Saint Teresa of Calcutta is purported to have said, “I love all religions. I am in love with my own.”
This wisdom is reasonable and true to my own conscience as a follower of God in the way of Jesus. It is a guiding principle for being unapologetically Christian all the while respecting and honoring faith traditions that are not my own. I am openly in love with Christianity. As a Christian and a pastor, I don’t need the government to be.
In a splintered 7-2 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month in The American Legion v. American Humanist Association that a 40-foot, 16-ton Latin cross standing on government property does not violate the First Amendment’s “no establishment” clause. The reasoning of the court’s majority signals that government appears at times to be in love with one religion, namely, Christianity. This latest showcase of preferential treatment of Christianity ought to be troubling to non-Christians, non-religious citizens and especially Christians.
“It’s not the government’s job to decide what constitutes the meaning of the cross.”
The court ruled on the grounds that the “peace cross” in Bladensburg, Maryland, had developed an added secular meaning due to it being a nearly 100-year-old World War I memorial and thus constituted meaning beyond its explicit Christian symbolism. Rather than deface the Latin cross and risk the division it might incite to have it removed, the majority opinion cited its historical context and cultural significance that warranted constitutionality.
The court’s decision is discouraging. Not only does it diminish the foundational principle of disestablishment and government neutrality toward religion, it devalues Christianity’s preeminent symbol. The Bladensburg cross decision manages to usurp the unambiguous Christian meaning of the symbol, which was originally designed and dedicated as symbolic of the Cross of Calvary that references the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels. No matter the misappropriated moral algebra that the court used to come to its higgledy-piggledy majority opinion, the fact remains that the Christian cross is not fundamentally a secular monument any more than the American flag is a religious symbol.
Perhaps the most theologically relevant aspect about the cross case came from dissenting Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor who argued that “. . . Making a Latin cross a war memorial does not make the cross secular, it makes the war memorial sectarian.” Herein lies the decision’s double whammy that in a fell swoop dismantles the No Establishment principle and desecrates the most venerated symbol of Christianity.
Justice Samuel Alito Jr. warned that “tearing down monuments with religious symbolism” or “scrubbing away any reference to the divine” could be interpreted as “aggressively hostile to religion.” To hear a Supreme Court justice make such references reveals the deep-seated bias of Protestant privilege that continues to threaten the wall of separation between church and state that is good for both.
Devoted Christians who believe that it’s unconstitutional, unnecessary and unwise to support the cross as a secular symbol are not advocating the purging of all religious symbols from the public square. What we oppose is the government’s purge of religious meaning from those religious symbols to justify an altogether different purpose – a purpose that belongs solely to Christianity to define.
“Sometimes the language of religious freedom becomes code for ‘government’s favorite and preferred religion – Christianity.’”
Not all of us who opposed the Bladensburg cross remaining on government property and using hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to keep it up are anti-religious zealots or hostile toward religious values, as many in the Christian Right have claimed. If anything, the way government reconstructs the meaning of the cross can be interpreted as an act of hostility toward Christianity. It’s not the government’s job to decide what constitutes the meaning of the cross. Even so, the Latin cross decision shows that less than 250 years of American history apparently trumps 2,000 years of Christian history. Its significance to American history transcends its significance in Christian history.
The decision has been lauded by many religious and political leaders, including the Trump administration, as a victory for protecting religious freedom. Others, including some Christian faithful, have described the Supreme Court ruling as “saving” the Peace Cross.
The power and symbol of the Christian cross is not so weak and fragile that it needs the American government to save it. And sometimes the language of religious freedom becomes code for “government’s favorite and preferred religion – Christianity.”
The truth is that government favoritism of Christianity does our faith no favors. To the contrary, it cheapens the integrity of authentic Christian experience and undermines the value of a transformative theological message uniquely offered by the church and not the state. Furthermore, it holds the potential to pour legal fuel on the cultural fire of resurgent Christian nationalists who believe that Christianity should be the government’s favorite religion.
Looking ahead, we church-state separationists can take heart that the Bladensburg cross does not function as a precedent-setting case for more stand-alone, pop-up projects like this one. As Holly Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty, noted, “The court ruled that this particular cross can remain in place on government property. Importantly for our pluralistic society and the promise of equality without regard to religion, the decision does not support the constitutionality of Christian-only monuments sponsored by government today.”
In the most religiously pluralistic nation on earth, we must do better than the Bladensburg cross decision. Deep religious meaning is compromised when the government usurps religious substance and symbols for its own purposes. The government is expected to maintain neutrality when it comes to religion to protect the integrity of both.
We must pledge vigilance in our role as Americans and people of faith to ensure the flourishing of religious freedom for all. We can do this by protecting the distinctive spiritual dignity of our individual religions and being in love with our own religion enough to not need the government to be.