Mount Soledad’s Cross: Religious Monuments Revisited

California courts have been nothing but trouble lately: this time, they’re playing with the first amendment’s establishment clause, and the intersection between religion and public monuments.

Legal Rohrschach test: whats the first thing that comes to mind?

Last Tuesday, Judge Burns of the Southern District of California ruled that a 43-foot tall cross on top of Mount Soledad was a secular monument to “military service, death and sacrifice,” and not a Christian monument – despite the cross’ alternate name, the “Mt. Soledad Easter Cross.” Surprisingly, I concur.

I retain my deep suspicion of religious monuments.  The goal of a national symbology should be to include and cultivate the national myth, rather than exclude and raise one sect above the other.  Washington, D.C.’s romanesque monuments succeed wildly under this rubric, from the Pantheon-style presentations of Jefferson and Lincoln, to the post-modern Vietnam Memorial, to the over-stylized and much-criticized World War II Memorial.  On the contrary, religious monuments to secular events – wars, triumphs, historical figures – appropriate the event to the group rather than the whole, and exclude rather than draw together.  Obviously, the first amendment is the vehicle by which we may express our displeasure with such exclusive monuments.

Nonetheless, a religious monument may vindicate the goal of the national symbology, while also avoiding sending a nasty exclusionary message, under two conditions: first, if the monument’s history dominates its religiosity, and second, if the monument’s modern cultural context dominates its religiosity.  I’ve discussed both exceptions before, and despite my initial surprise at finding myself saying this, the Soledad cross fits both exceptions.

The cross enjoys great antiquity in military circles, and not just as a blazon for murdering crusaders’ shields.  A field of small crosses has long been understood to represent the honored dead.  As the planted cross becomes synonymous with military sacrifice, the religious importance of the same dilutes and becomes more reliant on context: the symbol becomes equivocal, dependent upon its surroundings and its history for meaning.  A cross in front of a church is not the same thing as a cross surrounded by bronze name plates and flanked by flags, like the Soledad cross.  In a case like this, there’s good cause to doubt the religiosity of the message being transmitted.

Further, the complicated history of the Soledad cross belies the claim of its religious history, and supplies an innocent context vindicating the perceived religiosity of the Soledad cross.  While the monument may have begun its life as a privately-owned Easter memorial to the fallen, the religious origins of the cross seem to have faded and been replaced by the narrative of its current usage, as a memorial.  Especially where the government had no hand in the religious origins of the monument, the state’s intervention to preserve the landmark becomes less suspicious: obviously, the state may save an antique church owing to its antiquity.  Just so, the state may save a respected monument for its contribution to our cultural heritage.

Admittedly, the idea that a cross may be “secular” seems to fail the laugh test.  If I say “cross,” 90% of the time, the first thing that comes to mind will be “Jesus.”  But to reduce the establishment clause to a legal Rorschach test, by making first impressions determinative of a symbol’s meaning, ergo its legality, ignores the richness of political and cultural symbols, from which their power derives.  A cross may be religious 90% of the time, but the Soledad cross falls within that last 10%.

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Leave a comment

  1. The religious origins of the cross have suposedly faded only for those who practice or overly-respect Christianity. A planted cross is not a symbol of our fallen military heroes. The cross is a symbol of the death of Jesus Christ and of the religious traditions that sprang forth from that moment.

    It is a specific religious symbol. No exceptions.

    I am certain that if the monument were a huge star of David, you would be only too quick to express your exclusionary outrage.

  2. Lunch, you just undermined yourself with the Star of David example. It doesn’t have the secular cultural valences that the cross has.

    My grandfather didn’t win the Distinguished Flying Star of David or the Navy Star of David in WWII. He won crosses. And probably not because he proselytized to the Japanese fighter pilots he shot down in any Christian sense.

    Regardless of how the cross came to be endowed with these civic and secular valences, it has them now and I give Ames a lot of credit for having the intellectual subtlety to understand that.

  3. Gotchaye · ·

    No comment, but good post.

  4. Hi Collin:

    As your comment’s intent seems to endow the Distinguished Service Cross with a religious background, I feel compelled to inform you that President Woodrow Wilson’s establishment of the award had nothing to do with Christianity. This is the truth, in spite of the award’s cross-like shape. In this case, the cross signifies that its bearer is valorously ‘marked’ i.e. identified. (My everlasting gratitude to your Grandfather btw.)

    Therefore, one cannot argue its merits are now free from an honorable religious intent, as Ames is eager to do with the Soledad Cross.

    The Soledad Cross was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” in a bulletin by the grandmother of William J. Kellogg, President of the Mt. Soledad memorial Association on Easter Sunday, 1954. Ever since that day, local Christian worshippers have gathered annually – usually on Easter weekend – to celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection Jesus Christ.

    You are free to continue disassociating the true history of Soledad with false claims of its now-modern “secular and cultural valences.”

    It is inappropriate however, to decide that the Soledad Cross is an acceptable symbol for non-Christian veterans and their families.

  5. You originally said:
    “It is a specific religious symbol. No exceptions.”

    That led me to believe you were saying that any cross symbol per se carries with it a religious significance and is not OK. I provided the Navy Cross as a counterexample. It is a cross symbol that, as you agree, doesn’t have anything to do with religious instruction. It seems like the “10%” example that Ames was talking about.

    Your second post raises the interesting point of judging these symbols according to the intent behind their inception. And on that basis you distinguish the Navy Cross from that of Mt. Soledad.

    I wanted to look at your website to see if you’re a lawyer, but had to close the window immediately because I’m at work and your front page had nudity on it.

    So there’s the Lemon test and the Van Orden test. Lemon: contested government action
    1. must have a secular purpose
    2. may not, as its principal or primary effect, either advance or inhibit religion; and
    3. must not foster and excessive government entanglement with religion.

    Van Orden: passes muster if it is among “plainly religious displays that convey a historical or secular message in a non-religious context.”

  6. The opinion disregards whatever “the grandmother of William J. Kellogg” said about the cross in 1954 because the monument did not become federal property until 2006.

  7. Not a lawyer – not yet anyway – just a burdened secularist.

    I think the Soledad cross fails both stated tests. I came up with a test of my own. It’s here

    No nudity. Don’t worry.

  8. Chocolate rain · ·

    go to youtube and type in”chocolate rain”

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