The Return of the Hero

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Friday, February 27, 2009

The Return of the Hero

The Harris Poll asked a cross-section of American adults a simple enough question:  who do you admire enough to call them your hero?  Those surveyed were not shown or read a list of people from which to choose; the heroes were named spontaneously.


Here’s the top ten:


1.         Barack Obama

2.         Jesus Christ

3.         Martin Luther King, Jr.

4.         Ronald Reagan

5.         George W. Bush

6.         Abraham Lincoln

7.         John McCain

8.         John F. Kennedy

9.         Chesley Sullenberger

10.       Mother Teresa


Rounding out the top twenty (in order):  God, Hillary Clinton, Billy Graham, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Colin Powell, George Washington, Bill Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Palin, General George S. Patton, and Bill Gates.


The survey was last conducted in 2001, and in that survey Jesus Christ was the hero mentioned most often, followed by Martin Luther King, Colin Powell, John F. Kennedy and Mother Teresa.  Beyond Barack Obama, the biggest changes “upwards” to the top ten figures are George W. Bush, who came in at a modest 19th in 2001 (he had been president for six months); John McCain, who was not even in the top twenty; and Chesley Sullenberger, who along with Obama, was unknown to the wider public at the time.


And who fell?


Colin Powell dropped from number 3 to 16; John Wayne (8th) and Michael Jordan (9th) dropped out of the top twenty altogether.


The list will surely prove to be fodder for many blogs, and some critical observations will surely be made:  Barack over Jesus?  In a year or two, will Chesley Sullenberger be recalled to memory?  And regardless of political persuasion, Bush over Lincoln?


But I found the list heartening.  There was no sign that the “celebrification of culture” had so taken root that the listing was filled with sports and music icons, or worse, Brittany or Paris.  Perhaps this time of national angst is driving us to differentiate between a celebrity and a hero. 


This was evidenced by the follow-up question, “What makes a hero?”  The traits mentioned most often:


*”Doing what’s right regardless of personal consequences” (89%).

*”Not giving up until the goal is accomplished” (83%).

*”Doing more than what other people expect of them” (82%).

“”Overcoming adversity” (81%), and

*”Staying level-headed in a crisis (81%).


Such answers are no small thing.


In his seminal study The Image, Daniel J. Boorstin differentiated between a celebrity and a hero.  He suggested that the celebrity is a person who is “well-known for his well-knownness” (or as his quip is often paraphrased, “a celebrity is someone famous for being famous.”).  The celebrity is the “human pseudo-event.”  This is vastly different than the “hero,” who used to fill the role of the modern celebrity.  “The hero was distinguished by his achievement; the celebrity by his image or trademark,” writes Boorstin.  “The hero created himself; the celebrity is created by the media.  The hero was a big man; the celebrity is a big name.” 


Make what you will of the list, but applaud the real headline: 


Here are no big names, but big people.


James Emery White





For a .pdf file of the poll and its results:


Daniel J. Boorstin, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America.

The Return of the Hero