Repost: Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism and the 9/11 Cross

Repost: Museum or Memorial, and Why It Matters: Thoughts on Religious Symbolism and the 9/11 Cross November 2, 2012

This article was originally written for State of Formation, an interfaith community blog. I repost it here to ensure all my posts on the 9/11 Cross are hosted in the same place, as discussion of the issue still continues. Here are my other posts on the matter:

Cross With American Atheists

The Humanist Hour and the 9/11 Cross


Put yourself in the shoes of a family member of a 9/11 victim, visiting the 9/11 Memorial for the very first time on September 11th, 2011.  You wander through the eight-acre Memorial quadrant for a while, finding solace among the trees, a core of quiet within the Big Apple. You follow the sound of falling water to one of the twin reflecting pools, marking the footprints of the fallen Towers, and stand at the rim watching the water flow endlessly into the pools, and then into a dark hole in the center to be recycled and sent spouting upward again. You find the name of your lost loved-one on one of the bronze panels edging the Memorial pool, and spend long moments in quiet remembrance of them, your tears adding minutely to the volume of falling water at the site.

You wipe your eyes and, raising them to the sky, your vision is filled with the image of a 17-foot tall Christian cross. And you are not a Christian. Your dead relative is not a Christian. This space – this space of remembrance for all who died – is not supposed to be a Christian space. And yet here in front of you, looming over the waterfalls and reflected brazenly in the pool, is the symbol of another’s faith. And no symbol at all of yours.


A new imagining. Again, take the form of a family member of a 9/11 victim. But instead of visiting the Memorial quadrant you choose to explore the 911 Memorial Museum, a paid exhibit beneath the gardens. During your journey through the museum you come upon the Historical Exhibition, which is split into three parts. The first “present[s] the events of the day as they unfolded on September 11, 2001”, and you shudder to relive those terrible moments. The second “chronicles the antecedents to 9/11, including the 1993 World Trade Center bombing”, and chills you to the bone. The third chronicles “the response to the attacks in New York and around the world”, including “presentations on collective grief, global responses, and the search for the missing in the immediate days and weeks after the attacks”.

In this exhibit are collected numerous examples of the human response to this human crisis, including religious responses. These range from “a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort” to a large cross-shaped object found in the rubble of the towers. This cross, the exhibit informs you, was found in the rubble of the Twin Towers, and came to be a symbol of religious significance to many who toiled in the dust and dirt. You are unmoved by the icon, not being religious yourself, but recognize its place among the other expressions of grief, anger and hope housed int he exhibit, and move on.


These are not idle daydreams. The question of religious symbolism, in particular how the so-called “9/11 Cross” relates to the religion of Christianity, is the subject of a lawsuit filed by American Atheists, Inc. on July 26th. Opposing the placing of the cross at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, a publicly owned and funded site, American Atheists, Inc. claim that the cross’ presence, absent items of equal stature representing other faiths and those of no faith, suggests that the state promotes Christianity and religion in general while leaving non-Christian and non-religious individuals unrepresented and forgotten. They request either that the cross be removed from the Memorial & Museum, or that other items of similar significance be placed there to represent those of other faiths and none.

They point out, correctly, that the cross has been repeatedly blessed and sanctified by Christian clergy (most notably Father Brian Jordan, a Franciscan Priest), including once in a ceremony directly prior to its relocation to the Museum & Memorial site. They aver, too, that despite the protestations of Joe Daniels, the Memorial & Museum’s director, that “this cross provided comfort to everyone, regardless of their religion”, the cross is unmistakably and irrevocably a Christian icon.

In this last, at least, American Atheists, Inc. (hereafter referred to simply as “American Atheists”) are correct. Claims that the cross is a symbol of hope for “everyone” are overblown – there will be many who do not find the cross comforting, including some who feel that the sense of comfort derived from what is essentially a piece of wreckage is morbid and even perverted. Although I take umbrage at how Dave Silverman (president of American Atheists, Inc) has worded his criticism of the placing of the cross at the Memorial & Museum, there is something strange, from a Humanist perspective, about claiming to see the hand of a loving god in the rubble of a terrorist atrocity which God, presumably, had the power to prevent from happening at all.

Recognizing all this, I feel it would take an extraordinary lack of empathy to dismiss American Atheists’ lawsuit out of hand. The question of how we choose to memorialize those lost in an atrocity like the attack on 9/11 is a profound moral question, and there is no doubt that people of all faiths and none should feel included and represented by the Memorial. Those who have responded to the lawsuit with death threats against atheists have acted with callous disregard for their fellow citizens, and give ample evidence of how deep, widespread, and accepted prejudice against the nonreligious really is in America.

These threats are gruesome. They suggest that atheists should be shot, killed, hung, and thrown to sharks. One particularly creative hater suggests that “we should hang the leader of that group on the cross with nails though their hands and feet, place a crown of thorns upon their head, RAM a spear through their side all after being whipped and beaten publicly.” I submit that had violent slurs against any other minority group in this country been so widespread after the filing of a controversial lawsuit (there are many, many more examples), there would be public outcry and messages of support, perhaps on this very site – but as usual the papers and blogs have little ink to spare for hateful prejudice against people like we atheists.

Nevertheless, despite the vitriol and opprobrium heaped upon Silverman and American Atheists, and despite my empathy for those who might feel unrepresented by the Memorial due to this move, I cannot, given the evidence I have gathered and analyzed, support their lawsuit.

The reasons are complex and nuanced, but essentially come down to symbolic function. Philosopher Nelson Goodman argued that the same object can function in different ways, symbolically speaking, depending on multitudinous factors, including its location, its surroundings, how it is presented, the viewer’s past experiences etc. (those interested in the philosophy of symbols should seek out Goodman’s Languages of Art). In some situations, he would argue, the cross could symbolize in a way entirely appropriate to a secular space like the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. In other situations, it might symbolize in a way that was indeed exclusionary, trespassing over the boundary between church and state.

