The decision of the Asheville City Council to tear down the Vance Monument has left a bitter taste in certain mouths, some of which have gotten quite loud. Here’s a thought experiment that might help put things in perspective:
Long ago, let’s say 1897, the people of Buncombeville erected a 65-foot statue in the shape of a gigantic fish and dedicated it to “Jesus Christ: Savior. Healer. Orator. Rebel. Winemaker.”
At the time, most people thought the structure was an eye-pleasing reflection of community values. The theme was subtle, but everyone knew there was an important symbolic connection between religion and fish. But that, they said, wasn’t the main point. They just thought the sculpture looked cool, and they liked the guy in whose honor it was built. Pretty much everybody did, unless they belonged to a religious minority.
Some people thought the thing was kitsch, despite having been designed by a famous architect, and objected that the shape was so vague it was practically abstract art.
A few grumblers complained that religion should be a private matter, but, as one would expect, they kept that theory to themselves.
Decades later, the Supreme Court declared that the establishment clause applied to municipal governments under the 14th Amendment. Although people resented the idea of outsiders meddling in local affairs, and although they bristled at the implication that they had been doing something wrong all this time, and although they insisted that, in this modern era, folks had gotten so fed up with religious abuses that they no longer cared much about the sacred significance of the sculpture, and although they were deeply suspicious of political correctness in any form, a consensus eventually arose that something must be done about the Christ Monument.
Six members of the City Council wanted to tear down the fish and haul it away. They felt that the establishment of religion no longer represented the best values of the community, if it ever did, and it was time to make a clean break with the past.
One member proposed to deep-six the inscription but keep the stone structure standing and rename it “The Scales of Justice.” This approach, she said, would give the statue a secular purpose, free up the demolition money for more tangible needs and keep religious fanatics from taking revenge on the minority in the community who supported the Constitution.
That’s the end of the fable. Now it’s time for the moral, which you must work out for yourself.
Does the dissenting City Council member, well-meaning as she may be, go far enough in her efforts to cleanse an unacceptable religious taint from the public square? Does merely removing the reference to Jesus Christ really obliterate the association with the sacred that Buncombeville’s landmark has always had? Isn’t it worth spending a few bucks to make sure the job gets done right, once and for all?
And on whose counsel, moreover, should we rely for an answer? Shouldn’t we give some deference to the collective judgment of the elected representatives? After all, they must face the voters if they get the balance of interests wrong.
Why should we pay any attention to a handful of fishy enthusiasts on social media who have done an about-face, seemingly out of nowhere, and decided that the association of the statue with religion was always repugnant to them, but nonrepresentational art for art’s sake is still the bomb? I almost get the feeling that some of these converts secretly harbor sympathies for the old superstitions. What do you think?
Please keep your answers short and, if possible, respectful.
— Peter Robbins