The Cross is (Still) Secular (Except When it Isn’t)

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 6, 2011 — 40 Comments

I continue to be amazed at the argument that the Christian cross, the primary symbol of Christianity across the globe, can also be a “secular” symbol that “honors” dead people who aren’t Christian. It seems so clear-cut an issue to anyone who isn’t Christian. Yet, seemingly learned Supreme Court judges have made hair-splitting arguments to this effect, discussing context and “message” of various monuments erected for the dead. Recently, another high-profile cross monument, the now-infamous Mt. Soledad cross, was unanimously ruled unconstitutional by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“In no way is this decision meant to undermine the importance of honoring our veterans,” the three judges said in their ruling. “Indeed, there are countless ways that we can and should honor them, but without the imprimatur of state-endorsed religion.”

Turns out the context, history, and message of this particular cross wasn’t so secular.

Michael Aguirre, a former San Diego city attorney who has followed the case closely, said cross supporters will have to counter the court’s analysis that the cross was used historically to promote Christianity. The ruling recounts that the cross was dedicated on Easter Sunday and used for religious gatherings for nearly three decades before it became a war memorial. It said La Jolla has a “well-documented history” of anti-Semitism from the 1920s to around 1970. “This cross marks La Jolla as a Christian community, that’s basically what (the judges are) saying,” said Aguirre, who is now in private practice. “It was a cross for decades in a community with a history of anti-Semitism.”

You’d think that this would be the end of the story, but it isn’t. The case will no doubt be appealed to the Supreme Court, and the court has left wriggle-room for the “modification” of the monument, meaning the cross stays up. Religion reporter Joshunda Sanders notes that it isn’t the only unconstitutional cross that is still standing. The Utah “secular symbols of death,” erected in memorial to fallen highway patrol officers, and ruled unconstitutional this past Summer, are still standing.

“A Denver appeals court has stayed an order that would remove 14 memorial crosses from Utah’s highways intended to honor fallen officers and encourage safe driving. The ruling gives the Utah attorneys general’s office 90 days to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that the 12-foot-high memorials are unconstitutional.”

So now the fate of these unconstitutional crosses will most likely lay in the hands of the Supreme Court, and after the Mojave Desert cross ruling last year, which opened the door to the “secular cross” argument, many are worried the lines of separation concerning government-endorsed religion will be further blurred.

“…for Christians to celebrate this decision requires a will to allow the government to reject the distinct religious value the cross has traditionally held in Christianity.”

These events will not doubt embolden Christian groups to erect further “secular” crosses in hopes of sparking more legal decisions to establish a “secular cross” legal precedent. 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. Nor would anyone try to argue for a “secular” Jewish star of David, or “secular” Muslim crescent (particularly not the latter in our current climate). We’ll all have to wait and see what SCOTUS does, and how it will shape the religious landscape of this country.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • Elizabeth

    One problem is that there is not a good, secular, all-purpose honoring the dead symbol recognized. If there were, this might never have gone to court. Ideas?

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      A hooded, shrouded figure with a scythe?

    • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

      a headstone? you know, just a plain, flat piece of rock, roughly square, rounded on the top?

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        If you live near a 19th Centruy cemetary, a brief tour will disclose lots of death iconography without any religious overtones (plus some with, of course).

    • http://sari0009.xanga.com KarenAScofield

      Circles of remembrance? E.g. http://dc.about.com/cs/museums/a/WorldWarII.htm

      The WWII memorial in Washington, D.C. It's such a sacred place and yet the message and presence of the memorial are profound enough that any stinkin' secular-but-not-secular monument (religion) über alles is totally extraneous and recognized as being antagonistically divisive…in the name of the dead who can no longer speak for themselves…which makes plunking down a cross to represent all conveniently easier than it otherwise would be.

  • TeNosce

    Cool. That cross should be on e-bay soon. Add a couple wheels and you've got a great boat trailer.

  • Git

    Actually, there have been plenty of secular memorials raised. They are usually plaques or monuments with the names of the dead, and a brief statement of purpose; no religious connotations needed. ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

      I always thought the presence of all those names was what made the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall so powerful. Funny thing is, so many people hated the idea when it was first presented.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mikethebard Michael Dolan

    In many forms of martial arts, the most damaging attack revolves around using your opponent's momentum rather than your own.

    Perhaps we should support the cross as a secular symbol of death- we could lobby to have it replace the skull-and-crossbones on toxic substances and place it on morgues, nuclear waste, and quarrantine areas. I mean, some people might get confused and start avoiding churches, but I'm okay with that.