Marc D. Stern, associate general counsel of the American Jewish Committee and specialist on church-state issues has said that the cross is “a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, [and a] secular piece of history”, but also that it’s “very clear from the repeated blessing of the cross, and the way believers speak about the cross, that it has intense present religious meaning to many people. And both of those narratives about this cross are correct.” So the question becomes: “How does the way in which the cross is to be displayed privilege one “narrative” over another?” Or, in other words, “What will the cross symbolize?” While these may seem academic questions, it is critical, with emotions running high and death threats flying, that we take time to untangle the real meaning of the cross in its intended context. The questions of  how we memorialize our dead and how we seek to understand acts like the 9/11 attacks are profoundly moral, and go to the heart of some of our deepest commitments: the desire to respect the departed and to learn about ourselves, to prevent such atrocities in the future.

So think of the two imaginary situations with which I began this article. I believe the two scenarios are very different, and I’ve painted them in such a way as to bring out what I judge to be the salient distinctions. In the first, the cross is placed in such a way as to “Christianize” the Memorial quadrant. It stands above a reflecting pool in an authoritative position, casting a shadow over the names of the fallen, unchallenged by any other similar symbols and unexplained by museum labels. It is simply there, and it seems to say “This is a Christian space”, just as the cross on a church steeple or at an altar designates a place of worship as Christian.

This, it seems to me, would be unacceptable. It would indeed seem to suggest that the only victims of the attacks were Christian, and that the publicly-funded memorial itself endorsed the Christian worldview – an illegal transgression over the boundary between church and state. The cross, in such a position, would symbolize the fallen and symbolize the memorial, instead of merely representing one group’s response to the attacks. If this were how the cross were to be displayed, I would object to it too, and fully support American Atheists’ lawsuit, just as I support Jessica Ahlquist’s brave efforts to remove a large prayer banner from her public school’s aufditorium.

Now the second scenario. Here, the cross appears in a secular context – the Memorial Museum, a separate entity to the Memorial quadrant, which doesn’t open until 2012 is yet to open and which you must pay to enter. It is surrounded by other artifacts from the aftermath of the attacks (including artifacts representing other religious faiths and none), which represent the collective human response in an exhibit which seeks to “explore the prodigious efforts of recovery and rebuilding at the three attack sites”. It is supplemented with labels which explain the significance of the cross to some, its history and genus.

The cross, here, doesn’t seem to symbolize the fallen in the same way it would were in standing alone in the Memorial gardens. Rather, it seems a record of secular history, of sociological and anthropological importance. “Here is an example,” the museum seems to say, “of how some human beings responded to this crisis. We present it here so you may consider the implications of this fact.”

This presentation of the cross, it seems to me, is not only unobjectionable, but desirable. As Goodman has pointed out in a significant essay “The End of the Museum?“, museums are essentially educational institutions, which should seek to offer the public ways to inform and reform their understanding. The cross, presented in an exhibit with accompanying information and alongside other artifacts, helps us all, Christian or not, to better understand how people have responded to the crisis. It also records a piece of cultural history which people would otherwise be forced into a religious space to see. It therefore plays an important and legitimate public education role in this context, and does not, in my view, threaten the separation between church and state. Further, placing religious artifacts in publicly-funded museums (like the Smithsonian museums) is a widely-accepted secular practice which is not seen as an unnecessary entanglement of religion and government.  Like housing a Bible in the school library, there is nothing objectionable, and much of potential benefit to all, in this second scenario.

So which is it? Is the cross in the memorial or the museum? Is this case equivalent to the prayer banner in the auditorium or the Bible on the bookshelf? American Atheists have seemed confused on this point. In response to my initial article on this subject, an American Atheists representative stated the following:

James is certainly entitled to his opinion, but like many he has one fact wrong. The memorial and museum are separate entities. The memorial is a separate place surrounded by the museum. The cross is going in the memorial and is the only religious symbol in the memorial.

If it were part of a display in the museum…

This claim has been repeated multiple times, seeming to show that the suit was predicated on the belief that the cross was to be housed in the Memorial gardens, as in my first imaginary scenario. And the wording of the Facebook message implies that, were the cross in the museum, American Atheists would have no problem with it. Since “the cross is going in the memorial” American Atheists launched their suit.

As I demonstrate in the updates to my article, however, this is not the case. The cross will in fact be housed in the Historical Exhibition in the Memorial Museum, along with other religious and non-religious artifacts documenting the response to the attacks (I have had direct confirmation form the museum itself on this point).

Since then, the justification provided publicly for the suit seems to have shifted, with some now claiming that the cross was initially going to be housed in the Memorial gardens, and that process to select exhibits to be held in the museum was prejudiced against atheists, and that atheist expressions of grief were not accepted into the museum. This may be so – I can find no evidence that the Museum has abruptly shifted-tack, nor that any atheist artifacts were offered to the museum through their official donation process, nor that the museum actively rebuffed such offerings. But such evidence could exist.

On the basis of what is publicly known at this moment, then, I stand by my judgment (echoed bySusan Jacoby) that American Atheists have, in this instance, misjudged the situation. The cross, housed in the Museum exhibit, is telling its “secular narrative”, not the fundamentally religious narrative which it told when it was outside the Museum. Indeed, housing the cross in a Museum serves to secularize the symbol, by making it clear that it is merely one potential response among many, and not the response to the attacks.

As a symbol of the Memorial itself, and of the dead, placed in the Memorial gardens, the cross is unacceptable and should be opposed. As the symbol of one of many human responses to a human crisis, and as an authentic piece of cultural history, it has every right to space in the Museum, and it should be supported.

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