The Supreme Court Says the Cross Is Not about Christ

mojave-cross1 This is a subject on which I’ve meant to write twice before, didn’t have time, and then decided against writing on it as it seemed too late to do so.  But every time I decide not to write about this, some new twist occurs, giving me yet another opportunity to make a post on the subject.  Far be it from me to ignore such obvious signs.

There is a cross in the Mojave National Preserve that serves as a war memorial.  It was erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.  A decade ago a retired National Park Service employee, Frank Buono, sued to have the cross removed on the charge that it violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment.  Buono won the case, and the cross was ordered removed, so Congress decided to give the land to the VFW so as to avoid having to remove the cross.  A federal court ruled that such a transfer was clearly intended to sidestep the requirement to take down the cross, and, as such, was illegal.  The government appealed that case to the Supreme Court, and on April 28, in a 5-4 ruling, the Court ruled that that transfer was, in fact, legal (that ruling can be seen here).  The result of that ruling was that the cross got to stay.  However, on May 9, the cross was stolen by thieves.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, a cross appeared in the same spot just last Wednesday, May 19.  It is unclear whether this is the same cross that was removed or if it is a replica.  It is also relevant to point out that in 1999 the park service denied a request to allow a Buddhist memorial in the same area, and Easter services have been held at the memorial for the past 70 years.

That is a quick and dirty rundown on the background of the issue at hand.  What’s funny about the Supreme Court case is that, even though it was supposed to be about the legality of the transfer of the land by the federal government into the hands of a private organization for the purpose of avoiding following a mandate handed down from a federal court, most of the hearing centered on whether or not it was proper to have a religious symbol on land owned by the federal government, especially whether it was legal to have a symbol of only one religion while excluding others.  Looking at the First Amendment, it might appear that the obvious conclusion is that it is indeed illegal to have such a symbol erected on federal land.  Quoting an editorial from the New York Times:

On the merits, the appeals court was right that the cross must come down. By allowing a Christian cross, and not symbols of other faiths, on federal land, the government was favoring one religion over others. Also, Congress has designated the cross as a national memorial, which means that it continues to have official government endorsement.

It is curious, then, that the Supreme Court ruled to allow the cross to stay.  We can see the reasoning behind the majority opinion in this exchange between Justice Antonin Scalia and ACLU attorney Peter Eliasberg (the pdf of the court transcript can be found here):

MR. ELIASBERG: … I think it would be very odd indeed for the VFW to feel that it was free to take down the cross and put up, for example, a statues of a soldier which would honor all of the people who fought for America in World War I, not just Christians, and say: Well, we were free to do that because even though there’s the sign that says, this cross is designated to honor all the —

JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that — is that —

MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that’s actually correct.

JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?

MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn’t say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that’s why the Jewish war veterans —

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.


MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.

JUSTICE SCALIA: I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.

MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my — the point of my — point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don’t feel honored by this cross. This cross can’t honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.

And that seems to aptly summarize the kind of debate that went on in the courthouse.  The result was that the Court decided to that it was appropriate and legal for the cross to stay.  From the New York Times:

“A Latin cross is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in a plurality opinion joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies would be compounded if the fallen are forgotten.”

This strikes me as simply bizarre, and I am not alone in this view.  Even other Justices agree.  From the same article:

Justice John Paul Stevens rejected that view. “The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice,” he wrote in a dissent joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor. “It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.”

And that’s the point I want to make here.  In order to render the cross legal, they had to render it largely impotent.  That is, the cross is no longer, for the majority of the Court, a symbol of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for the sins of the world so that Man might have communion with God and have the opportunity to be forgiven by His Grace, which is arguably the core belief of Christianity.  I mean, the whole point of the cross is that Christ died on it!  What Kennedy and the majority have done is say that this is not the meaning of the cross, that instead it is just something we stick on graves.  But can they really believe that?  Is that why churches have the cross in front of their buildings?  Is that why people wear crosses around their necks?  Also, why was the cross chosen as this symbol, and why aren’t crosses put on all graves rather than only on the graves of Christians?  And all of this ignores the earlier points that other religious symbols are not allowed, and Easter services are held at the foot of the cross, but, of course, those issues highlight just how weird the ruling is.  The absurdity of such a view is staggering.

What is remarkable about this ruling is that, in order to keep the cross, it had to be stripped of all its meaning, and that seems to defeat the purpose of having the cross erected in the first place.  Certainly, the reason the cross is a desired symbol is because of its religious symbolism.  Once that is removed, once that meaning is gone, there seems to be little reason to fight to keep the cross in place at all.  Why not just have a plaque or any other strictly secular symbol?  What does the cross matter once it no longer stands for Christ?

Lest there be any confusion, Christians conservatives have not taken this ruling to mean what the Justices say it means.  With titles like “Big Week for Religious Liberty!” on articles praising the ruling, it seems clear that many Christians take this ruling to be a sign that the Supreme Court has ruled that religious symbols on federal property is appropriate and legal.  But, again, that is not the sense one gets from reading the ruling and comments of the majority of the Court.  Rather, the cross has been deemed to not be religious!  It’s difficult to overstate the weight of that.  What the court has told Christians is that their symbol, the one they use to demonstrate their belief in their god’s sacrifice for them, is often not a symbol of any such thing.  Rather, it is something to stick on graves.  In specific, the cross in the Mojave Desert does not represent Christianity.  It is not, in Justice Kennedy’s words, “a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs.” 

It seems that if any of these Christian conservatives were actually paying attention, they would not be celebrating.  Rather, they would be outraged.  I can’t help but think we should all be outraged at the kind of game that the majority of the Court is playing by saying that the most well-known symbol of the Christian faith is actually no such thing.

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2 Responses to “The Supreme Court Says the Cross Is Not about Christ”

  1. Mintman Says:

    I don’t think there is any reason for religious conservatives to be outraged. They probably get the intended meaning: “Noooo, the cross is not a specific religious symbol at all (wink, wink, nudge), so no problem with plastering it all over the place.”

  2. YamaZaru Says:

    It’s really an interesting case and you’re right, the religious media don’t seem to be cottoning on that this guts the cross of religious meaning as far as the state is concerned. In a sense I’m not too surprised given that the history of religion has been one in which religious institutions have, over and over, redefined or even junked some of their most important doctrinal points when material circumstances back them up against a wall. The Catholics are famous for this, having been burned time and again when trying to stem the tide of accumulating scientific knowledge that was leaving their tidy cosmology in a shambles. I think not just due to that history, though, but due to the fact that being so huge and so hegemonic an institution really burned in the fact that the need for Mama Church to survive is paramount no matter what claims or points of doctrine need to be dropped or turned into metaphor.

    Religion is hilarious- you have knowledge structures built around a set of beliefs that are proclaimed eternal, yet the churches twist and turn around to accommodate material facts once there’s no alternative. I though faith could “move mountains”…??

    I wonder if the smaller more zealous sects, with no institutional presence to consider and little chance of asserting political power, will start to raise some objections….

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