Bruce Ledewitz makes a worthy case over on Religion Dispatches that the Mojave Cross, whose constitutionality the Supreme Court will determine in Buono v. Salazar, can properly be understood as combining secular and religious meanings. Its original purpose was, simply and secularly, to memorialize the fallen in World War I, crosses having become a symbol of the carnage of that struggle. Such usage does not, Ledewitz asserts, eliminate Christian meanings, or trivialize them–as Steve Waldman argues. In line with his recent book, he urges Americans to cultivate an appreciation of the virtues of both secularism and religion–to avoid the ominous either/or–including in our Establishment Clause cases. Can’t we just get along?
Maybe. But the point of the First Amendment in banning religious establishments is not to foster mutual understanding and appreciation, worthy as those ends are, but to keep the government from endorsing a particular religious tradition. It’s easy enough, as Ledewitz does, to disdain avoiding constitutional problems by putting a dancing bear next to a Cross, but what about a Star of David or a Buddhist prayer wheel? Would those also trivialize the Cross, and if so why?
The Mojave Cross may well live to host Easter Services another day, and I doubt the Republic will collapse if it and other small religious establishments remain in place, even in the Pledge of Allegiance. But there remains a need to keep vigilant about endorsement. Near the end of his post, Ledewitz writes:
Naturally, as our society fragments in its beliefs and nonbeliefs, a
biblical image will no longer embody the universal messages that it
held for earlier generations. In that new context, it is undoubtedly
better to find new modes of expression, which is why memorials of
recent wars tend not to use biblical imagery.
Would anyone today propose a Cross to memorialize all those who have died in the Iraq War? And if they did, would Ledewitz oppose it–as, say, insufficiently universal–on constitutional grounds?