A Baptist-denominated Christian organization offered the most rational dissent I’ve yet seen regarding a church-state separation decision in June by the U.S. Supreme Court (American Legion v. American Humanist Assn.).
The court reversed a lower court ruling to conclude that a 40-foot World War I memorial cross on government land in Bladensburg, Maryland, did not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment “no establishment” clause and could remain standing.
In a Religious News Service article, Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) executive director Amanda Tyler wrote:
“For many court watchers, including BJC, it is difficult to reconcile the promise of religious liberty for all with the constitutionality of a massive Latin cross sponsored by government. One takeaway from this case could be that an unconstitutional establishment can become permissible if it stays up long enough without objection.”
My worry exactly.
(View the embedded video above to get sense of how the Christian Right’s argument in favor of the cross is always beside the point. Notice how the Fox News video headline says the memorial is “cross-shaped,” implying any connection with Christianity is unintentional and coincidental.)
Christianity’s ‘foremost symbol’
To paraphrase the sentiments of the majority in the 7-2 decision, justices who approved of the giant cross, even after admitting it is in one sense an irrefutable, timeless symbol of one faith, basically concluded—unjustifiably, in my view—that American traditions may be allowed to trump the Constitution’s mandated separation of church and state.
Dissenting Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Jew, quoting from BJCs friend-of-the-court brief in her opinion, contended that the cross has but one meaning:
“The Latin cross is the foremost symbol of the Christian faith, embodying the ‘central theological claim of Christianity: that the son of God died on the cross that he rose from the dead, ad that his death and resurrection offer the possibility of eternal life.’”
Ginsburg rightly noted in her dissent that the majority decision eroded essential government neutrality among people of faith and no faith, and also sent a “message of exclusion” to the third of the American populace who are not Christian.
The cross’s inherent Christian-ness is indisputable (even the majority jurists concur). Indeed, even at the memorial’s dedication ceremony early in the 20th century, a member of the U.S. Congress evoked Christian imagery in his keynote address:
“By the token of this cross, symbolic of Calvary,” he said, “let us keep fresh the memory of our boys who died for a righteous cause.”
But justices earlier this summer seemed to feel the need to bend over backwards to avoid offending Americans who have long enjoyed cultural assumptions and practices despite their being un-Constitutional on their face.
In his formal majority opinion, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. contended that the monument, because it essentially honors American war dead, “does not primarily convey a religious message,” according to a New York Times article on the decision.
“That the cross originated as a Christian symbol and retains that meaning in many contexts,” he wrote, “does not change the fact that the symbol took on an added secular meaning when used in World War I memorials.”
Despite this purported “added secular meaning,” the cross will forevermore be solely a Christian symbol, co-opted here in a secular context. It will never honor the non-Christian and nonbelieving heroes the memorial supposedly glorifies. In fact, its glaring Christian-ness insults their memories, silently excludes them, while glorifying Christianity at the expense of all other faith or nonfaith traditions.
Even if the majority of the people in Bladensburg were devout Christians, this is still wrong. Why should the Supreme Court prioritize not offending their supposed religious sensibilities at the expense of the memorial’s martyred non-Christians and their families, friends and fellow like-thinking Americans?
Majority justices had to bend their reasoning in contortionist ways to defend their conclusions.
In his decision, Alito argued that “as time goes by, the purposes associated with an established monument, symbol or practice multiply.” He alluded to Paris’ iconic Notre Dame Cathedral:
“Although the French Republic rigorously enforces a secular public square, the cathedral remains a symbol of national importance to the religious and nonreligious alike. Notre Dame is fundamentally a place of worship and retains great religious importance, but its meaning has broadened. For many, it is inextricably linked with the very idea of Paris and France.”
Well, Bradensburg’s latter-dubbed “Peace Cross” is no Notre Dame, much less a defining piece of historical architecture. Any icon besides a cross would honor the fallen warriors just as much—and in this case more.
Maryland cross no Notre Dame
Notre Dame is different in that it is widely considered “one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture,” an inflection point in transformative architecture after the early Romanesque period. The historic cathedral is thus intrinsically linked to Paris and the French people and is the capital’s most-visited tourist attraction, luring 12 million people a year.
“A government that roams the land, tearing down monuments with religious symbolism and scrubbing away any reference to the divine will strike many as aggressively hostile to religion,” Alito also wrote in his opinion, curiously adding that the names of both black and white soldiers are inscribed on the monument.
It was further evidence that the Bladensburg cross is a “symbol of unity,” not just a religious icon, he reasoned, because American soldiers of those races were segregated in the First World War.
Speaking of black soldiers, this makes me think of the appalling American racist slur “nigger,” which has been used by bigots for centuries in the U.S. to denigrate, humiliate and marginalize African Americans.
This despicable word has a far longer “tradition” in America than the 94-year-old “Peace Cross.”
Would the conservative majority in the U.S. Supreme Court argue that it’s violence-inciting “hate speech” or Constitutionally protected “free speech” because of its broad insinuation in American culture throughout the nation’s history? I mean, why offend anyone when they’re used to something, no matter how nefarious?
In the meantime, every person who henceforth passes by this enormous religious icon in Maryland will continue to receive its insideous, subliminal message: Christianity is real.
Except it really isn’t.