For most of the last century, Americans — and especially religious Americans — have been expressing concern about who is a hero in America. Religious Americans today are particularly distressed about celebrity culture and the inclination of their children to find something heroic in the antics of Lady Gaga or whoever else may be the latest focus of celebrity gossip. A number of weighty theories have developed about the meaning of America’s celebrity obsession; some claim that celebrities have been deified by young people who lack a moral center and that celebrity worship has become a substitute for traditional religion. I offer three thoughts on the subject of American heroes.
First, young Americans do not worship celebrities. They do not see Lady Gaga, Lindsey Lohan and Charlie Sheen as worthy of emulation or sources of inspiration. They love celebrities and the gossip surrounding them but mostly as a source of entertainment and distraction. Of course, celebrity status is inflated today because of our media-saturated culture; we can learn more details, engage in more gossip, and be endlessly titillated by inside stories and frank language. Nonetheless, young people are fully aware that most celebrity lives are devoid of real purpose or value. And even for the young, their interest has a strong element of schadenfreude: They watch the rise of celebrities, knowing that in most cases the rise will be followed quickly by a fall. Indeed, if young people have a problem, it is not that celebrities are their heroes; it is that they have no heroes at all.
Second, when it comes to heroes, parents have hardly set a good example. Even when they recognize authentic heroes, they seem unable to remember them and honor them in an appropriate way. The 9/11 First Responders are the most recent example. At a defining moment in our country’s history, these Americans responded with great devotion, love of country, and physical courage to guarantee the safety and security of their fellow citizens. And yet, a decade later, with many suffering and dying of disease, they were brushed aside by a political establishment that had acclaimed their actions and sang their praises. If it had not been for the intervention of John Stewart — a comedian — it is likely that these heroes would have been ignored and forgotten. I am not certain that this is a matter of American self-absorption, but it is certainly indicative of fleeting attention spans and an absence of moral seriousness.
Third, in a world devoid of heroes, religious Americans have a special responsibility to offer the young examples of heroes with whom they can identify and who inspire personal transformation. We have a ready source of such heroes in our religious texts, and especially the Bible. There we find accounts of spiritual heroes, moral heroes and military heroes, who can serve as an example to the young and who offer practical values that enrich their lives. In my own classes, I often focus on lesser known Biblical characters, because the young like to find their inspiration in unconventional places. As one example, I ask them to consider the case of Pharoah’s daughter. This young woman is given no name in the Biblical account and appears in only a few verses in the early sections of the Exodus story (Exodus 2:5-10). Why is she a hero? There are multiple reasons, as young people quickly point out. Because in a heartless society she demonstrated compassion toward an abandoned child. Because she defied the cruel edicts of an absolute ruler who had called for the murder of innocent children. Because she was courageous — adopting a child, after all, was a demonstrative public act, certain to infuriate Egyptian rulers. Because in saving the child she was defying not only the authorities but her own father — a sensitive and difficult point, but an important one. Because in rebelling against the apparatus of the Egyptian state, she was rejecting the privileges of her own class and siding with an oppressed minority. Did this nameless heroine make a difference? Well, yes. She changed the course of history.
Lady Gaga is bizarre and interesting, and celebrity figures are a wonderful diversion. Nonetheless, true heroes, such as this brave daughter of an ancient ruler, are in a different moral category. A society without heroes is a society in moral peril, and our children are hungry for role models who can give their life purpose. Turning to our ancient texts and traditions, religious Americans need to fill the vacuum.