Friday, May 7, 2010

The Cross in the Mojave

There's a cross at a remote location in the Mojave desert that sits on public land. Rather like the cross on the top of Mt Soledad in coastal San Diego, it has been the subject of court case and argument and efforts to preserve it as a war memorial by ingenious land swaps making the few square feet beneath it technically "private". The Mojave cross case recently went before SCOTUS. Writing in the NY Times, Stanley Fish explains,
In the latest chapter of this odd project of saving religion by emptying it of its content, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality in Salazar v. Buono, ordered a district court to reconsider a ruling that Congress had impermissibly promoted religion by devising a plan designed to prevent the removal of a cross standing in the Mojave National Preserve.
This is the one thing BP and I really argue about (and in over 15 years, have never managed agreement). She insists that a cross is a sign of the dead, and not limited to Christian symbolism. I, a non-Christian, say that's not the case, and it is an overtly Christian symbol that excludes those who are not Christian.

Fish goes on,
Kennedy denies that the “emplacement” of the cross was accompanied by any intention “to promote a Christian message.” .... Therefore, Kennedy reasoned, Congress had no “illicit” intention either; it merely sought a way to “accommodate” (a term of art in Establishment Clause jurisprudence) a “symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people.”
BP would agree with Kennedy. In a majority Christian culture, she points out that the cross has acquired secular meaning as well, particularly to honor war dead. Beneath those crosses, row on row, she argues that there are a lot of non-believers (and I'm sure she's right about that). But Fish argues that it is not a both/and, as BP argues, and instead he thinks it's a somewhat dishonest attempt at either/or:
It has become a formula: if you want to secure a role for religious symbols in the public sphere, you must de-religionize them....The game being played here by Kennedy (and many justices before him) is “let’s pretend.” Let’s pretend that a cross that, as Kennedy acknowledges, “has been a gathering place for Easter services since it was first put in place,” does not breathe Christianity. Let’s pretend that Congress, which in addition to engineering a land-swap for the purpose of keeping the cross in place attached a reversionary clause requiring that the “memorial” (no cross is mentioned) be kept as it is, did not have in mind the preservation of a religious symbol. Let’s pretend that after all these machinations a “reasonable observer” who knew all the facts would not see the government’s hand, but would only see the hands of private parties. (This is what I call the “look, ma, no hands” argument.) Let’s pretend that there will be many who, if the cross were removed, would think that the government had conveyed “disrespect for those the cross was seen as honoring.” ....

Yet, Fish points out that you can never really remove the Christian from the cross.
The trouble with pretending is that it involves a strain; keeping the pretense going is hard, and the truth being occluded often peeks through, as it does when Kennedy protests that the Establishment Clause “does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm” and adds that “the Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society.”

But I thought that the cross was not, at least in this instance, a religious symbol and that the issue was not government acknowledging religion, but government honoring its dead. At moments like this, the mask slips and the plurality’s real concern — “to foster the display of the cross” (Stevens ) — is revealed for all (who had no doubt already spied it beneath the subterfuge) to see. The Christian and conservative Web sites that welcomed the decision as a blow for Christianity and against liberalism knew what they were looking at.
Either this particular cross is an overtly Christian symbol, or it is a transcendent symbol of the dead. You can't argue that it's simply a memorial and then say "besides, it's okay to acknowledge religion." Consistency, please! One or the other. And it's clear which one it is, in a dominantly Christian culture that considers its religious symbols generalizable to all. That's completely understandable, but sometimes I think that Christians don't realize how VERY Christian this country is and the myriad of little ways that non-Christians can feel left behind. So to speak. ;-)

Now, I am mildly annoyed by the cross on Mt Soledad, which I see every day. Although they call it a "war memorial" it's called the Easter Cross on the maps, which underlies its purpose: a marker of Christianity. BP points out that if it were on a private church on that hilltop, it wouldn't annoy me, even if it were the exact same cross. What's the difference, she asks? But it's not on a church, it's on public land, I reply. (Technically they have sold a few square feet of the land to make it private, but that's clearly just a ruse). On a church, it would be a private display of faith, which I completely support as free speech even if I don't agree. On public land, it's still a display of faith, one that I'm at some level as a taxpaying citizen, forced to support. BP argues that there is a historical context to it, as the cross was erected in a time (30s) when the majority Christian view was more...dominent? generalizable? I'm not nearly annoyed enough to agree with lawsuits to remove it, which I consider just this side of frivolous, but as a principle of the thing, I understand the instinct.

I think it is interesting that the majority of Christians see the cross as a symbol that goes beyond Christianity where as most non-Christians see it only as a Christian symbol. My wife and I adore each other but we just cannot see a cross in the same way.


Ann said...

It is a religious symbol - what else could it be - you don't find the cross except as it relates to Christianity and the death of Jesus. I can't agree with BP on this -what if it were another religious symbol - Star of David, e.g. -- just because it had been around for a long time - it is still religious. The national cemeteries have a list of what symbols mean on public land - all crosses are related to Christians.

Ann said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
David |Dah • veed| said...

There is a form of cross that has moved outside of being strictly a Christian symbol, the equilateral + sign. It has become associated with medical care in a red version and First Aid in a green version. So much so that I doubt anyone in the western world thinks of Christianity when they see something associated with their local/national Red Cross Society (here the Cruz Roja Méxicana), or the same symbol in any color of the rainbow on the sides of ambulances flying past to an emergency.

