Friday, April 30, 2010

"The Old Rugged War Memorial"

A flurry of court cases and well crafted articles on religion and popular culture.

In a recent article of her thoughtful Faith & Reason blog in USA Today, Cathy Lynn Grossman has written an excellent summary on the latest court ruing involving a five-foot cross perched on a desert outcropping high over a federal preserve.

The full article is called The Supreme Court's New Hymn: 'The Old Rugged War Memorial'

In a clever play on the old hymn "The Old Rugged Cross" (lyrics by George Bernard), Grossman suggests that interpreting the cross as a universal war memorial symbol (or as a symbol of some other "high honor") is not something that Christians should want any more than non-Christians.

Grossman writes:

What's so interesting here are the arguments about the cross. I looked back to Joan Biskupic's story for USA TODAY last fall when the case was argued.

One of the most heated exchanges came when an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer emphasized the power of the cross -- erected to honor U.S. soldiers killed in World War I -- as a symbol of Christianity. Justice Antonin Scalia challenged him on the implication that the cross was not honoring all the war dead.

"I have been to Jewish cemeteries," attorney Peter Eliasberg said. "There is never a cross on the tombstone of a Jew."

"I don't think you can jump from that to the conclusion that the only war dead the cross honors are the Christian war dead," Scalia shot back angrily. "I think that is an outrageous conclusion."

This makes me wonder whether Scalia has been to Arlington National Cemetery or any other cemetery where our government honors the war dead from here to Normandy where Jewish veterans are honored with Jewish stars amid the crosses of their Christian companions.

Now that the decision is in, however, it turns out to be Justice Anthony Kennedy's opinion that busts the cross into a mere symbol of high honor (as if it could turn up next as a championship sports trophy) while the liberal lion, retiring Justice John Paul Stevens, stands up for the cross of the old song -- you know, the one that recalls Jesus' ultimate sacrifice for the sins of humanity.

Kennedy wrote that:
Here, one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten."

While Stevens countered:
The cross is not a universal symbol of sacrifice. It is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith.

This is a fascinating and rather critical argument that shows again why Church and State separation is a really good thing: protecting both someone who doesn't want the government placing a religious symbol on them, as well as the turning a religious symbol into a national symbol: and in the process legislating the "meaning" of the symbol (which would change, restrict, or water down the meaning, depending upon one's understanding).

This has lots of applications. The so called "War on Christmas" arguments would likely disappear. Imagine how different our arguments over marriage would be if the government focused on protecting a couple's rights, and religious communities focused on how to recognize and celebrate God's presence in a relationship and the community's commitment to the married couple.

Being sensitive to keeping Religion and State separate does not mean that we have to lose the sense of the sacred within the secular (as I suggested in an earlier post Invocations: Declaring the Secular "Sacred"). But arguing to slap a Christian symbol onto everything is in nobody's best interest: including God's.

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