Wednesday, October 7, 2009

So a cross walks into a federal preserve ...

While living in Pocatello, Idaho, I drove by the county's courthouse on an almost-daily basis. Erected out on the otherwise nondescript lawn was a rather crude monument depicting the Ten Commandments, which is to many courthouses in America what a red light is to a den of iniquity. As a unabashed and often vocal atheist, the memorial was a daily annoyance, though not for the reason many would think. I don't have a problem with signs of faith anymore than I do proclamations of the absence thereof. I am not personally offended or bothered by the concept of spirituality, I just think spirituality itself is silly and dangerous to our world writ large.

The underlying cause of my being annoyed, and the reason I wanted that monument removed, was because I shuddered to think of how totally stupid the lawn in front of the courthouse would look if it featured monuments of faith for the wide variety of religions practiced in the city. I'd just rather we just tell everyone — Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus — that such displays are best left to the front window of one's house. Or, say, churches.

The response to this argument — and it's almost always the Christians who posit such — is that Christian symbols aren't inherently exclusive. Like the champions of the repulsive Confederate Flag that flew over the South Carolina state house, they'll say it's history that's being protected here, not the particular set of beliefs represented by the symbols. That's the tack pursued by Justice Antonin Scalia in defense of the "White Cross World War I Memorial," a five-foot tall white cross erected in 1934 which sits in the federally owned Mojave National Preserve.

"It's erected as a war memorial! I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. The cross is the most common symbol of … of … of the resting place of the dead."

The article I've linked to covers its bases in terms of the back-and-forth, and I'm certainly not interested in exploring the various legalistic questions at play in this case. What interests me are two things: 1) The fact that Scalia, a brazenly intelligent man who rarely walks into an intellectual gunfight with a knife, actually believes that non-Christians would ever be buried under a cross (this isn't even the case with large plots of anonymous military burial grounds, where any recognized Jew would have a Star of David substituted for a cross); and, 2) That Scalia actually believes that the universal sign of Christianity ever ceases to be so, even if it's being employed in a non-religious context (in this case, a war memorial).

Of course he doesn't actually believe the second premise implicit in his objection; no human being on earth would ever recognize a white cross as anything but a symbol of Christianity, just like no American would recognize the Confederate Flag as anything but a symbol of slave-owning secessionists who once took arms against fellow citizens and America itself. What he's really arguing here is intent, as clearly those vets who put the cross up in the first place did so with no intention of creating an Establishment Clause skirmish, mainly because America was a much more hegemonic place then than it is today.

It's a sticky situation, as almost every fight surrounding the Establishment Clause is. Tearing down the memorial seems a rather crude exercise, since it was and is a war memorial, and memorials are what little solace we have to offer to our military dead and their families. But the alternative is to open up the memorial space to more demonstrations of faith, as was proposed by a Buddhist on this very site. No one will argue that allowing a Buddhist exhibition would be more consistent with the principles of our pluralistic, multi-faith society, but it would also be a logistical and aesthetic nightmare. One can see a situation in which, come the passing of a decade, the site would look more like a "Faiths of the World" exhibition at your local high school than anything resembling a war memorial.

So we have to ask ourselves, what's worse? Nothing, or everything? Because our constitution does not properly allow for the possibility that a majority's religious beliefs somehow affords those followers more rights for public display than the followers of less popular faiths. To argue otherwise would simply be arguing in favor of de facto establishment, which is a short and token step away from just going ahead and ratifying Christianity as our nation's official religion.

Many Christians, particularly those of a rightward bent, find arguments like mine to be repugnant. They express mock or real outrage at the idea of someone being "offended" by Christian displays on public land (and I'll concede that the verb "offense" and its various conjugations have been abused to a tragic degree). They see any challenge to public displays of Christian symbols as being an "attack" on Christianity, just like they see the use of the term "Happy Holidays" as part of a "war" on Christmas. Yet, they don't see their support of passive exclusion as being an attack on Judaism, just the nature of the world when your tribe is the smaller one, and doesn't boast the commonly recognized name of its deity in a passage of the Declaration of Independence (contrary to a rather disturbing commonly held belief, "God" is not mentioned once in The Constitution, a document that actually holds up the concept of "liberty" as that which bestows any and all blessings).

But professed outrage is a poor substitute for logic, and there is ultimately no logical defense available to those who believe Christian symbols can expect special protection in the public sphere. And, since I know men like Scalia would be even more scandalized by opening up the floodgates and turning the front lawns of every small-town courthouse into a smorgasbord of religious symbology, I think we can all agree that it's just better to have nothing at all.

Mr. Scalia, tear down that cross.


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