    I wonder if they might reverse their position if the cross starts appearing on packages of rat poison and insecticide.

    • http://godsrbored.blogspot.com anne johnson

      This is inspired thinking! I like your style.

    • Ursyl

      That is a brilliant idea

    • http://www.facebook.com/stenobauer Cathryn Bauer

      Best suggestion I've heard yet.

  • Christy

    Tempted to start building secular memorial penticals and planting them next to the crosses.

  • Rombald

    Well, it is arguable that the cross is not a specifically Christian symbol – Callanish, anyone? I've heard it argued that it is a sun sign.

    However, there is a way to test this. Use the cross in public and overtly pagan celebrations or displays. I can't see many Christians taking kindly to that.

  • kenneth

    Since it's just a secular everyday symbol now, I see no reason why BDSM porn producers shouldn't start adopting it as their universal symbol!

    • Vermillion

      I just snorted orange juice out my nose laughing at this.

  • Lori F – MN

    So, if I were to burn a cross, there wouldnt be a problem, as long as I had the burning permit. Right?

    If it's not a religious symbol, why was there such a fuss over that Madonna video with a burning cross?

    Ask a thousand people on the street what a cross means and if it's a religious sumbol or not and I bet most could say it is religious. What's wrong with a war memorial having an American flag. THAT is what our service people have fought and died for.

  • EricSchwenke

    Originally, the cross was a secular symbol of death, but only of the execution variety.

  • av

    When I see a cross, I think of the Roman way of torturing someone to death.

    What a horrible symbol for any religion and definitely no way to honor anyone, ever.

    • Don

      To be fair, that's not how Christians interpret the cross. It doesn't "honor" Christ but reminds all people of his suffering through which salvation/ redemption became possible. And because of that, a symbol of death/ execution is now a symbol of everlasting life.

      That meaning is a little more obvious in the Catholic tradition where crosses typically depict Christ on them.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stenobauer Cathryn Bauer

        Anyone else see the irony in the cross-supporters insisting that their symbol is generic and more of a cultural symbol of memory for the dead? Seems to me like they're diluting the importance of their own symbol and what it supposedly communicates even as they're proselytizing for its general use.

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        I do vaguely remember reading that back in the early Christian church, people debated using the cross as a symbol (as opposed to the fish) because of the capital punishment connection.

        I guess it helps that two lines is a very easy symbol to draw/build.

  • Verac1ty

    I've talked to people who were very highly offended that anyone was even THINKING of that war memorials with crosses on them might be unconstitutional. I wonder how they don't see the inherent contradiction of saying in the same breath that the cross is not a religious symbol and that they are tired of people getting offended by the symbol of their faith. I only had two questions for them:

    1) When is this cross not considered a religious symbol? Especially on a memorial?
    (There are, of course, places where this shape is not used as a Christian symbol, but 99% of the people arguing the secularity of it will give you a blank stare in response to this question.)

    2) The measuring stick of a fair deal is when it is turned around. If a war memorial were erected on federal grounds carrying a symbol of a different religion, would anyone be offended?

    I also get funny looks when someone tells me God is named in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, etc., and I ask, "Which God did they specify?"

    • Ursyl

      I frequently remind such persons that the Declaration is just a historical document which has zero role in our governance. Then I ask exactly which passages of The Constitution specify their god.

      I've yet to get an answer.

      • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

        Actually, the Declaration could be argued to have the weight of law, specifically, from the Constitution, Article VI:

        "All Debts contracted and Engagements entered into, before the Adoption of this Constitution, shall be as valid against the United States under this Constitution, as under the Confederation."

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          My original reply to this seems to have vanished.

          Eran, the clear meaning of that clause is that debts and treaty obligations undertaken by the USA under the Articles of Confederation continued to be recognized under the Constitution. It is not a reference to the Declaration.

          • http://xkcd.com/285 Eran Rathan

            Baruch wrote: …treaty obligations undertaken by the USA…

            Is I think the relevant part of that, considering that the Declaration was made by "the REPRESENTATIVES of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, In GENERAL CONGRESS assembled." Also, it is the first thing in the US Code, labelled "The Organic Laws of the United States", which, while the Supreme Court and lawyers may weasel about it, does give it some weight as part of our legal structure.

