natural objects as the sun, the moon, a mountain, or a river as an idol requiring mandatory worship and sacrifice.

A monument is rather a humanly made statue or object designed to honor some person, country, athlete, purpose, virtue, or even a racehorse. It is specifically not divine or a god. A tombstone is a small (usually stone) memorial of the life or a person or persons. Such too are statues in Catholic churches. These artifacts may be sublime, ordinary, or even ugly. They are intended, however, to capture something of their maker’s purpose, in the name of a religion or polity. They are usually viewed that way by those who behold them.

But someone from outside such a culture, country, or religion may confuse veneration or honoring with worship. Christians accused of “worshipping Mary” is a case in point. The distinction between “to worship” and “to venerate” is thus significant theologically as an indication of what is going on. But if someone insists that veneration must be worship, he will accuse the devotion to Mary as “worship” instead of the “veneration” it is.

The Old Testament frequently witnesses to the destruction of idols of other nations. The Jews kept annoying the prophets by their frequent lapses into idolatry. The Hebrew people are even seen as making those idols or worshipping the idols of neighboring nations. Their commandment not to worship “false gods” seems at times to act as a “forbidden fruit”. It incites them rather than restrains them. They want to be “like other men” and their gods.

When Moses came down from the mountain, he saw the people dancing before idols they made themselves (Ex 32:19). He paid no attention to the golden calves’ “artistic qualities”. He simply ground up the idols. But he also smashed the two tablets of the Commandments. Yet, they were not seen as idols. Nor was there anything idolatrous about using stone on which to record the commands of Yahweh in order to manifest what is true by knowing what they say. The stone was a symbol of the commandments’ permanence. In not a few modern public buildings and courts, the replicas of these same commandments are now prohibited. Why? Symbols of religious origins are, increasingly, not even allowed to be displayed in public places. There is a proposal in the California legislature to remove the formerly honored statue of St. Junipero Serra from the Hall of Congress in Washington. Nothing that can be construed as “colonialism”—no matter how far-fetched and unfair the perception—is now to be allowed. The logic of this principle would eliminate many of the monuments of the world.

In this light, we can probably say that idols and monuments can be seen for the material things that they are, once their intended purposes are no longer held or considered significant. They are works of human hands, more or less beautiful or useful. The “sacred pole” and the obelisk frequently had some quite deviant overtones. The obelisk originally contained or pointed to Ra, the Egyptian Sun God. Though it became a Masonic symbol, no one today would think of the Washington Monument as this country’s devotion to the Egyptian sun god. Yet, other less obvious idols can perhaps be found to which we may now be passionately devoted. Francis Bacon famously spoke of idols of the tribe, marketplace, theater, and cave.

When we die, we usually bury our dead or give them some sign of remembrance. This is what Arlington Cemetery in Washington or the English Cemetery in Rome is about. Yet, we have not been able to construct any significant monument to the millions and millions of the aborted of our kind. We do not allow ourselves officially to remember them. Our Memorial Days do not include them. A Public Monument to the Aborted would imply that they did exist as human beings, that some contrition is required for their silent elimination. They were killed by other human beings. But, since it is a legal “right” to kill them, we cannot be allowed to acknowledge their actual existence with an appropriate public monument. This recognition of the significance of the aborted would violate the “rights” of those who carried them out to their logical conclusion. It was the law that made their deaths easily available and permissible. But their memories are not acknowledged by a presumably free people.


It is a known fact that no one can go to most Muslim countries with a Bible or cross or rosary. In recent years, as in earlier centuries, Muslim armies, on conquering lands containing monuments or churches of other religions, have provocatively and defiantly torn them down or transformed them for their own use. Why do they do this? They do it because these buildings, statues, crosses, and monuments are considered to be “idols” in Islamic law. They have no justification for their existence. They are corrupting. It is an act of praise to Allah to have no such signs visible.

Thus, no external sign of idolatry ought to exist. It is a form of blasphemy. It is a virtue to destroy it, whatever its so-called historic or artistic value. Whether they are priceless works of art or architecture from Assyrian, Buddhist, or Christian origins, it makes no difference.

Pope Francis, in meeting with the bishops of Mali on May 7th, referred to the “common commitment of Christians and Muslims to safeguarding Mali’s cultural treasures, especially the large libraries of Timbuktu, the patrimony of humanity”. Obviously, this concern for libraries and their contents would not be necessary unless there were those who would destroy them on the grounds that they contained idolatry and decadence. The Pope does not indicate who just might destroy these libraries. (A-Qaida rebels had recently captured and burned two library buildings containing classic Muslim manuscripts before being driven out by French forces).

Closer to home, we have the case of St. Louis University’s removal of a missionary statue of Father De Smet because some students and faculty, with little sense of the actual history of the man, “felt” it was racist or offensive. The principle at work seems to be that nothing that is “felt” to be offensive by anyone can be seen in public. If we universalize this principle, any Christian missionary effort is over. Someone is always going to feel and complain. Universities themselves are now filled with amazing prohibitions of speech that prevent talk of many “incorrect” things, an ever changing list.

In addition, not a few people finally recognize that things such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church will likely be considered to violate the “principles” now said to constitute the public order. At the fall of the Berlin Wall, we witnessed the tearing down of the statues of Lenin and Stalin. In Northern Ireland, old “divisive” statues were replaced by abstract models of new attitudes. It is said that certain Muslim groups even want to tear down the pyramids as signs of the idolatry of the religion in power before Islam conquered Egypt. The Coptic Churches and people in Egypt are still in danger of destruction even under one of the better Egyptian prime ministers.

