This is a disclaimer because the subject matter being discussed today is capable of evoking strong feelings in some. I have a feeling I’m gonna know what some readers of this article were thinking when they clicked on it. I bet some people came in here ready for a spicy take regarding Bladensburg. Some atheists were probably a bit excited to read that. Some Christians came in here ready to disagree vigorously with someone who they imagined was an anti-theist. I am an atheist but I am not an anti-theist and even if I was an anti-theist I’d still be able to write the article you’re about to read. I am here to have a discussion about symbols, history, and context in the wake of The American Legion v. American Humanist Association. I am a trained historian and that is the hat I will be wearing while we discuss this. I will not attack religion, nor will I say that the Bladensburg Peace Cross is a bad memorial. With that disclaimer out of the way let’s take a step back and travel back in time.
The history of the Bladensburg Peace Cross:
At the end of the 1st World War, the American Legion helped complete a memorial in the shape of a Latin Cross to commemorate 49 servicemen who died overseas. The place chosen for the memorial was in Bladensburg, Maryland. The group behind this memorial in the first place was a group of residents of Prince George’s County, Maryland. A groundbreaking ceremony was held for the memorial in the middle of 1925 and prior to that, there was a dedication ceremony in 1919 wherein the U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels spoke. There are parts of this that matter. Namely the intention behind it. Commemorating 49 servicemen is a secular purpose for a religious symbol, and additional important information that people should know during this part of the post includes the following fact: originally the Peace Cross was on private lands and privately maintained. Pay attention to that. That means that originally a non-governmental entity, specifically a 501(c)(19) war veterans’ organization, aided a group of citizens in completing and then maintaining a neat memorial.
So now if you don’t know that much about this court case you might be a bit confused. How could this privately owned and maintained memorial lead up to the Supreme Court case we’re heard about in the news and that was ruled on earlier today? Well my friends, in the early 60s there was a change. In the early 60s, the lands were turned over to Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission which is not a private organization but instead happens to be a governmental agency, and the agency has since overseen and paid for the maintenance of the memorial using public funds which the summary of the ruling corroborates. Therein lies the rub. And this is part of why the Bladensburg Peace Cross was fairly uncontroversial for so much of its history. Because it was originally a privately owned and maintained religious memorial or if you want to be more charitable a memorial that used religious iconography and no one claimed that it was supposed to represent all soldiers just the 49 it was originally intended to commemorate. That was fine, and the intentions behind the memorial were noble. I’m sure some people would grumble about the memorial if those initial circumstances had continued to this day but no reasonable organization would waste its time suing anyone had those initial circumstances never changed.
The Actual Ruling:
Earlier today the Supreme Court issued its ruling. To read the ruling click here. It contains more information about the initial history of the memorial than my post did so it’ll be useful for people who want to confirm what I said. I recommend people read it.
What are the important components of a symbol? That question will be answered differently by different people, even by different historians. I’m gonna keep this short and sweet and say that the history of the symbol and the purpose behind a symbol’s usage are what matter.
In this case, the Latin Cross is a religious and specifically a Christian symbol. That is something literally everyone agrees with, including Justice Alito who delivered the opinion of the Court.
The fact that the cross is undoubtedly a Christian symbol should not blind one to everything else that the Bladensburg Cross has come to represent: a symbolic resting place for ancestors who never returned home, a place for the community to gather and honor all veterans and their sacrifices for this Nation, and a historical landmark. For many, destroying or defacing the Cross would not be neutral and would not further the ideals of respect and tolerance embodied in the First Amendment -Justice Alito, pg. 4
What about the purpose behind the choice of the symbol? The purpose, in this case, is harder to pick up on if we’re being totally honest. And yes, intent and purpose are not the same things. The intent of the Bladensburg cross is known, to commemorate specific soldiers from Prince George’s County. The purpose behind the choice to design it the way that is designed isn’t, or at least it’s harder to know. And that’s also something Justice Alito agrees with.
