New stained glass windows embrace separation of church and state

American history is riddled with religious and political institutions influencing each other in ways that range from subtle to undeniably obvious. Examples centered within the political sphere are often more apparent, such as the reversal of Roe v. Wade, but places of worship have also been used as pawns for political gain. It is appreciated when steps are taken in support of the separation of church and state, no matter how overdue they may be.

An example that came under public scrutiny in recent years was the replacement of stained glass windows honoring Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, which were installed in the Washington National Cathedral in 1953. This church, also known as  Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is regularly used for Episcopal church services  and was considered the perfect site for a memorial intended to ease tension between states that fought on opposing sides of the Civil War. As reported by CNN, the windows featured “scenes from their lives and military careers.” 

The usage of a church to heal a past political divide is appalling. The glorification of who these men were and what they fought for is repulsive and historically inaccurate. As is stated by the Very Rev. Randolph Marshall Hollerith’s comment to Politico, “You can’t call yourself the National Cathedral, a house of prayer for all people, when there are windows in there that are deeply offensive to a large portion of Americans.”

The societal conditions that led to the installation of these stained glass windows further complicate this issue. Dr. Danielle Bainbridge, assistant professor of theater at Northwestern University, spoke about the phenomenon of monuments built to honor Confederate leaders during the 1950s and 1960s across the U.S. in an episode of her PBS show, the “Origin of Everything.” Bainbridge stated the motivation for this phenomenon was “both to mark the hundred year anniversary of Southern defeat and also as a sign of opposition to the 20th century’s Civil Rights movement that saw a number of legal victories for Black citizens.”

In 2016, cathedral leadership voted to remove these panes and replace them with plain glass. Replacement happened in 2017, and in 2021 artist Kerry James Marshall was announced to be the designer of the new windows.

Marshall is the perfect choice. Known as “a virtuoso of landscape, portraiture, still-life, history painting, and other genres of the Western canon since the Renaissance,” Marshall creates out of inspiration from the social aspects of art history, his own life and Black culture. His talent earned him the “Genius Grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1997.

Marshall’s art spans a myriad of mediums, including paintings, sculptures, photographs and videos. His skills translated flawlessly into designing the four new windows, titled “Now and Forever.” They depict protestors marching in solidarity and holding signs with pertinent words and phrases such as “FAIRNESS” and “NO FOUL PLAY.”

Opponents of the decision cannot claim it violates any spiritual significance of the old panes. CNN reported they were “deconsecrated – a religious process to remove their sacred character – and are stored at the Cathedral.” Instead of being sentenced to an eternity of never being seen again, the panes can look forward to being brought out during relevant times. For example, they spent a year in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture’s exhibit on the Reconstruction Era.

Burying evidence of historical injustices in America paves the way for the repetition of those injustices. It is fortunate that the panes are being used in educational contexts, and the Smithsonian can be trusted not to soften what they represent.

The argument that slavery should be viewed through the lens of as something that was accepted at the time is flawed because there has been a long history of fighting for abolition. For example, Quaker Benjamin Lay published a volume that called slavery “a notorious sin” and accused slave owners of “pretend[ing] to lay claim to the pure and holy Christian religion” in 1737. 

It is not inaccurate to say that the new panes embody the foundations of Christianity far better than the old ones ever could. Those who disagree should take time to read and consider what Lay had to say.

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