When it comes to their claim to heroism, King’s and Kyle’s religious faith matters because it reminds us to curb our political enthusiasm for hero-worship. Their Christianity fueled their respective types of greatness—but, even more, it restrained them in ways that are hard to detect from the standpoint of politics. They did not idolize mere mortals, and they did not seek to be idolized. King mobilized masses. Kyle chose whether his targets lived or died. Neither mistook themselves for gods.
In our political culture, that achievement counts for too little. Our culture war demands that we worship our team’s heroes. Linger too long on their imperfections, agonies, and failures, and you’re accused of being an enemy agent. As if the harder we worshipped our heroes, the more that we injured our foes. That’s not the way politics—or greatness—works.
It’s a hard lesson: Every time we try to use politics to satisfy our longing for unity, we’re let down—often bitterly, sometimes disastrously. Not even the most charismatic and inclusive of team heroes can mystically unite all Americans. Not even their martyrdom can do that. After a moment of intense fellow feeling, reality reasserts itself, and team identity along with it.