|Starr King in the Capitol, before eviction.|
Note: A different version of this entry first appeared in the blog on June 8, 2009 under the title Reagan is In, Starr King is Out in Capitol Musical Pedestals.
Today is the birthday of a genuine Unitarian and Universalist hero, Thomas Starr King, born on December 17, 1824 in New York City.
It was sad when King demoted from his place as one of California’s icons in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in 2009. He was replaced by another transplant to the state—King was a New Yorker—Illinois’ own Ronald Reagan.
Reagan, the highest saint in the pantheon of conservative Republicans, is not bereft of memorials. Even before he died Congressional Republicans announced a drive to have something major named for the Gipper in every Congressional District. They may not have succeeded, but they came damned close. Across the country airports, highways, bridges, schools of all levels, parks, libraries, and museums now carry his name—and that’s in addition to an aircraft carrier and a Congressional office building. Some were new, but many other were already in existence, and many were previously named for local notables. Starr King is hardly the only one elbowed aside by GOP school boy adulation.
Perhaps the Republicans were also particularly gleeful that a Unitarian got the hook. Modern UU’s, with our advocacy for same sex marriage, support of abortion rights, a propensity to always be loudly protesting something that the Religious Right holds dear, and our harboring of atheists and pagans are loathed by the GOP “base.” A few years ago a Rockford, Illinois conservative think tank said something like, “pick the scab off of any social abomination and the puss that oozes out is Unitarian.”
They probably didn’t care that Starr King himself was a loyal Republican who carried the state in 1860 for Abraham Lincoln and who worked tirelessly to elect at Republican legislature to prevent Democrats from swinging the state to the Confederacy. His barnstorming speaking tour of the Golden State and legendary eloquence was credited by no less than Winfield Scott, Commanding General of the Army, with “Saving California for the Union,” a sentiment echoed in the Eastern press.
That was no small thing. Although California was too far from the main theaters of the Civil War to provide many troops for the blood soaked battlefields in the East, the wealth of its gold mines was largely the economic engine that kept the Union afloat.
Neither did the religious zealots who dominate the modern Republican Party seem to know or care that Reagan was maybe the least religious and most secular of Twentieth Century Presidents. Even Richard Nixon could at least claim a Quaker upbringing and famously forced Henry Kissinger, a secular Jew, to kneel with him in prayer. Only another Republican icon, Dwight Eisenhower, came as close to total indifference to religion as Regan.
I don’t want to begrudge Regan the honor. But it is interesting that Illinois never thus enshrined Lincoln. Our state is represented by the justifiably obscure James Shields, a forgotten politician and sometime soldier, and Frances E. Willard, founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. New York never elevated either of the Presidential Roosevelts, both of whom are commonly listed as among the top five best occupants of the White House. The Empire State is represented by members of two of the state’s early political family dynasties—George Clinton, the State’s first Governor and Jefferson’s Vice President, and Robert R. Livingston, a lesser Founding Father who served with Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin on the committee to draft the Declaration of Independence (although he is unknown to have contributed even a comma to the document.)
Anyway, Starr King was not left without honor. His statue will was relocated to a place of honor on the grounds of the California State Capitol in Sacramento. Maybe busloads of students on class field trips will pause before it to learn of his distinguished career—that is assuming bankrupt California still has public schools and busses. He is also commemorated by two—count them two—mountains, one in New Hampshire and a more significant peak in the Sierra Nevada range. Another statue adorns San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.
Unitarian Universalism’s West Coast seminary, Starr King School for the Ministry honors him as well.
Modern UU’s are apt to remember Starr King most for an oft quoted, and oft paraphrased, bon mot. The young preacher, who served both Universalist and Unitarian congregations, famously observed, “Universalists believe that God is too good to damn them. Unitarians believe that they are too good for God to damn.”