Secular Sainthood

10 Jun

If the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, then our spiritual icons must appear in ad space. In an America where people are less spiritual, and more ignorant of their own history, something has to take its place–therefore we have secular saints.

This is nothing new–in fact, there’s a term for it–“civil religion.” In a young country such as ourselves (and 300 years is pretty young), America had to invent a whole mythology and founding fathers to lionize and exalt. Since the best example of a working republic was Rome’s, our national buildings emulate Roman design consciously. Without a state church, we had to take away most of the direct religious connections, and appealed to unifying concepts (such as the Ten Commandments).

The recent change in our civil religion has been who we choose to venerate. Since we learned that our founding fathers were just flawed white men whose beliefs do not match our modern sensibilities, there has been a push to eliminate the old gods in favor of the new. In this case, Valley Metro in Phoenix has pushed to have a local artist create these beautiful pictures of 19 historical women to honor Women’s History Month.

Okay, let me get off my soapbox briefly to say, “These pictures are really good.” We should celebrate the founding mothers as well as the fathers. It was a little harder to be a big splash as a woman two hundred years ago, so our examples are far more recent. Now I’m going to take my fairness hat back off and ask, “Don’t these pictures look a LOT like Orthodox Christian icons?”

There’s a flower around their head (cough, cough… halo), one of them is holding an paint wheel like a cross or a book, and they all stare down at you like they owe you something. Like saints, these women are to be venerated; their lives are examples of how we should behave. Rosa Parks, Sally Ride, Harriet Tubman… women who broke traditional standards and succeeded. We made sure to throw in as many ethnicities as possible, regardless of how much it makes sense. For example, Jumko Tabei, the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Seriously? Or take Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American to graduate from an American school of nursing. Who cares! You could have used Elizabeth Blackwell, first female American doctor, but we already hit our limit of pale skinned women.

What I wonder is how long these new secular saints will last before they are replaced. How long will Madam C. J. Walker last as “the first Black woman millionaire in America” before her belief in self-reliance and her relationship with the wealthy overwhelm her ethnic status? How long will Judy Garland’s role as a gay icon last when people stop watching The Wizard of Oz? The problem with creating new gods is that they don’t have a tradition to support them when the next generation comes along. But maybe that’s the point–new gods for a new generation, nothing stable, everything politically correct? Maybe I’m being hyper-critical about a bunch of urban art. Let me know in the comments below! Then if you want some more ephemeral art, check out one of my books. However, if $1.99 is too expensive to support the arts, go ahead and download one of my stories for free. You’ll be glad you did.

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