Let’s talk about West Virginia. I don’t want to make fun of West Virginia, as that area has suffered enough from history and various conditions that it would be unjust to add to it my own abuse of the people and the area. What is important to note is that West Virginia has suffered and continues to suffer. Who exactly is to blame for that suffering is not the point of the present discussion. Between 1959 and his death in 2010, a man named Robert Byrd served as Senator for the state of West Virginia. Now, there is little evidence that the actual state of West Virginia and its people benefitted from his supposed largesse due to a position on the important committee for appropriations. West Virginia was a poor and peripheral area of the United States in 1959 and has remained so since 2010. What has changed is that thanks to decades of misrule in Congress, there are a lot of things in West Virginia named after Robert Byrd that were not there before. The implication appears to be that the nice things that people in West Virginia have, they have not as a result of their own efforts or of the (perhaps unwilling) generosity of the taxpayers of other states, but due to the generosity of one Robert Byrd himself. If one does not expect to see a lot of things in other states named after Robert Byrd, it little surprises us that so much within the state is named after him, however lamentable that is.
This is by no means a phenomenon that is limited to West Virginia. If one goes to the ancient world, one will see many examples of ancient cities that are named or were named after powerful rulers who wished to leave their mark on their territory. Just as we see buildings and schools and roads and so on named after Robert Byrd, despite the fact that it was not his money–but rather the public money–that went into those things, so it was in the ancient world that cities were named after the various rulers of the Hellenistic era in the Eastern Mediterranean, so much so that one has to specify which Antioch or Laodicea or Caesarea one means for it to be clear. It was the case too that these rulers, who often viewed themselves as divine, viewed themselves as benefactors when it was others who were the source of the largess that they placed on various cities and other establishments. As it is written in Matthew 20:25-28: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”” As is often the case, what has often appeared to some to be progress, in terms of powerful political leaders who gain and hold office by the spoils they return to their home territories, is merely a return to pre-constitutional and tyrannical forms of government where popularity was obtained by spoils, rather than genuine service of the well-being of those one led.
Wherever we see people fight to protect turf, we can be pretty sure that some sort of false system of worship is going on. Most of us are familiar with patron saints with clearly defined domains, and many of us have played polytheistic games which had deities which focused on different domains and territories and peoples as well. Many people have seen ball courts where sporting events were viewed to be be tests of the strength of various tribal gods in ancient Mesoamerica, or various stadiums around the world where sporting events signal the supremacy of one nation over another in soccer or one city over another in national and regional sports leagues. Whether one is a bureaucrat in some agency that seeks to protect its turf and acquiring as much power as possible over a region or a sports fan in a home stadium cheering on one’s team, the idea of protecting and defending one’s turf is pretty commonly understood in a realm of competing powers that seek dominance in a world where common standards and authority is often lacking.
One of the hallmarks of polytheism is the lack of a uniform set of standards and authority. When various powers are viewed as being in competition with each other for supremacy, one is dealing with a realm where various people, groups, areas, and institutions are seeking to carve out space for themselves where they are not subject to a higher authority while at the same time seeking to enforce their authority over others. So it was that space and time are carved up into different periods, so that the first month of the year is devoted to the two-faced Janus, or the seventh day of the week is assigned to the gloomy Saturn. It is not that we are doing these things ourselves, or that we created this sort of rivalry that means that someone from Pittsburgh is not going to be welcome around a fan of the Seahawks because of memories of Super Bowls past, but we are certainly influenced by the concepts of rivalry and unstable divisions of authority that result from the competition that exists between petty authorities that demand others bend to their will even as they seek to rebel against higher authorities that would reign in their chaos and confusion and bring them in check. We may live in a world that is and has been formally monotheistic for some time, but our institutions and behavior remind us that polytheism is a continual threat that must be addressed over and over again in every generation. It might be said, somewhat charitably, that we are not doing a very good job at dealing with it at present.