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The Cross and American Militarism


As I read pundits commenting on the Bladensburg cross lawsuit (Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, which will be argued before the Supreme Court tomorrow) I sometimes wonder if we’re looking at the same cross. For many, there’s no question that the high court will reverse the appeals court ruling which found that the massive Latin cross is unconstitutional. Writing for Reuters, Lawrence Hurley echoed many others in saying “most Supreme Court experts predict that the challenge to the Peace Cross will fail.”

Strangely, these commentators overlook longstanding precedent that has almost always ruled crosses on public property unconstitutional. The American Humanist Association’s brief cites dozens of cases ruling as such, and points out that the very few cases upholding the public display of a Latin cross are easily distinguishable from the Bladensburg case.

The pundits would also seem to be overlooking common sense. If church-state separation means anything, surely it means that a community cannot maintain a massive concrete Christian cross in the middle of a busy intersection entering town, doesn’t it?

If one reads the pundits carefully, however, there is one fact upon which they rely in predicting that the justices will reverse the lower court’s decision: the cross was erected to honor fallen soldiers from the First World War. Because of this, they insist with undue confidence, surely the cross will stay.

This reasoning, however, is not only flawed—it’s downright alarming. What it says is that we will ignore our constitutional standards if they inconvenience our exaltation of the military. Because the cross honors war dead, it cannot be questioned.

Bear in mind that nobody is arguing that the cross should simply be scrapped. It could be moved to private land, or it could be modified to conform with the secular standards of almost all other public war memorials. Nevertheless, to even question the constitutional legitimacy of the forty-foot structure is somehow an insult to the fallen soldiers. This mindset is cowardly and dangerous.

If not for the military angle, the cross defenders would have absolutely no hope, because any objective assessment would easily conclude that the structure is unconstitutional. A simple hypothetical illustrates the point: if the government announced today that a memorial was to be constructed in honor of those who have served as justices on the Supreme Court, nobody would seriously argue that a monument in the shape of a massive Christian cross would pass constitutional muster. A cross-shaped memorial would advance Christianity, insulting the numerous non-Christian justices who have served on the high court—Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo, and Felix Frankfurter come to mind—along with the three current non-Christian justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.

The same would hold for any other government-owned memorial, whether to honor diplomats, cabinet secretaries, or anyone else—nobody in their right mind would argue that such a memorial could take the shape of an enormous Christian cross. Nevertheless, society’s deference for all things military leaves many experts certain that the Supreme Court will uphold the towering Bladensburg cross.

The irony here is that the true purpose of the military is to preserve the Constitution. Yet many are ready to throw constitutional principles aside merely because the Bladensburg case calls into question actions that were taken to honor the military. This is an insult to the men and women who have served in the armed forces. It suggests that despite their strength and rigor, their feelings will be hurt if we move or modify a monument that should never have been erected.

The fact that such fragile thinking gets traction in the press is a testament to how militarism has overtaken the American mindset. We dare not question it. We dare not challenge it. We unquestioningly accept it because it has come to define us as a people.

Nobody is more pleased with this development than those who would define the United States as a Christian nation—the same ones who push for more religion in government and more Christian privilege throughout society. They must be downright gleeful to see pundits dogmatically assuming that the Supreme Court will uphold the Christian cross on public property.

In the real world, the Bladensburg cross can only be preserved through the abandonment of both precedent and sober thinking. Let’s hope that our adoration of militarism hasn’t brought us to that point.

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