Grasping at Symbols -- R. Jonathan Moore

December 14, 2000

The "Great Dissenter" Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that, in America, "we live by symbols." These words came to mind as I scanned a cluster of recent church-state stories.

In Kentucky, a familiar battle continues over posting the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls. Earlier this year a judge ordered Pulaski and McCreary Counties to remove religious plaques. But they soon reposted the commandments, this time surrounded by documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. Naturally, this clever attempt to make the display into a more neutral, merely historical one didn't satisfy the ACLU. Litigation continues, and the saga over this symbol will play out in coming weeks.

A second story of symbols is taking place in Lexington, Massachusetts, where residents are quarreling over the appropriateness of a nativity scene on the town's historic green. The local Knights of Columbus, trying to maintain a decades-old tradition, want to put a creche in the public square. This year, however, they ran afoul of a recently adopted local ordinance banning such displays.

Residents who in the past had complained about the creche decided to publicize their concerns by requesting permission to decorate the green with displays honoring other religions. Plans included a temple to the Egyptian Sun God Ra and a Hindu-related herd of cows. Rejecting these requests while continuing to allow the creche, city council members knew, would bring them establishment-clause trouble. So earlier this year, perhaps with visions of unruly livestock dancing in their heads, public officials passed an ordinance banning all such displays from Lexington's square. The Knights have charged that this statute violates their right to free (religious) speech. The city won this argument in federal district court, but the Knights may appeal.

In both cases, those seeking to put religious symbols on public property are not only tilting at First Amendment windmills. They are also pursuing a cause which, if successful, would fail to yield any practical benefits. Placing the Ten Commandments in public buildings won't make Kentuckians more moral, any more than the presence of a creche in Lexington's most public space will spark a religious revival.

Instead, in both cases (and their analogs across the country), the contests are really over symbols. Losing the tacit state-sponsorship of religious symbols can be painful, for it ratifies a change in American society that many people are unwilling to accept. Having religious symbols in the courthouse or the town square signifies that a particular religion rests at the heart of civic society. Once the state denies the public display of Christian symbols, religious partisans may be forced to recognize that America's religious character is less monolithic than it used to be.

This points to an irony in these continuing struggles over religious symbols. Fighting for public state sponsorship for religious totems often does little more than highlight the desperation of a cause in decline. Only when a position seems tenuous, only when an ideology is dislocated from the center of public culture, do partisans find it necessary to demand official recognition for their beliefs.

Voices insisting on the Christian nature of America, for example, have become shrill only as that description has become less and less accurate. Often, the need for symbolic victories intensifies only as past victories -- whether real or imagined -- begin to slip away. Continuing the fight reveals that the battle has already been lost.

Christians would do well to remember this when contemplating the introduction (or reintroduction) of symbols of faith into civic spaces. In an ever more plural America, such actions not only create hostility in differently minded fellow citizens (not always an unhealthy thing in a democracy), but they signal a willful unwillingness to face contemporary realities.

This is not to say that Christians, or people of any faith, should merely accept reality as they find it. Indeed, religious traditions serve the common good by helping Americans to imagine better worlds not yet realized. But attempting to recreate a bygone era by insisting that the state publicly recognize religious symbols denies the present situation and prevents an honest discussion of any potential future.

Clearing away the symbolic clutter from government-owned public spaces might make room for more creative and spiritually astute ways for religious groups to present their faiths to the wider society. We do indeed live by symbols in America -- all the more reason to carefully consider which ones belong under the state's umbrella and which ones ought to be left out in the rain.

R. Jonathan Moore is managing editor of *Sightings* and a doctoral student in American religious history at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Publication author: 
R. Jonathan Moore