A Secular Symbol of Death

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 7, 2008 — 6 Comments

Is the Christian cross a secular symbol? That is the current opinion of Utah state officials and U.S. District Judge David Sam. This peculiar notion was reached in 2007, after local atheists challenged the placement of metal crosses along the highway to honor state highway patrol officers who died in the line of duty. Now American’s United, along with the Anti-Defamation League, the Hindu American Foundation, The Interfaith Alliance, and the Union for Reform Judaism, are challenging this ruling.

Not a secular symbol of death.

Not a secular symbol of death.

“U.S. District Judge David Sam ruled in November of 2007 that the cross is a “secular symbol of death” and held that Utah officials and the Utah Highway Patrol Association can continue to erect the 12-foot crosses. Americans United is asking the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn the lower court ruling. The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director, said he is offended by the claim that the cross is merely a secular symbol. “The cross is the preeminent symbol of Christianity,” said Lynn … In its brief, AU points out that the cross has been tied to Christianity for many centuries. “In upholding the display of roadside crosses on public land throughout the State of Utah, the district court embraced the State’s characterization of the cross the clearest and most universally recognized marker of Christianity as nothing more than a ‘secular symbol of death,’” asserts the brief. ‘This conclusion is historically inaccurate, blind to contemporary realities, and offensive to believers and nonbelievers alike.'”

Officials contend that the cross is secular, not religious, and it is being used regardless of the personal religious persuasion of the fallen officer. So atheist, Mormon, Pagan, Jewish or Hindu cops would all get the giant “non-religious” cross as a memorial.

The idea that the cross is “secular” ties into the larger notion that Christian religious expression and tradition, due to its size and ubiquity, is “normal” and ultimately beneficial. The corollary is that non-Christian religious expressions or traditions are “abnormal” and considered suspect. But popularity and tradition doesn’t remove religious context from a religious symbol, instead it subtly reinforces that faith’s dominance and “right” to utter ubiquity. If the cross was truly secular, we wouldn’t have 39 different emblems of belief for military markers and headstones, nor would minority religions fight to have their own symbols added to that list.

There is no “secular symbol of death”, any more than there is a “secular symbol of life”, because a truly secular culture allows groups and individuals to choose and adapt their own symbols and instill them with meaning. When governments and judges start telling us which religious symbols are “secular”, we enter into a hierarchy of signs, where the faith(s) with the strongest cultural hold gains official sanction in all but name. Undermining the idea that government should make no law “respecting an establishment of religion”.

Jason Pitzl-Waters