            That being said, I'm no lawyer, and if you pay them enough, they'll argue anything for as long as possible without saying anything.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            I wasn't aware of the US Code designation. Organic Law is a term applied to legislation that's so basic it's almost constitutional — would be constitutional in a country like Britain, which doesn't have a formal constitution. If the Declaration has that status then it does indeed have some legal force. And, yes, it does introduce God-talk into basic US law, though I daresay its force is probably more in our inalienable rights than in the Creator that endows us with them.

          • Robin Artisson

            My replies keep vanishing too.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    A comment by Pagan Puff Pieces emailed by IntenseDebate does not appear above. It had to do with the cross vs the fish as a Christian symbol, and concluded, "I guess it helps that two lines is a very easy symbol to draw/build." The fish is an outline made by two curved lines just as easy to draw as a cross. Build is another matter, to be sure.

  • Verac1ty

    I'm still baffled by Justice Scalia declaring that “The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead.” The most common? Worldwide? Really? I'm sure the vast majority of the world that isn't Christian would give him a blank look on that one. It still ranks as one of the stupidest arguments in this whole debate.

    If the cross has no meaning other than a universal memorial symbol, then why was a cross chosen in the first place? Why not a square, a triangle, a circle? It makes about as much sense. I've decided to put a totally non-religious symbol on my tombstone – I've narrowed it down to a trapezoid or a dodecahedron.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1660544172 Mary Switras

      I'd like a series of polyhedral dice, with the epitaph: "'Cause that's how I rolled".

  • Mojavi

    I can hear the arguments now to a "secular" pentacle:

    "No, no…has to be a secular cross to honor the dead"

    "But the secular pentacle has no religious meaning but to honor the dead, just like your secular cross has no religious meaning to honor the dead"

    "But it's not a secular cross!"

    …blah, blah, blah

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

    Ah, yes… the "Include a Wiccan" gambit. (To give credit where due: Jason had already mentioned it at &lt ;http://patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2009/08/will-the-include-a-wiccan-gambit-work.html> )

    I can see this being pointless in other arguments, too:
    "But the First Amendment allows freedom of religious expression! The cross on public land just expresses the beliefs of this hypothetical dead person."
    "So can I put a pentacle up for a dead Pagan? That would be an expression of their religious beliefs."
    "Oh, um, we meant…secular…expression…? Didn't we?"
    *TILT*

    Wouldn't an American flag be more tasteful anyway, since the Mt. Soledad cross is a memorial for veterans?

  • Daniel

    How about secularly inverting the cross as a gambit and seeing what the courts, etc., think. Hmmmm…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=667952307 Jennifer Parsons

    Blast me and my link ineptitude. Apologies, everyone. It's here: http://patheos.com/blogs/wildhunt/2009/08/will-the-include

  • http://www.mindonfire.com xJane

    Wouldn't an American flag be more tasteful anyway, since the Mt. Soledad cross is a memorial for veterans?

    Hear, hear! I would much rather use [accepted] symbols of America to show respect for people who gave their lives in the service of America.

  • aediculaantinoi

    This does bring up an interesting further issue, however:

    In a book that goes to press after an author or contributor has died, there will often be a little Roman-style cross-like symbol next to their name. Interestingly, a variation on this symbol is called "double-daggers," and they're often used in sequence in place of footnote/endnote numbers, etc. What is the difference between a "single-dagger" and a cross, then? Does it only become a cross to indicate someone is dead, but all the rest of the time it's a "single-dagger"? And, is anyone else somewhat disturbed by the fact that the exact same symbol of two intersecting lines is a cross, an indicator of death, and a dagger (that could bring about death)?

    Rather an academic issue, perhaps, but nonetheless intriguing…Any other symbol could be used to indicate someone is dead in a publication, but this seems to be the go-to one.

  • Rombald

    I'd never heard that sign called a "dagger" before. I'd always called it an "obelisk". Is this US vs. UK usage?

    However, "obelisk" means roasting spit (many names for Egyptian things are derogatory/mocking Greek terms), so it looks to me like the sign has no connection to the Christian cross, rather exemplifying my above point.

    I had mainly known the obelisk used as a second footnote, after an asterisk, in old books (modern books use numbering). However, Wikipedia gives numerous uses: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dagger_(typography)

    I once read a book by a bishop, and it had a cross next to this name. I thought it was to indicate his status, but I suppose it could have been because he was dead when the book was published.

  • http://godsrbored.blogspot.com anne johnson

    I'm not at all against posting a Christian cross on a military cemetery if it can be indisputably proven that each and every person therein buried was a practicing Christian. Seems only fair, and it would employ lots of genealogists.