We are seeing a form of this same mentality in this country. It is now increasingly held that the only reason for the Civil War was slavery, not also resistance to abusive central power. The official peace after the Civil War, like that of the Germans after World War II, sought to treat the defeated with honor. Lee and Jackson were losing generals, but not war criminals. The memory of the Confederacy was a reality, a lost cause, not something to be eradicated from our minds, books, and memories. We now sense a change in mood. No more whistling “Dixie”. Statues of Confederate heroes and efforts, names of streets and schools, all must be changed since they can only have one meaning. It is not allowed to be seen lest the public be corrupted.

With the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage, Catholics can expect something of the same sort of treatment for their churches, monuments, and statues. It is true that with the decline of numbers and change in demographics, many famous Catholic churches and monuments have been destroyed. Stained glass windows and statutes of sundry saints can often be found in bars and homes. There is in fact a market for used Catholic goods that have been discarded. But what is coming is more sinister. We can expect these symbols to be treated like the statues of Lee or the churches of Mosul, as symbols forbidden by the present civil law and so enforced by opinion and often violence.


“What exactly is going on here?” we might ask. We are, I think, beyond the question of “tolerance”. Tolerance usually arose when sides were equally exhausted or matched so that what someone else held was allowed to continue. Most cities of the world, especially capital cities, are filled with buildings, statues, and monuments that are designed to depict what the country stands for. In this sense they are “public” monuments. Sometimes “private” monuments are allowed.

Take the case of Christmas celebrations. At one time, the original religious element of this feast was displayed everywhere in public and private, though in parts of Puritan domains after the Reformation, including in New England, it was prohibited. But today, almost all religious signs of Christmas are forbidden in the public order and even increasingly in the private order. Saying “Merry Christmas” might “offend” someone, so is said. That the expulsion offends Christians is not seen to be a factor.

The issue about the killing around Charlie Hebo in Paris brought up the question of what could and could not be displayed in the press, either in humor or in satire. Connected with this incident is the issue of pornography displayed in public and on internet. Not everything can be displayed, not everything can be forbidden. Some want to display everything they like; others want to forbid everything that they do not like.

Increasingly, freedom of speech is replaced by “hate-speech” legislation that seeks to define what cannot be talked about. Canada has pioneered this sort of despotism. One cannot say that abortion or single-sex marriage is “wrong” or “evil”, when they are enforced constitutional “rights”. If we offend those who practice these “rights” we will be sued or shamed. Children are taught these new “rights” in school. Parents who object might be investigated or, eventually, their children will be taken away from them. The opposite is, increasingly, not so true. Christians are not free to state in public what Christianity is or maintains. It might offend someone or deny his “rights”.

The notions of God and Caesar, natural law and positive law, have practically disappeared. There is only Caesar and his laws. In the eyes of many who demand change, the Church itself appears to be confused on many of these issues. This uncertainty is how the controversies on the Synod come across to many observers.


What might we conclude from these considerations about public monuments and symbols? The eighth and ninth century heresy known as Iconoclasm, or the refusal to permit pictorial representations of holy figures, may also have had some Muslim origins in addition to Christian ones. The Church at the time saw this opposition to representation as a heresy, an act that Chesterton said saved all the statues and art in Europe. Iconoclasm implicitly denied the meaning of both the Creation and the Incarnation.

There seems always to be some theological, religious, or philosophical point behind all discussion of artistic or figurative representatives of things that appear in public and what they depict. We are caught between allowing what our religion advocates and philosophy permits and what others allow or do not allow. We have also the issue of whether some things ought not to be displayed in public, even if not wrong.

If we are alert, we note that on our streets, say, in Los Angeles, we might see side by side, a Catholic church, a Masonic temple, a Buddhist shrine, a skyscraper business office, a Baptist building, a grammar school, a mosque, an adult movie house, an abortion clinic, a karate gym, a Staples store, a branch of the city government, a branch of the state government, a branch of the federal government, a consulate of Mexico, a Japanese tea house, a police precinct, a Burger King, an environmental lobby, an office of the Los Angeles Times, a gay bar, and a branch of the UCLA medical school. The list could go on, and on. They say there are 224 different languages spoken in the homes of people in Los Angeles.

At first sight, the mere listing of these things is an argument for tolerance and diversity. But tolerance as tolerance precludes a careful look at the philosophy of what is tolerated. ISIS has so far not opened an office in Los Angeles, though it may well have individual operatives there. The first thing we need to know about someone is not what he looks like, but what he thinks and acts on. What we see behind the monument smashing that we observe every day is the rise of philosophies and religions that surmise that tolerance for tolerance sake is their path to power.

Once in power, only monuments that reflect the mind of the entity that wins will be allowed. What we need to be looking at today is precisely: “Who is winning?” The Iraqi army at Ramadi voted with their feet and fled before pick-up trucks. The “who wins” will decide what our public scene, with its buildings and monuments, will look like in our future. The architects who design them and the builders who build them, often after the destruction of old monuments and churches, will follow the general instruction about what alone is allowed to exist for us to see and do, or not do.

But, one might say, “Isn’t this mixture what we have now?” It is. But what we have now is rapidly changing because we do not really look at or understand the philosophies of what goes on inside of the real iconoclasts of our time. They are in the obscure shadows of a tolerance that, when in power, tolerates nothing but itself.

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About James V. Schall, S.J. 180 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019) taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of over thirty books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His of his last books included On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018) and The Politics of Heaven and Hell: Christian Themes from Classical, Medieval, and Modern Political Philosophy (Ignatius, 2020).