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.
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%.