Justice Scalia's Inconoclasm

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Salazar v. Bouno yesterday. The case revolves around a cross erected as a war memorial in the Mojave Desert that sits on federal land although the cross was first put up by the Veterans of Foreign Wars, a non-governmental organization. This is the first time the Roberts court has examined a First Amendment case that centers on the prohibition contained therein that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

As is usual in such cases, the worst possible conclusions were those drawn by Justice Antonin Scalia. He asserted that the cross was "the common symbol of the resting place of the dead." As the Washington Post reports, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer, Peter Eliasberg, countered, "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is no cross on a tombstone of a Jew." The remark drew laughter, but not from Scalia.


The poverty of Scalia’s argument is obvious. He wishes to gut Christian symbols of their Christian meaning in order to justify their deployment by government. It is strange to think that it was the ACLU lawyer who had to remind the court that the cross "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind from our sins." Scalia would empty the cross of this its primary meaning in order to sneak it into the Mojave National Park. Regular readers know that one of my – and one of Pope Benedict’s – concerns is the reduction of religion to ethics but Scalia proposes the reduction of religion to symbols stripped of their meaning. He is, in the strict sense of the term, an iconoclast in robes.

Someone the other day called in on a radio show to ask if the ACLU wanted to tear down all the crosses in Arlington National Cemetary. Actually, the graves at Arlington are not marked by crosses but by tombstones and those buried there, or their next of kin, choose which of several religious symbols they would like carved into the tombstone. The only crosses that mark graves in Arlington are the two that mark the younger Kennedy brothers, Bobby and Ted. But, the caller did not recognize what the Court must recognize. There is a difference between someone choosing a religious symbol for themselves, to have a cross or a star of David or a Muslim crescent as a sign of identity on one’s own grave and quite another thing when the government chooses one of those symbols to represent the loss of soldiers from many faiths. A Jew or a Muslim can be forgiven for looking at the cross and seeing something other than a promise of future salvation.

What role should religion play in the public square and how can we bring the cross of Christ into that square in a way that does not offend the Constitution nor the integrity of our faith? Every Good Friday, Communione e Liberazione sponsors a Stations of the Cross where hundreds traverse the Brooklyn Bridge. This, not Justice Scalia’s cross as all-purpose death symbol, is how we bring Christ to the culture. Sometimes we must carry the cross on the Brooklyn Bridge. Sometimes, we carry the cross with our older family members in the hospital or a nursing home by visiting them and alleviating some of the loneliness of old age. Sometimes, we carry the cross by giving a little bit more to the collection on Sunday, more than we can really afford. To capture the scandal of the cross, visit the imprisoned: Not many care about them in our vengeful society. There are countless ways to carry the cross that do not involve trampling on the First Amendment nor gutting our most precious symbol of its specific, historical meaning. When Scalia retires, the Supreme Court will be a more sensible place.