First, these cases often concern monuments, symbols, or practices that were first established
long ago, and thus, identifying their original purpose or purposes may be especially difficult (1)… This relationship between the cross and the war may not have been the sole or dominant motivation for the design of the many war memorials that sprang up across the Nation, but that is all but impossible to determine today. (2) -Justice Alito pg. 2 and pg. 3
In that case, what should take priority is the fact that the symbol is recognized as a religious one. Not whatever meaning passers-by give to the symbol. If we decide to focus on subjective things then we have to complicate this and ask questions. Like why do the opinions of some people in Bladensburg matter more than the opinions of other people in Bladensburg? The plaintiffs represented by the AHA are people who live in Bladensburg, anyone who attempts to use the “out of state liberals” genetic fallacy argument we covered last week will be in for a nasty shock. If we’re gonna go down this subjective path then we have to determine whose opinions should carry more weight, the opinions of the people in favor and/or unbothered by the public maintenance of the memorial or the people who are bothered by it and its public maintenance. Is that a path we want to go down? We also have to ask if the idea that this memorial is old is a good argument to keep it where it is, which it isn’t. I say that because no one is arguing to tear down the memorial.
A question about symbols:
Can symbols have their meanings change? And if so, what mechanism could be used to explain this change? This is a legitimate question, by the way, I’m not using this as a gotcha question.
I ask this because an argument in defense of the cross continuing to stay in its current location hinges on the idea that this has become more than a cross meant to commemorate specific soldiers (which is one of Justice Alito’s arguments) and has somehow come to mean something else in a significant enough way to justify its continued existence exactly where it is, which in some small measure to those ignorant of the intention of its creators it has. But this still flies in the face of the known intent of the cross in Bladensburg. The known intent, which is what the thing was planned to do, was to commemorate specific soldiers and as previously stated that’s a noble intention. Now that intention has been somewhat forgotten and distilled into something many would say is grander than that and is also a noble intention. Those who want to insist this is a secular memorial that uses religious iconography, or at least achieves a secular purpose using religious iconography insist that this cross represents the sacrifice of all soldiers which isn’t and wasn’t the intention behind its construction. So can a symbol’s meaning change over time, which is better for people who like the decision? Or does it’s initial intention matter more than meanings attributed to it by others especially by those ignorant of its history, which is better for people who believe the memorial should be moved? If you want to insist this should stay where it is, that’s a lot easier to justify if you think it’s meaning either changes or matters less than what it gives to passers-by even if that flies in the face of the original intention and the original circumstances of the memorial.
It’s significant that the initial context behind the memorial in Bladensburg is seemingly not very important or at least in some ways is less important than what people associate it with. That’s a weird line to put in the sand, that at some ill-defined point meanings people give to things matters just as much as the initial cultural or historical background of the creation of said things. That’s what it means, or at least one possible understanding of, giving importance to what something “has come to represent”, which is what Justice Alito urges us to do when considering the matter of the Bladensburg cross’s status as a publicly maintained memorial.
That’s gonna be an argument one day that will come back to haunt conservatives if they celebrate this right now. What if one day something of theirs of value comes to be largely associated with something else… like a Confederate memorial? At what point does the historical backdrop of a Confederate memorial’s construction matter less than what it has come to represent in the eyes of the public? It’s also worth noting that an objective discussion that accurately discusses the origins of Confederate memorials would make it clear that the intention behind many of these memorials is at least equally as problematic as what Confederate memorials have publicly come to be associated with, but this is just an example that people can understand right away. In case you’re curious about this here and here are two sources folks can read regarding when and why Confederate memorials were brought into existence.
This is suggests something. It’s an odd suggestion that weakens the importance of facts in discussions concerning publicly maintained memorials. It grants some measure of protection against factual criticisms by encouraging us to weigh feelings, public sentiment, against them. That should bother people, right? I’m not just weird for having this stance?
What I’m saying is that this is an odd “victory” for conservatives who pretend that facts matter more than feelings, because at least part of victory here hinges on the idea that feelings could be at least equally as important as facts are. Forget context and intention, what matters is how something makes people feel. Weird.
Luciano Joshua Gonzalez-Vega runs Sin/God and is the column’s sole author. The Puerto Rican writer is constantly working, whether he’s creating content for his YouTube channel, searching for freelance writing jobs, studying to finish earning a Master’s of Arts degree in peace & conflict studies, discussing various topics with his friends online such as on Wednesday nights with fellow YouTuber Wonder Lady as the co-host of the Humanist Perspectives program, or as a general guest on a range of different YouTube channels. He is an independent content creator and columnist who dreams of being financially independent and able to self-finance a consultant’s business aiding businesses and organizations that find themselves burdened and needing conflict management services and even hoping to one day have a nationally syndicated radio show wherein he aids people dealing with workplace or familial conflicts and also advocates for humanistic approaches to the problems of the day.
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