In fact it is often infused with another, more ancient, biblical symbol in regard to medicine, the serpent on a staff.

However, even this cross is not viewed so innocuously by either Moslem nations who have the Red Crescent Society and the Israelis with the Red Mogan David Society. In fact Israel has lobbied long and hard to get the Red Mogan David accepted as a legitimate alternative for identifying military and civilian medical vehicles and facilities by the International Association of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

But I agree IT, these crosses are definitely intended to be Christian symbols. At least they were when they were erected and before folks started trying to explain them in another light.

JCF said...

Totally agree w/ you, IT.

There are symbols that have moved, arguably, from the religious to the secular ("Nicholas, Bishop of Myra" I think would be one. "Santa Claus" is understood to, mythologically, give presents to ALL "good children" on December 25, not just Christian ones).

But the cross isn't one of them. Why are some soldiers buried under Stars-of-David at Normandy? Why was one recent war dead, after a fight by his widow, buried under a Pagan pentagram? Because the Cross would NOT suffice for them! It's obviously NOT a symbol for all the dead!

If the S.C. is going to pander to the religious-majority (as perceived anyway), why not just say so? "The Constitution functionally stipulates a "Wall of Separation', except where the majority says it doesn't." Ta-Da! (At least THAT is honest!)

IT said...

But to argue the other side, when you drive along a highway and see a homemade cross at the side of the road, do you think "oh, Christian symbol"? Or do you think, "someone died here"?

If you saw a Star of David by the side of the road, which would you think?

We have to admit that in a majority Christian culture, the cross does take on assumed meanings. And then the question is, how much can you divorce those meanings from its religious symbolism.

Should the cross on the Mojave be removed? Or the onte on Mt Soledad? Is it worth litigating?

JCF said...

But to argue the other side, when you drive along a highway and see a homemade cross at the side of the road, do you think "oh, Christian symbol"? Or do you think, "someone died here"?

Truthfully? I think "Wingnuts were Here." Grieving Wingnuts, for whom I have human compassion---but Wingnuts all the same! [Though I mean mainly the wing-nuttyness of putting up a roadside shrine: you can't save it for your loved ones grave, or someplace in YOUR home? I think people who tie teddy-bears onto fences, in commemoration of a death, aren't much saner. That's grief, I guess. But give the teddy-bears to LIVING children in a hospital or shelter, not tied to a fence! Ooops, guess I'm ranting now... ;-X]

it's margaret said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I shudder at faith symbols in public places --any of 'em. They makes me shudder.

As to the roadside shrines --I think faith and death all at once; but my mind works that way....

Counterlight said...

I agree with IT too.
Specifically Christian symbols in places that belong to everyone deeply offends this Christian. I think of it as a passive form of coercion, and in the words of Roger Williams, forced conversion "stinks in the nostrils of God."

James said...

I'm on BP's side on this one. When the cross(es) were erected, we were really a WASP culture. They've been there, and the grandfather clause takes it's prerogative. If we were to start removing these crosses, then we'd have a long list of things to remove - starting with all the military cemeteries.

If, however, someone wanted to put one up now, on public land, I'd object.

And, if I saw a Magan David along side the road, my first thought would be, "Someone Jewish died at this spot."

David |Dah • veed| said...

We both have spelled it incorrectly James. It is Magen David.

And if I saw anyones religious symbol by the roadside I would think that it marked the place where someone of that faith has died and is being remembered. JCF, get over your wingnut self!

JCF said...

Back atcha, Cholo!

[I've got one of these things a half a mile away, on the road I live on. Complete w/ cross, and plastic "Weeping Angel" statuette (Yes, think Dr Who! ;-/) I swear, I have half a mind to remove it, as litter. Since when does getting killed in a certain spot, make it into the PROPERTY of one's survivors? (Yeah, it's possible it's on private land, w/ permission. Still tacky though!)]

IT said...

JCF, you are harsh! we see a lot of those down here, especially on the back roads. There's a lot of drinkin' and drivin' and stupid kids. And regret. Not a problem with that.

Ann said...

The highway departments allow them on highway right of ways as long as they are back far enough to not be a danger to traffic. I think they are helpful to grief stricken friends and family whose loved one died suddenly in that place. Honoring the place they breathed their last. I don't want one for me but have no problem honoring others' grief and needs.

David |Dah • veed| said...

JCF, God forbid, but if you get killed while driving in one of these wingnut rages, I will personally make sure that no one here puts one up for you. There shall be no highway-side littering in your wingnut memory if I can help it.

JCF said...

Oh lord: the (Mojave) Cross has been stolen. They're sure to put up a more gawdawful one in its place! }-p


Thanks, Dahveed! [But I want a MAUSOLEUM over my final resting place, to rival a pharaoh's (or King Mausolus, for that matter). Dahveed, I'm leaving you in charge of its establishment---you better start fundraising now! ;-/]

Oh: and it's ANTI-Wingnut rages that I drive in, thank you.

David said...

I'm a solidly Christian fellow and I agree with IT's assessment. It's obviously a religious symbol and as such, doesn't belong on public land (yeah, I know the whole "trick" they used to make it private land - doesn't wash with me).

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