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9 years 3 months ago
     Not that I admire Scalia's legal reasoning, but the cross is not necessarily reserved to Christianity.  A cross may symbolize suffering in a general way since crucifixion was something that Jews and others experienced in Biblical times.  "We all have our crosses to bear", does not mean anything particularly Christian.
     The empty cross symbolizes the Ressurection of Christ to Christians, but it also symbolizes suffering and salvation to people who are simply familiar with the story of Christianity, even when they do not worship Christ.  Perhaps, to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is not a religious organization, the cross symbolizes the suffering of war.
     Because the cross is symbolic of many things, when the cross is used in a non-religious setting, it is not an imposition of religious beliefs.  It is also not a sacrilege, since we do not as Christians worship the cross itself. 
     Preventing the use of symbols in a secular setting that also have special meaning within a particular religion is a denial of the Freedom of Speech.  In other words, it's not like Christianity has a copyright on the cross.      
9 years 3 months ago
I am sure that Justice Scalia did not mean to be as theologically void as you point him  out to be.He is probably just caught in a siege mentality which is very understandable in the world we live in which in many ways is hostile to Christians.This though is no excuse for the type of formalism which we christians fall into at every turn.I am glad that it is a layman who can point out to us the stupendous reality that the Cross holds ,and which scalia seemed to be willing to trade in for a hegemony in human terms. The Christ who was offered to all and rejected by almost all is now an imperative.So much for the freedom that god gave man.That the Cross is the way in which God ties himself to all reality ,is undone by a pathetic idealism on the part of us Christians is sad.Don Giussani did a great job of pointing out the absolute abyss which moralism is for the Christian.We only take our eye from   the ethical referent or moralism when we have it on something greater.To you and the Pope and the now deceased Don Giussani that something greater was Christ but you are losing the fight.  
9 years 3 months ago
Please tell me you are kidding. The idea of taking up a cross has nothing to do with Christianity? Where do you think it originated?
Just because you say the cross has generic meaning of sacrifice to everyone, that does not make it so. Why don't you go up to your local synagogue or mosque and ask them to display a cross on their roof as a generic symbol of sacrifice? I'd love to watch you explain to the rabbi and the imam that placing a cross on their houses of worship would not be an imposition of your religious beliefs.
By the same reasoning, you could say that the crescent moon atop mosques is really not a religious symbol; it's only a moon. We should put that on top of Christian churches as a symbol that we all have to endure dark periods. Or we could put a Star of David there because it's really not indicative of Judaism, it's only a star.
9 years 3 months ago
     Wow, DEACON(?) Eric.  Even if the idea of bearing one's cross originated with Christianity, it still does not belong exclusively to Christians. 
     I do not think I am wrong just because a synogogue or mosque would decline to display a cross.  What you are suggesting is rather like asking the church I attend to display a symbol associated with a different religion.
     What you are saying, and what Scalia and I are opposing, is that because the crescent moon might be associated with Islam, it therefore may not be displayed in public places in the United States no matter the symbolism it holds in other respects.
9 years 3 months ago
I believe Marie Rehbeim's remarks- which are often insightful- are far off the mark in her appreciation of symbols!  Have you never spoken with a Jewish or Muslim person to understand what "the cross" has meant in their histories?  Michael's column also rightly attacks the reasoning of Justice Scalia who, for all of his supposed brilliance and quotability, is so far off the mark in common sense! Maybe he needs another duck hunting trip with his ol' buddy Dick Cheney with whom he saw no conflict of interest in his many rulings that favored other Bushian interpretations!
9 years 3 months ago
Civil religion is a term which describes our civil spiritual heritage as a country, a heritage which has managed to avoid commitment to any particular faith or creed or to religion as such.  The concept of civil religion is derived from a reflection on the place of belief in the official writings and declarations of the country beginning with the founding fathers down to our present times.  Historically the concept is broad enough to include all beliefs and embraces no one, including the Christian faith which has historically characterized the faith of many Americans.  From this perspective it is difficult to understand how any religious symbol which necessarily derives meaning from its history within a specific religious belief can represent the civil religion in any public monument.  And to try to deprive the symbol of its historical meaning would not seem to respect the beliefs from which it arises.
9 years 3 months ago
Dave P, I have a Muslim friend who was quite comfortable sending his children to a Catholic school.  I have had Jewish people tell me they had considered this also.  These people do not dwell on the past, allowing symbols to incite resentment and hatred in their hearts.  The cross may mean painful things in their histories, but it also means hopeful things in the present day and in the culture of which they are a part. 
If symbols were to dictate our feelings to the degree that some people claim they do, then the Star of David might mean something wholly different even to Jews since it was used as a way of identifying Jews in Nazi Germany which brought them to persecution and execution.  It might, however, happen that the Star of David could come to mean something in our culture, rather than being only a symbol of Judaism.  Only the future will tell. 
Meanwhile, though, I really would hate to be told that I may not see symbolism in the cresent moon or share my sense of that symbolism publicly because that particular symbol is taken.
9 years 3 months ago
Let's touch on a few of the points in Michael Sean Winters' articles.
     If there are thousands of free standing cross shaped grave markers or only two in a Federal cemetery is beside the point of the discussion.  If no crosses are to be displayed on public land, then one might consider whether this includes a national cemetery.  Its a valid concern even if the person expressing it appears to be overly outraged, because what is the distinction?  This leads also to consideration of whether the roadside cross markers people install to memorialize those who died in highway accidents are establishment of religion by government.  If not, what would be the point of distinction between that and this case in the Mojave desert?
     It is doubtful that Scalia actually has an agenda of wanting to "gut Christian symbols of their Christian meaning in order to justify their deployment by government".  First of all, the display was not installed by the government, funded by the government, nor comissioned by the government.  Scalia is allowing for the possibility that individuals or groups, if they are allowed to make displays on public land at all, are permitted to use symbols associated with some particular religion.
     Even if the cross "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind from our sins", it does not only signify that.  In the case of the roadside memorials it may indicate any of a number of things that completely ignore this particular symbolism.  A few that come to mind are, that someone died young, that someone was killed by someone else, that someone is with God or on his journey to God, that the cross is better for holding plastic flowers than a stick or board is, that the person installing it associates crosses with death.  There are likely to be even more that have no theological foundation.
     There is nothing in Scalia's position on this issue that proposes the reduction of religion to symbols stripped of their meaning.  It is not the government's role to protect the meaning of religious symbols, and in Scalia's role as a judge on the United States Supreme Court, his priorty should certainly not be to protect the symbol that is most associated with his religion.      
9 years 3 months ago
Marie, I likewise have acquaintances who look past a symbol because of certain values or education communcated in religious schools, but they hardly are choosing the symbol!  In fact, the vacant floor of our long closed parish school - with cross on top of the building - was solicited by a local Muslim community while its space is under repair. But that does not mean that the symbol is seen as representative and acceptable to signify something to them. We could argue symbology for a long time, but "the cross" either symbolizes something or it does not and is more like a piece of jewelry that many wear almost unconscious of any meaning.  To see it as acceptable to those who do not identify with Christianity - or for particulatr reasons can look past some of its historical baggage - does not make it appropriate to use as a universal "symbol for the dead."  That is a most ethnocentric and really, egocentric, interterpretation and sets back any attempts an inter-religious understanding.


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