Revenge of the Secular Cross!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  April 29, 2010 — 24 Comments

Is the Christian cross a secular symbol? The Supreme Court of the United States took a step towards that assertion yesterday in a decision on the case Salazar v. Buono, which challenged the constitutionality of a eight-foot Christian cross war memorial situated on public lands in California’s Mojave National Preserve (and the legality of a land-swap scheme that Congress enacted to avoid a court battle). In truth, the decision is something of a mess, with six different opinions being written on the case, but with the plurality overturning the 9th Circuit decision and remanding the case for further possible legal challenges. Still, the conservative majority did take a step towards revisionism in taking the Christian cross out of an explicitly religious context.

“The Supreme Court saw it differently Wednesday. Though the five justices in the majority wrote three separate opinions, delineating three different rationales, the principal opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, spoke in broad terms. Although the cross is “a Christian symbol,” said Kennedy, it was not placed on sunrise rock in the Mojave Desert to send “a Christian message.” Nor was it placed there to put a government “imprimatur on a particular creed.” Rather, he said, “those who erected the cross intended simply to honor our nation’s fallen soldiers.” “The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society,” Kennedy said.”

The assertion that the Christian cross doesn’t always send a “Christian message” is nonsense, and Justice John Paul Stevens, the court’s only wartime veteran, said as much.

“The nation should memorialize the service of those who fought and died in World War I … But it cannot do so lawfully by continued endorsement of a starkly sectarian message.”

Rev. Barry W. Lynn of Americans United calls the decision “alarming”, while conservative groups, like the American Center for Law and Justice see this as a clear sign to move forward with more sectarian religious monuments.

“If you look at this case, coupled with the Ten Commandments case,” [Jay Sekulow of the conservative American Center for Law and Justice] said, “it’s becoming very clear that the public display of monuments, even religious monuments, is not a per se violation of the Constitution.”

During oral arguments in the case, conservative justices, most notably Justice Scalia seemed willfully obtuse on how non-Christian veterans and citizens would perceive a Christian cross memorial.

Mr. Eliasberg said many Jewish war veterans would not wish to be honored by “the predominant symbol of Christianity,” one that “signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins.” Justice Scalia disagreed, saying, “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.” “What would you have them erect?” Justice Scalia asked. “Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David and, you know, a Muslim half moon and star?” Mr. Eliasberg said he had visited Jewish cemeteries. “There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew,” he said, to laughter in the courtroom. Justice Scalia grew visibly angry. “I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead,” he said. “I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.”

Defenders of the “secular cross” idea have repeatedly made insulting assumptions about what other religions would feel honored by, and often employ outright historical revisionism to “secularize” explicitly Christian memorials. But as Steven Waldman pointed out, this tactic could backfire on those currently pressing the idea in order to get crosses erected (or protected) on public lands.

“…the more you want Christian symbols in the public square, the more you have to prove they’re lacking religious meaning. A question for devout Christians: Do you really want the cross and the creche to become akin to the Christmas tree — or the Easter Bunny? The “secular purpose” trap isn’t the only reason the “pro-religion” position can end up hurting Christianity. Legal cases pressing Christian symbols tend to argue that these efforts are acceptable as long as the government isn’t excluding other faiths. That’s how we’ve ended up with town squares with Menorahs alongside the creches. But this is the ultimate slippery slope. The Courts cannot and should not say that pluralism is limited only to Jews. Over time, Islam, Buddhism, Paganism will inevitably end up having greater public displays, too. That means conservative Christians need to ponder a more subtle theological point. If you believe visible public displays convey important social messages, doesn’t a pluralistic scene convey a second message: that all faiths are equal?

Returning to Rev. Barry Lynn, in an editorial for the American Constitution Society he points out the absurdity of claiming the cross can represent all who died in duty during WWI, and making the only national memorial for WWI’s war dead (declared as such during this battle) a Christian cross.

“…several members of the court seem to be moving toward embracing a most curious stance: The cross, the central symbol of Christianity for two millennia, isn’t necessarily always religious. Sometimes, the justices assert, it’s just a way to memorialize war dead. Really? How many non-Christians request that crosses be put on their tombstones? How many adopt the symbol as part of their personal expression?”

This is a narrow ruling, but one that chips away at the ban on government-endorsed religion, and one that will embolden Christian groups to erect further “secular” crosses in hopes of sparking further legal decisions to widen that narrow ruling. But the more Christian groups try to bend the law in their favor, in an attempt to return to a mythical pre-secular era of Christian dominance,  the more they make it possible for other faiths to eventually benefit from their labors. I somehow doubt these cross secularizers are going to stand in our corner when someone tries to erect a Wiccan or Asatru war dead memorial.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Vivian

    I agree with Steven Waldman. To make the cross secular will cheapen it. It will no longer symbolize the death of Christ. It will be like a Christmas Tree. Christians alway seem to find a way to kick themselves in the butt.

  • http://www.witchnet.org Eric Roberts

    I also look at this from a historical view point. This is a WWI memorial and when it was erected, it was acceptable and common to use a cross for a memorial to the dead, regardless of faith. So I agree with this decision from a historical standpoint and thing the memorial should stand as is, but I also don;t think that the cross is in any way secularized. If you look at the grave sites for WWI dead, you will find crosses as their grave marker. I do not believe they even used the Star of David then for Jewish soldiers.

  • Aethelbera

    Secular cross my ass.
    These people need to pull their heads out of their asses and wipe the brown off their noses.

  • Pingback: The Wild Hunt » The Cross is (Still) Secular (Except When it Isn’t)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/lizzclements lizzclements

    You definitely hit that nail on the head!

  • http://twitter.com/magickalrealism @magickalrealism

    The cross is NOT secular. This is a very non-subtle attempt at maintaining dominance.

  • http://www.robinartisson.com Robin Artisson

    Welcome to the first day of the rest of our forced baptisms.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1851687786 Sarah Morningstar

    It's ok, baptisms are now a "secular" right of passage.
    /facepalm

  • kenneth

    Since the cross no longer has any inherent secterian religious meaning, I think it's entirely reasonable that some porn producer incorporates it into a logo.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    The problem with baptisms is they don't hold them under long enough.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    The problem with baptisms is that they don't hold them under long enough.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    The problem with baptism is that they don't hold them under for long enough.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Crystal7431 Crystal7431

    It's because the ones who push for this stuff are not very bright.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Crystal7431 Crystal7431

    I like it. You should give it a try. I think it would be really cool personally.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    Hey, have any idea if the Catholics hand out complementary rosaries? I'm always looking for anything I can convert into fly tying materials.

  • http://quakerpagan.blogspot.com/ Cat C-B

    Been done. As far back as the Eighteenth Century, as I recall.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    It's out in the Mojave Desert on the edge of a cliff. How difficult would it be for it to have an unfortunate accident?

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Ananta_of_Maine Ananta_of_Maine

    Small wonder that Texas just wrote him out of their US history books.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Ananta_of_Maine Ananta_of_Maine

    King Henry II you ain't (I hope).

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    It would certainly solve the problem and make a point about the ruling.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Ananta_of_Maine Ananta_of_Maine

    Especially if this particular Cross's personal name is Thomas.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Ananta_of_Maine Ananta_of_Maine

    One of my wife's professors her last year tried to claim that the KKK hasn't existed in any way, shape or form for ages.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/Lokisgodhi Lokisgodhi

    What an asshat. Could he be a graduate from the Alma White College?

    While there is no national organization, there are many small ones who still use the name.

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