Which Californian represents the state’s splendor and greatness most appropriately; the Catholic saint who founded nine settlements that grew into major cities or a recently deceased astronaut who completed two missions on the space shuttle?
Does the answer change because the astronaut in question – Sally Ride– happened to be female and gay?
Apparently it does, because the California legislature is working to remove an 85-year-old statue of Father Junipero Serra from its place of honor in the Capitol building and to replace it with a newly-commissioned image of Dr. Ride in her space suit.
In Statuary Hall, the original site of the House of Representatives Chamber, each state has been invited since 1864 to place two sculptures representing the most notable figures in that state’s history. For instance, Virginia long ago selected George Washington and Robert E. Lee (Jefferson and Madison might quibble, but never mind). Oklahoma chose the Native American leader Sequoyah and pop-culture philosopher Will Rogers.
At the moment, Ronald Reagan and Junipero Serra represent the Golden State. Reagan replaced the Civil War era Unitarian Minister and pro-Union activist Thomas Starr King in 2009. Father Serra has occupied his place of honor since 1931 – and with good reason. Between 1769 and 1782, the Franciscan friar overcame his own physical infirmities and overwhelming obstacles of every sort to establish the mission system that shaped the early identity of the then-Spanish province. The nine missions he personally founded, by walking from today’s Mexican border all the way to San Francisco despite a crippled leg, organized the agricultural economy of the area while converting thousands of local Indians to Christianity. Serra also used his immense influence to protect local tribes from rapacious Spanish governors and soldiers, learned Native languages to translate the Bible and other religious texts, and left a record of such unselfish, generous and devout behavior that Pope Francis has announced plans to officially canonize him as a Saint during the Holy Father’s upcoming visit to the United States.
In fact, the California legislature seems perversely determined to authorize removal of Serra’s image from Statuary Hall just in time to undermine the planned ceremony and celebration.
Two reasons immediately suggest themselves — both stemming from the virus of political correctness that has so catastrophically infected the Golden State.
First, Serra (despite his looming status as Saint Junipero) has become controversial to progressives because his prodigious work as a missionary served to introduce literacy, the wheel, agriculture, clothing, metals and other rudiments of civilization to the local natives in Alta California, thereby dooming their stone age indigenous cultures.
Second, there’s the matter of Sally Ride’s gender and sexual orientation. State Senator Ricardo Lara, the openly gay legislator who introduced the resolution to authorize the statue switch, proudly declared: “Sally Ride will be the first woman to represent California and the first person to represent the L.G.B.T. community in the Capitol. It’s about modernizing our heroes.”
Never mind the fact that Dr. Ride, a Stanford-educated physicist before she worked for NASA, fiercely guarded all details of her private life and only authorized publicity for her long-term lesbian relationship after her death in 2012. Republicans in the legislature nonetheless joined Senator Lara in promoting the canonization of Saint Sally to trump the planned canonization of Saint Junipero. GOP solon Ted Gaines told the New York Times: “It shouldn’t matter what someone’s sexual orientation is. Let’s strive for exceptionalism. Sally Ride clearly exemplifies that.”
Objecting to this line of thinking should involve no disrespect to the memory of Dr. Ride who, by all accounts, performed her astronaut duties with competence and dedication, and devoted her last years to useful efforts for promoting science education in the schools. And Senator Gaines is clearly correct when he insists that “it shouldn’t matter what someone’s sexual orientation is.”
But is it even vaguely conceivable that the drive to swap statues would sail through the legislature with no opposition – from either Democrats or Republicans – if Dr. Ride had remained married to the male astronaut (Dr. Stephen Hawley) to whom she was wed for five years before finding happiness in a twenty-five year relationship with another woman? Isn’t it obvious that the chief motivation for the clearly unstoppable drive to replace the indomitable, eighteenth century friar with the space shuttle veteran is to break ground by installing a gay icon in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall?
As is often the case, you can trace the blame back to Congress, which voted in 2003 to allow states to pull the switcheroo, replacing yesterday’s tarnished or obscure heroes with more trendy role models. To date, seven states have taken advantage of the opportunity. Over only mild objections, California previously replaced the nearly-anonymous Thomas Starr King with the ever-popular President Reagan. Alabama also drew nationwide support by honoring the inspiring memory of Helen Keller, in place of a former Confederate officer and advocate for public education, Jabez Curry. Ohio currently means to honor Buckeye-born inventor Thomas Edison by providing his statue in place of William Allen, an all-but-forgotten Democratic politician who served two years as governor in the 1870’s.
Father Serra, on the other hand, is hardly forgotten: he will arguably enjoy his greatest fame this September when he is recognized and venerated worldwide as a Saint. The legislative stampede to remove his image in favor of a fashionable, politically correct but inarguably minor figure from our recent pop culture suggests that California’s current problems run far deeper than the drought.