It is a custom in America to name things after people. You can hardly pass a public building, space or park without reading a dedication to some person of local note. Indeed many U. S. counties and cities are themselves named after founding fathers, explorers, military heroes and the like.
“Washington” is much more than a man. He is a state, a district, dozens of counties, cities, public schools, waterways, streets, neighborhoods… For the especially rare and significant historic person, this custom is laudable and appropriate. For all others, caution must be observed.
In some instances, there exists an impartial board for deciding the appropriateness of naming public resources. It is called the U.S. Board on Geographic Names. The board is responsible for standardizing the nomenclature of U.S. lakes, mountains, islands and parks for federal maps and charts. It receives about 250 naming proposals per year. An overwhelming majority of the time, the requests are approved without issue, but each year, there are usually a few requests that become the locus of fractious debate.
A recent such controversy is the battle over naming a 45-mile stretch of barrier island along Florida’s Space Coast. One side would have it named for Juan Ponce de Leon, who discovered Florida in 1513. On the other, a group wants the stretch named for the Ais Indians, the region’s earliest-known inhabitants.
As bad as that situation might be, the situation gets markedly worse when governments seek to honor the living with eponymously christened landmarks. This is worse because the living still have the opportunity to mess up — and often do. A glaring example of this is found in former Arapahoe County, CO, Sheriff Patrick Sullivan who was arrested last November on suspicion of offering a man methamphetamine in exchange for sex. Prior to arraignment, he was held in the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. Detention Center — the county jail named for him following his retirement in 2002.
Of course, careless idolatry is not a new problem. In the book of Acts, we get a glimpse of ill-advised worship taken to the absurd end.
In the first century AD, Saul of Tarsus (the Apostle Paul) was among the most influential Christian missionaries. During his second mission journey in Philippi, he was jailed. Following a miraculous earthquake, the doors of the jail opened, whereupon he and his traveling companion, Silas, escaped. They fled to Berea and then to Athens where Paul preached to the Jews and God-fearing Greeks in the synagogue; and to the Greek intellectuals in the Areopagus. During this visit he was appalled by the seemingly endless number of idols present in the city. At one point he remarks, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects. For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘To an unknown God.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.”
Ending a long-standing rule, the U. S. Postal Service announced last September that it begin honoring living individuals by placing their likeness on postage stamps. As Stephen Kearney, the Postal Service’s manager of stamp services, told the New York Times, “Having really nice, relevant, interesting, fun stamps might make a difference in people’s decisions to mail a letter. This is such a sea change.”
Yes, it was a sea change — right into troubled waters. Renaming the Hooterville Water Tower after a disgraced county clerk is one thing. Printing tens of millions of stamps after a living person only later to wish we hadn’t becomes a national goof. Either way, the problem has a very easy solution: time… lots of time. Only through the lens of distance is a person’s value as a public figure revealed. It is no slight to wait for history to catch up with celebrity.