May 3, 2010
The Mojave Cross -- Religious or Not?
— Martin E. Marty
Days ago, the Supreme Court’s currently-standard 5-4 majority ruled that “the Mojave Cross,” a contested war memorial in the desert of California, may stand. The case itself is too complicated – it involved lower court rulings on a land transfer, and more – to be treated in the short scope of a Sightings column. But two justices framed what is at issue. Justice Anthony Kennedy won the favor of many religious citizens by broadening the meaning of the cross and in effect secularizing it. It is wrong, he said, to see the cross solely as a religious symbol; this “one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion.” Justice John Paul Stevens, in dissent, won the disfavor of many citizens by trying to re-religiocify the symbol. The government is endorsing a “starkly sectarian message,” he said, a judgment which Jews, Muslims, other-religious, or non-religious citizens would affirm. Justice Samuel Alito in effect spoke for both sides: “[I]t is likely that the cross was seen by more rattlesnakes than humans,” and snakes are presumably secular. Then he admitted that Easter services have often been held at the site, and such services are presumably and specifically religious.
I happened to be lecturing last week at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, under sponsorship of the University, the endowment of historian Walter Shurden and spouse Kay, and, most of all, the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. Score three for Baptists, in my book. The BJC deployed a half-dozen staffers, and I eavesdropped as they discussed responses to the Court ruling, which, again because of the complications of the case, were measured. The responses and the context brought to my mind a case that too seldom gets made: that many who are nervous about “sectarian” messages and symbols in public settings are so for principled religious reasons. That is, despite some media portrayals and populist reactions, those who oppose public privileging of Christian symbols are not all atheists, secularists, humanists, and liberal non-believers. Some are dedicatedly Christian. What supports their case?
First, the argument of the Jewish War Veterans and others, that the cross is “a powerful Christian symbol,” would restore it to the place where it evokes awe, wonder, the need for decision, and attention from more than rattlesnakes. Second, while the majority of justices are rightly sympathetic about the placement of the cross on graves of thousands who gave their life for their country, the current debates also recall the New Testament understandings, projected into the future, that while believers are saved by the cross, it is “a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:23, Gal 5:11).
My text for the BJC lecture on “not privileging” a particular religion or religion itself was from a James Madison favorite, Montesquieu, who observed that the way “to attack a religion is by favor, not by what drives away, but by what makes men lukewarm.” The fact that Montesquieu said it does not necessarily make it true. But the evidence – for example, of lukewarm Christendom in Europe as it lingers in favor of and after fourteen centuries of legal establishment and privilege – needs to be reckoned with.
When Baptists were Baptist, they knew this, which is why they found the United States Constitution so protective and congenial. Many of their heirs continue to regard the Cross (and particular symbols of Jews, Muslims, Baha’i, Wiccans, and all the rest) as symbols of more than “religion in general.” Some court cases treat the monuments as “cross-shaped” secular symbols. It is also more and other than that.
Read the court’s decision at http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/09pdf/08-472.pdf.
For further coverage of the case, see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704423504575212001980127366.html.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.