NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T he vandals in St. Louis have a new target: St. Louis.
The American city began as a French settlement in Spanish Louisiana. The French fur traders who set up shop there named it for Louis IX, the sainted French king whose Christian zeal and personal integrity caused him to be regarded by his contemporaries and many who came after as an ideal monarch. But the saints are fallen creatures like the rest of us, and Louis IX had pretty ugly attitudes about Jews and Muslims, along with the usual assortment of human failings. And so there is an effort under way to knock down the statues of St. Louis and — naturally enough — to change the name of the city.
This is an excellent idea. Having St. Louis’s name on the city is an intolerable wrong, and it should be corrected.
The city named for him became part of the French possessions in the New World in 1800 and then came under U.S. sovereignty with the Louisiana Purchase. St. Louis once was famous as “the gateway to the West,” an important commercial center on the Mississippi River, the young nation’s most important commercial waterway. At its apex, it was one of the most important American cities. In 1904, it both hosted the World’s Fair and became the first city outside of Europe to host the summer Olympics.
In 1950, St. Louis was the eighth-largest city in the country, more populous than Boston or Washington. Today, it is the 65th-largest U.S. city, with fewer residents than the Dallas suburb of Arlington or the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson. It has the highest homicide rate of any major American city: At 66 homicides per 100,000 residents, it is almost twice as murderous as Detroit, more than three times as homicidal as Philadelphia, and 25 times as dangerous as Austin. Its high-school dropout rate is twice New York City’s (New York City cannot boast of a particularly low rate itself), and in some schools nearly half the students fail to graduate.
It’s a good thing St. Louis has never really done much to acknowledge the life and career of its greatest man of letters, T. S. Eliot. If St. Louis himself today is too much for St. Louis, then Eliot will have to go, too: Like the French king, the American poet had some dreadful views about Jews, but, unlike Louis IX, Eliot did not live in the time of the Crusades — he lived into the age of Beatlemania and civil-rights legislation.
But there is a bigger offender than St. Louis on the American urban scene. I give you New York, the city and the state, both named in honor of the Duke of York, later King James II, who could be a pretty nasty piece of work. Why should my Presbyterian friends be forced to endure the fact that our greatest city is named for a tyrant who proposed to be harder on Scottish Protestant dissidents than Louis IX ever thought about being on Jews or Muslims?
St Louis has to go, and so does New York. The city should revert to New Amsterdam.
More broadly, why should any of our non-Christian friends and neighbors be obliged to endure all these Christian names that we have sprinkled from sea to shining sea? The phrase “wall of separation” between church and state appears nowhere in our Constitution (and neither does the concept), but I am reliably informed by my evangelical atheist friends that decency and good government require such a wall, that any public acknowledgement of any religious specificity constitutes an endorsement, and that this is oppression. We must make amends.
And so, to extend the logic of St. Louis, we must say goodbye to Los Angeles and Philadelphia (Billy Penn’s religious insinuations cannot be camouflaged in Greek!), to San Antonio, Albany, San Diego, and San Jose, to Charlotte and to San Francisco, St. Cloud, Sault Ste. Marie, Carlsbad, Mission Viejo, Sacramento, Santa Ana, Corpus Christi, Berkeley, Saint Paul, St. Petersburg, Santa Monica, San Bernardino, Santa Clarita, Port St. Lucie, Providence, Santa Fe, Santa Rosa, Charleston, Santa Clara, Bryce Canyon, Joshua Tree, Kings Canyon (Rio de los Santos Reyes), the San Fernando Valley, Clovis, Eden Prairie, Princeton, Saint Augustine, Santa Maria, St. Joseph, San Juan, Las Cruces, Carmel, San Angelo . . . And let’s not forget all those names plucked straight from the Bible: Antioch, Bethany, Bethel, Bethesda, Bethlehem, New Canaan, Corinth, Goshen, Hebron, Jordan, Lebanon, Mount Hermon, Moab, Nazareth, Palestine, Salem, Shiloh, Smyrna . . . Goodbye, Zion National Park.
Goodbye, Virginia. Goodbye, North Carolina and South Carolina. Goodbye, Louisiana. Goodbye, Saint Thomas and the rest of the Virgin Islands. Goodbye, Guadalupe River, Guadalupe Street, Guadalupe Peak, Guadalupe Mountains. Goodbye, Ignacio Valley Preserve and Mount of the Holy Cross. Of course, the counties have to go, too: Christian County, Ill., Christian County, Ky., Christian County, Mo., La Paz County, Santa Cruz County, Guadalupe County, Los Angeles County, Hidalgo County, San Augustine County, San Jacinto County, San Patricio County, San Saba County. . . . There are too many to list here.
This is going to take some time.
We will have to pick some new names, too. I suppose we could ignore the religious stuff and simply name everything after great figures from history, except for Andrew Jackson (Goodbye, Jacksonville! Goodbye, Jackson!) and Christopher Columbus (Goodbye, Columbus! Goodbye, Columbia!), and such imperfect men as Jefferson, Washington, Raleigh, Lincoln, Pitt . . . I don’t think Foxborough will pass muster, as much as I admire its namesake. Neither will my hometown of Lubbock, Texas, or other Texas cities: There is plenty to criticize about Houston, Travis, and Austin. Even Deaf Smith could be a bit of a brute.
Texas will have its work cut out for it. But let’s start in Missouri.
Given all the murder and ignorance and such, it is difficult to imagine that St. Louis’s namesake tops the list of St. Louis’s problems. But that relationship surely tops the list of Louis IX’s problems. Like Jack Kennedy and that godawful airport, Louis IX deserves a better monument. If the United States of America has no place for him and his kind, then so much the worse for us.