Columns Opinion Tara Isabella Burton: Religion Remixed

Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities

The “Oscar Wilde Temple,” by artists Peter McGough and David McDermott, is currently an exhibit at Studio Voltaire, which is in a converted Victorian chapel in London. Photo by Francis Ware, courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire

(RNS) — On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition. (The Holy Christian Orthodox Church, a relatively new denomination not affiliated with the global Orthodox church, has made him a saint.)

But his inclusion on the list of “saints,” however informally, at my otherwise extremely traditional Episcopalian church speaks to a wider trend in both religious and secular spaces alike: the proliferation of “secular saints.” These are people whose lives, ideals and – at times – martyrdoms have made them into ideological and spiritual leaders and models, reflections of lives we wish to live, or wish to be able to live.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks at an interfaith civil rights rally at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on June 30, 1964. Photo by George Conklin/Creative Commons

An ordained Baptist pastor, King is perhaps the most widespread example of secular sainthood: one who easily traverses the apparent secular/sacred. His quasi-sainthood has often been celebrated in Christian spaces since his death. Consider the website of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church, a social-justice-focused progressive church in Brooklyn, N.Y., which depicts King in the iconographic pose of a Byzantine saint.

But plenty of other figures have achieved similar stature wholly outside the Christian context. Oscar Wilde, for example, has become the de facto patron saint of the LGBTQ community. Nowhere is this connection more apparent than at the “Oscar Wilde Temple” – currently in residence in London – a mobile art installation by artists David McDermott and Peter McGough.

There, in a makeshift chapel saturated with Catholic imagery, Wilde’s arrest on charges of “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexuality) and his subsequent trial and imprisonment are depicted in paintings echoing that of a saint’s martyrdom, or of the stations of Christ’s cross. Images of contemporary LGBTQ martyrs, such as Harvey Milk – the first openly gay elected official in California, who was assassinated in 1978 – line the walls.

The “Oscar Wilde Temple,” by artists Peter McGough and David McDermott, is currently an exhibit at Studio Voltaire, which is in a converted Victorian chapel in London. Photo by Francis Ware, courtesy of the artists and Studio Voltaire

Visitors are encouraged to reflect on the meaning of Wilde’s life and work, as well as on his significance as a symbol of queer resistance. The space is even available for rent for gatherings – memorial services, say, or queer weddings.

If Wilde doesn’t speak to you, there are plenty more “secular saints” to choose from. The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, a company that sells memorabilia of historic intellectuals, from finger puppets of Wilde to Friedrich Nietzsche plush toys to tins of “Enlighten-mints,” stakes a claim for secular canonizations. The company sells a raft of “secular saint” votive candles, from Frida Kahlo to John Lennon to Harriet Tubman, resembling those used on altars in neo-pagan and Catholic folk traditions.

If you’re looking for more politically loaded saints, the online handcraft marketplace Etsy has plenty of sellers hawking “progressive saint” candles depicting St. Barack Obama, St. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Robert Mueller and even “Notorious” Ruth Bader Ginsburg, heralded as the “angel of everlasting dissent.”

Not everyone buying these candles intends to formally venerate their chosen icon the way, say, a Catholic worshipper might venerate a saint. But plenty do.

A writer and sex worker I interviewed for my upcoming book told me of the prevalence of folk magic rituals among sex workers she knew, many of whom choose to make candles devoted to, say, Anna Nicole Smith or Aileen Wuornos, on their altars in the hopes of gaining prosperity and protection. On a typical day, my source told me, she might place coins in front of Smith, whom she sees as a symbol of feminine power, to ensure a steady stream of clients.

Official congressional photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic representative from New York. Photo by Franmarie Metzler/U.S. House Office of Photography/Creative Commons

For members of marginalized communities in particular, figures like King or Wilde or Smith take on spiritual significance. They are not just inspirations but conduits or what in the church are called intercessors: figures who understand their supplicants’ personal needs and convey them to the higher power. Lighting a candle to, say, Ocasio-Cortez or Mueller might direct energy toward a specific, measurable end such as the indictment of Donald Trump. In this way, the “folk saints” of the marginalized become religious as well as political figures.

That, of course, is nothing new. Even within, say, the Catholic tradition, folk saints have long coexisted alongside the formally canonized, offering solace and miracles to those on the margins of society.

The folk character “Gauchito Gil,” an Argentine cowboy known for his work on behalf of the poor, appears on many Argentine Catholics’ altars. Likewise in Mexico for Santa Muerte, that country’s “lady of holy death,” whose cult is particularly widespread among the poor and those involved in crime – including sex work and drug trafficking.

Fan culture – with its vicious debates over “canon,” its obsession with relics and totems and its identity-forming reverence of its subjects – has always had much in common with religious fervor. From the devotees who make “pilgrimages” to Elvis’ Graceland or to the grave of The Doors’ Jim Morrison in Paris, fandom is a source of community, ritual and meaning.

Secular sainthood is ever-broadening to include celebrities and politicians alongside activists and folk heroes. Our public figures embody a modern sense of piety and self-sacrifice every bit as much as the ancient saints did for their times. A Martin Luther King Jr., Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez or Anna Nicole Smith may also carry many Americans’ desire for a radical reframing of our collective values. As a result we’re more willing than ever to blur the lines between “public figure” and “religious icon.”

About the author

Tara Isabella Burton

Burton, who received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University, is at work on a book about the rise of the religiously unaffiliated in America, to be published in November 2020 by Public Affairs. Her novel, “Social Creature,” was published in June 2018.

