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.

Jason Pitzl-Waters