Fellow Patheos blogger Rebecca Hamilton has recently posted about the World Trade Center Cross. This is a 17-foot-tall, cross-shaped piece of rubble found in the World Trade Center aftermath of the 9/11 attack. Out of all that wreckage from buildings built of steel I-beams welded together at right angles, it’s not too surprising that the intersection of two beams had broken to make a cross-shaped piece of steel.
The cross wasn’t even found at the Twin Towers site but rather at 6 World Center, but it has become a religious relic for some Christians.
Rebecca is puzzled by the fuss from atheists and proposes two explanations: (1) atheists are thin-skinned whiners “set on harassing, insulting and attacking Christians at every turn in an attempt to drive us underground and silence us.” Or (2), atheists are vampires and are repulsed by the sight of a cross.
I’d like to respond with a tweaked version of a post that I wrote for last year’s anniversary of the attack. Perhaps we can clarify atheists’ motivations.
The cross shape could just be a coincidence (the explanation favored by atheists), or it could be a sign from God (what some Christians propose). If the latter, I’m not sure what to make of the fact that the only evidence of God participating was his calling card. In the rubble. And this evidence of God-not-doing-anything is now highlighted as a holy relic.
Hmm—that it’s just a coincidence is starting to sound a lot better from the standpoint of the Christian.
This cross is now a controversial addition to New York City’s soon-to-be-completed National September 11 Memorial and Museum.
American Atheists and New York City Atheists are suing to have the cross removed. Their remedy is to return it to St. Peter’s Church, two blocks from Ground Zero, where it had been for five years until moved to the museum in July 2011. Since half of the museum’s financing has been provided by the government, returning it to the church sounds a lot easier than giving equal time to all the worldviews that don’t have a cross as their symbol.
There was another controversy associated with the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks in 2011. New York Mayor Bloomberg declared that the commemorative ceremony would be religion-free.
Sounds good to me. There are plenty of secular reasons for the ceremony, and religious people can remember the event in their own way as best suits their religion. People of any faith (or even no faith) can feel pain. Why should only some get a publicly-funded platform?
And when you do try to include religions, there’s bickering over who was omitted.
Some evangelical Christian leaders said they were outraged that an interfaith prayer service planned by the Washington National Cathedral did not include a Southern Baptist or other evangelical minister.
The New York City ceremony, which has been held annually on the anniversary, is punctuated by moments of silence (six times in 2011), plenty of opportunity for prayer.
But for some folks it has to be more overt. Benjamin Wiker said:
Perhaps the mayor could have come up with an entirely innocuous prayer that all the clergy could offer without offending anyone, say something like this: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, and our country. Amen.”
Who could possibly object to that?
Oh, I dunno. Maybe atheists, not that they apparently are worth worrying about. Buddhists. Those who check “Spiritual” instead of a specific religion. The almost 20% of Americans who are “Nones” (those who don’t identify with any religion). And since this “God” is pretty obviously the Christian God (one person of the Trinity), probably the Jews and Muslims as well. And anyone else who’s not a Christian. And anyone who respects the Constitution enough to realize that the First Amendment helps all of us, the Christian and non-Christian alike, and bristles when it is insulted.
Back to that article:
Since Engel v. Vitale [the 1962 Supreme Court case that rejected school prayer] a series of court cases have struck down, one after another, any religious expression in the public square, thereby setting one clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) in direct contradiction to the clause that directly follows it (“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
Not really. You want to express a religious sentiment in the public square? Knock yourself out. This is the essential distinction that is forgotten: the public can, within limits, say anything, religious or otherwise, in public. The constraint is on Congress (expanded beyond just the federal government with the Fourteenth Amendment).
And isn’t that the way you’d want it? Christians can send their children to public school and know that they won’t hear a Mormon or Satanist prayer. Christians can go to a City Council meeting and not see Allahu Akbar (“God is Great”) in Arabic script on the wall. Christians can go into a courtroom and not see a Shinto or Hindu god of jurisprudence glaring down at them. A win-win.
In disallowing any public appearance of religion in the 9/11 memorial “service,” [Mayor Bloomberg is] simply taking Engel v. Vitale yet another step. No prayer in public schools. No prayer in public period. The Establishment Clause (so secularists would have us believe) demands that religion be silenced.
Wow—what’s hard about this? Just keep Christianity out of the tax-supported part of society. Pray in private or in public, or encourage prayer all you want—just not in the official capacity as mayor. (Or president. But the National Day of Prayer is another story.)
The whole point, in historical context, was that the Federal Government should not positively sanction one Christian denomination over another (as England had established the Anglican Church as the state church), and also negatively should not interfere in the free exercise of any denomination (as England had persecuted both Puritans and Catholics).
Ah, so it’s all about Christian religion, you say? In your mind, perhaps, but that’s not what the Constitution says.
So it is that a particular New York mayor uses the Establishment Clause to root out Christianity, and the Free Exercise Clause to publicly affirm Islam.
Dr. Wiker is apparently still hot under the collar about that whole “Ground-Zero Mosque” thing (officially called Park51). Let me give my two cents on that.
(1) May a Muslim group build two blocks from the Twin Towers site? Yes. Assuming the city’s other requirements are met, the government can’t reject the project simply because Muslims are involved or that the building would have a prayer space.
(2) Should a Muslim group build there? No. In my opinion, the respectful course of action would have been to find another site far from Ground Zero. This is a missed opportunity for a prominent Muslim community to yield and show that it understands the issue and is sensitive to it.
This is the distinction that Wiker seems to be missing. If Mayor Bloomberg defended point 1 above, then he simply demanded that the law be followed. If he’s treading into religious favoritism, however, that would be a problem. Is he? I’ve seen no evidence supporting this.
But that’s the point. That’s where the Constitution helps everyone, including the beleaguered Christian. The government is forbidden to give preferential treatment to Islam (by favoring a Muslim group over others) or to Christianity (by including Christian prayers at the 9/11 anniversary commemoration or Christian symbolism in the Memorial Museum).
It cuts both ways. And that helps all of us.
(This is a modified version of a post originally published 9/10/11.)