A xeroxed announcement appeared in the mail room of my Manhattan apartment building a while ago: “Our Lady of Fatima Visits Our Parish.” The notice had a photo of one of those creepy painted sculptures of Mary with oversized, tear-encrusted eyes and an undersized mouth; a very large crown perched on her head. This itinerant wooden doll was going to visit a church on E. 90th Street, where believers could touch and crown her. “’In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph,’” the announcement declared.
Non-believers are told again and again that they must respect religion. I try, I really do, but I confess that such manifestations of religious faith make following this injunction somewhat of a challenge. It would be one thing if this chromatic doll were putting in an appearance in Mexico City, filled as it is with superstitious peasant believers; it’s another to figure out what the doll is doing on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. I ask in all sincerity: are Secular Right’s fellow highly-educated conservatives ready to prostrate themselves before, and put a toy crown on, a wooden effigy? Or do religious conservative pundits see such outbreaks of folk superstition as the price they must pay in order to preserve the higher mysteries of the faith? But isn’t such a bargain terribly condescending?
I must respect religion. I understand, but I honestly don’t see how to distinguish the worship of a wooden icon from the belief in the healing power of crystals or in the predictive power of entrails. I know I must be missing some essential distinctions here, but for the moment they elude me and I remain at a loss to understand.