29 Comments

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  • “But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ” No need to pray for King. He is already dead and Christ has decided his fate.
    Also, all Christians are saints.
    “Oscar Wilde, for example, has become the de facto patron saint of the LGBTQ community. ” Oscar Wilde is not in Heaven.
    “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11English Standard Version (ESV)
    Christ does not send “saints” to Hell.
    “If Wilde doesn’t speak to you, there are plenty more “secular saints” to choose from.” “Secular saints” is an oxymoron. Christians are saints.
    “its obsession with relics and totems ” A Totem pole is not worshipped. It lists the clans on an indian reserve

  • The Episcopal Church does not have a process for canonization of saints.

    It includes events and individuals on its calendars from the Revised Common Lectionary – which it shares with other liturgical churches in the Western tradition, Lesser Feasts & Fasts, Great Cloud of Witnesses, and Holy Women, Holy Men. Martin L. King shows up on April 4, in the last three publications:

    https://www.episcopalchurch.org/lectionary-calendar/2019-04

    https://www.episcopalchurch.org/lectionary/martin-luther-king-jr-civil-rights-leader-and-martyr-1968-0

    These are “commemorations”, not canonizations, of individuals whose witness exemplifies one or more worthy characteristics of a Christian life.

    “Lesser Feasts and Fasts, 2006” was approved by the General Convention. “Holy Women, Holy Men, 2009” was not given final approval at the General Convention of 2012. “A Great Cloud of Witnesses, 2015” incorporated much of Holy Women, Holy Men, and as revised into “Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2018” is authorized for trial use.

    The risk, of course, is that the experience of the Church of the Madonna della Difesa in Little Italy in Montreal, Quebec, Canada will be repeated.

    One its frescos – completed by Guido Nincheri in 1933 – includes a depiction of Benito Mussolini commemorating his signing of the Lateran Accords.

    https://astorytellinghome.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/italiancanadianww2-ca.jpg

    Ooops.

  • In the early centuries of Christianity, saints were declared by popular acclaim. There was no formal canonization process until the middle ages. All things considered, that strikes me as a healthier way to go about adopting heroes of the faith than the current official system within Roman Catholicism.

    I especially dislike the recent trend of rushing candidates through so soon after their deaths, especially popes. It can’t help but politicize the process that much more. Sainthood seems to be becoming a posthumous papal job benefit.

  • Do you rule out the possibility of repentance? Only God knows who is saved and who is condemned. We don’t.

  • Very true, and they have until they die to repent. Had he not repented he would be condemned for eternity. We can hope you are correct.

  • In my writing, I frequently refer to two of my three patron saints, both Oscars: St. Oscar Wilde and St. Oscar Levant. My third patron saint is St. Sebastian— not the old monk, but the one known by some people as the Fair Athlete of Christ— the patron saint of gay men everywhere. We usually drop the “of Christ” part.

  • Sandi does. Her type of Christian is always privy to the mind of god, and knows exactly the status of his relationship with everyone on the planet. It’s what makes them special.

  • Ben does. His kind of – whatever – is always privy to minds of other commenters, knows exactly what is on their minds, why they say what they say, and dispenses with any thought they might be right. It’s what makes him intolerable.

  • Judgments of actions, not the state of people`s souls. Christian charity, recognition of Christ in all, treating others as we wish to be treated — these things are all of a piece for the true follower of Christ.

    They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our arrogance. And certainly not by judgmentalness.

  • It depends on what religion you are in, and within a religion what denomination or sect you are in.

    There are plenty of Christians who disagree with you, and you tackled one of them with Sandi.

    Cardinal Dolan illustrates what happens when you carry “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our arrogance.” too far.

  • All that sounds like a rationalization for unkindness, which any honest reading of the Gospel won’t include, but I do concede that that fact doesn’t deter some who profess to be Christian.

  • That’s a bit too light and fluffy for an interpretation of any Gospel and tough to square with Matthew 18:15-17, 1 Corinthians 5:1-6, 1 Corinthians 5:2, and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13.

    It’s especially difficult to absorb when it includes some not particularly subtle unkindness towards “some who profess to be Christian”.

  • If you think you know better, you are doing the same thin without evidence, but that really never mattered before for you; did it?

  • Sometimes “love” includes telling them the consequences of their actions, Rock. If you are not doing that, you are lying to them in Christ’s name

  • The issue isn’t what one tells others but how one says it. I think you understand that.

    In all things, charity.

  • The issue is what one tells others, not how one says it.

    “Be nice.” is not a fundamental Christian mandate, nor is “Don’t be unpleasant.”

    In Sandi’s tradition “Are you saved?” is a fair question, and the answer has to do with belief in Jesus Christ, as through no one else can anyone be saved. And therefore in that tradition “Oscar Wilde is not in Heaven.” would not raise an eyebrow.

    Now, you may belong to another tradition which interprets something like “Outside the Church there is no salvation.” – which is a Catholic article of belief – somewhat differently, and allows that folks who do not profess a belief in or even know Jesus Christ can be saved by implicit membership in the Church. It would be fair to point that out.

    “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, not by our arrogance. And certainly not by judgmentalness.” does not communicate that.

    In fact it appeared to communicate arrogance and judgementalism.

    “You’re not God.” didn’t mitigate it.

    So, perhaps some clarification is in order.

  • Okay, your point is not without merit. I really don’t enjoy snarkiness, though I do succumb from time to time, so I’ll bow out here.

  • All Christians dead or alive are saints. The dead saints cannot hear your prayers and they have made it into heaven. It is pointless to pray for them. Otherwise, they would not be a saint.

    The title “Saint” is only an honorary term for a person who has died and presumably made it to heaven. We do not know who has made it to heaven. We can state that a person has done some great thing or things while on Earth and therefore warrants remembrance and perhaps the use of the title “Saint”. Anything else borders on idolatry.

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