The White House released an official proclamation to mark the 850th anniversary of the death of St. Thomas Becket who had a contentious relationship with King Henry II of England, and was ultimately killed by the King's followers for refusing to submit the church to the King's will. Shortly after his death, he was canonized by Pope Alexander III.
Why is this important enough for the White House to commemorate? Well, officially, it's because:
Before the Magna Carta was drafted, before the right to free exercise of religion was enshrined as America's first freedom in our glorious Constitution, Thomas gave his life so that, as he said, "the Church will attain liberty and peace."
Thomas Becket's death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty. It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs.
As Americans, we were first united by our belief that "rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God" and that defending liberty is more important than life itself. If we are to continue to be the land of the free, no government official, no governor, no bureaucrat, no judge, and no legislator must be allowed to decree what is orthodox in matters of religion or to require religious believers to violate their consciences.
Okay, sure. That succeeds on the surface at seeming innocuous and even inspiring, even if it's kind of weird to celebrate someone who had literally no relationship with a country that didn't exist until 600 years after he died. Why not commemorate an actual American who died rather than compromise their conscience for the will of the state—like, say, John Brown?
As writer David Perry points out, Trump just appointed frequent Milo Yiannopoulos and Vox Day apologist Rachel Fulton Brown as a member of the "Cultural Property Advisory Committee." In Perry's words:
RFB is a name that medievalists know well and whose full entry – rather than dabbling – into the right-wing internet is a problem for medievalists. Alt-right forces use her academic credentials to justify their ideology and medievalists and other scholars need to condemn it. […] That the alt-right fetishizes a false white medieval and classical european past to craft – as Sierra Lomuto says – an origin story for whiteness isn't news at this point.
And as the New York Times wrote in 2019:
The idea of medieval studies as a haven for white nationalist ideas gained ground when Rachel Fulton Brown, an associate professor of medieval history at the University of Chicago, began feuding with Dorothy Kim, an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Brandeis, after Dr. Kim, writing on Facebook, highlighted an old blog post of Dr. Fulton Brown's titled "Three Cheers for White Men," calling it an example of "medievalists upholding white supremacy."
Perry points out that this ahistorical white nationalist vision of medieval history also relates to the recent White House decree regulating the classic architecture used in all federal buildings—which also dogwhistles towards an ahistorical view of white European history.
Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this very weird commemoration of a 850 year old martyr and it's just a vague pander towards the Christian Right in general.
Image: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons