A useful thought experiment for historians is to imagine the kinds of mistakes that someone writing from a different time and place could fall into when attempting to describe our society, particularly if they are already beginning with limited sources of information. This serves to open the historian to the possibility that, as an outsider writing with limited information, he is making equally egregious mistakes about past societies. An example I recently gave some of my students was to imagine what a time-traveling anthropologist from ancient Greece might write about the Lincoln Memorial. It would be obvious to him that the Lincoln Memorial is based on a Greek temple. This resemblance, though, could all too easily become a trap.
Abraham Lincoln came from humble origins. He gained the presidency out of nowhere without any significant political experience. He then held the nation together through a bloody civil war, only to die tragically soon after victory was won. In looking back at his achievements, it became clear to the American people that Lincoln was really a god who had come down in human form among them to preserve their nation in difficult times. As such, the American people built a temple in Lincoln's honor. Like most civilized temples, the Lincoln Memorial Temple consists of columns to allow for open space with a statue of the god looking out. Above the god's statue is a sign telling everyone that this is a temple. Every year, tens of thousands of Americans visit this shrine to pay homage to this god by reading selections of his speeches placed on the walls of the temple.
When I enquired about their god Lincoln, many Americans objected, finding the use of the term "god" offensive. Americans claim to practice monotheism, the worship of only one god. This position stops Americans from openly worshipping the variety of powers manifest in nature. As it is only natural, for people to worship the gods they see around them, Americans are forced to pretend to only worship their supreme god Jesus while labeling their other gods as founding fathers, saints, or celebrities. On top of this, Americans pretend that their politics are secular, divorced from the worship even of their Jesus god. As if it were possible to separate the actions of a government from the veneration of the gods. Why would anyone obey rulers who did not have the blessing of the gods?
To be clear, Americans do not place Lincoln on par with Jesus. That being said, both Lincoln and Jesus have their birthdays celebrated as national holidays. Lincoln has the advantage that he is a native god as opposed to Jesus who first arose among Middle Eastern Jews. Since the United States is a young country, there is a shortage of native gods to worship. As such, Americans are eager for gods of their own to replace the foreign gods that have been brought to their shores.
Recent years have seen the rise of a new cult of Wokism to challenge the traditional American gods. This new Woke cult has been driven by people who, until a few decades ago, were largely shut out of political life though receives much support from the children of the establishment. Since practitioners of this cult deny the validity of American political traditions and wish to replace them, it can only be expected that they also replace America's gods and their rites with new ones. Hence the Wokists have worked hard to replace Abraham Lincoln and other similar gods like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Christopher Columbus with the god Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a god they have imported from Cuba known as Che Guevara. This process has involved the ritual defacing of the statues of traditional gods. Anyone who doubts whether Americans really believe in the importance of venerating statues to the gods should ask themselves why the Wokists are so keen to eliminate the statues of America's gods and why traditionalists want to protect them. It is clear that if the Wokists succeed America's gods will abandon them and the traditionalists will have no choice but to accept the protection of the new Woke gods.
Laughter aside, it is hardly obvious why our Greek anthropologist is wrong in his interpretation of the Lincoln Memorial. I put it to readers to offer their own responses. As I see it, the primary weakness of our anthropologist is that he approaches American civics with categories and questions from ancient Greece. In his framework, great men naturally flow into minor gods worthy of veneration and divine worship is an extension of politics. An implication of the latter is that he does not think in terms of private religion unrelated to politics. As such, he cannot imagine any freedom of religion any more than most people are able to imagine the freedom to commit treason in the privacy of your own home.
In of itself, this is not a bad thing. Alexis de Tocqueville understood America through the lens of France with the implicit question of why was it that it was the American Revolution and not the French Revolution that succeeded. Tocqueville's outsider's perspective offered useful insights into American democracy. There is certainly a value in Americans being willing to question their willingness to craft neat categories of secular and religious, something that would not have been obvious to a pre-modern. For those without the privilege of talking to a time-traveling Greek anthropologist, the next best thing is reading what Greeks actually wrote about politics and religion.
The problem with our Greek anthropologist is that he is a little too insistent on his framework. When faced with the reality that Americans do not think in his terms, he is unable to ask the truly interesting question of why Americans think differently from him. Instead, he falls back on insisting that his framework is superior and that Americans simply do not understand how religion and politics function.
I am reminded of something that Prof. Peter Boettke told a class regarding James Buchanan. To make sense of Buchanan you need to understand how he was influenced by Frank Knight. Nancy Maclean came to Buchanan without this Knight context and simply filled in her blanks with critical theory, turning Buchanan into a segregation supporting, democracy hating white supremacist. Maclean's failure to understanding Buchanan is far more egregious than our Greek anthropologist's in regarding Abraham Lincoln. He does not make the mistake of claiming that Americans consciously conspire to cover up their polytheism.
Analyzing people who think in different frameworks is a major challenge for historians, anthropologists, and anyone else in the social sciences as such people are, almost by definition, academics and most people are not. Someone becomes a historian not just because it seems like a nice job but because they think differently from other people. This means that a historian is a double outsider. Not only does he study people who think differently because they are from a different time and place; he is also presumably studying normal non-academic people. For someone on the autism spectrum like me, there is a third level of outsiderness in that most people are neurotypicals. The fact that I naturally think in terms of clearly defined consistent rules may make me a better historian but it only further alienates me from neurotypicals who can be defined precisely by their disinclination to operate under such rules. Yes, I like to believe that I can offer valuable insights into how human societies function but it will always be as an outsider.