History, Symbols, & Faith

Seventeen hundred years ago, Constantius II, leader of the newly-Christian Roman Empire, removed from the Senate Curia an altar to the Goddess Victory. Spoils of an earlier war, it had inhabited the House since the last days of the Republic. Rome’s polytheistic elements associated the altar with the Empire’s quick rise — nevermind its pending fall — and, though unsuccessfully, fought its removal bitterly.

Set aside the faiths of the parties to the dispute — there’s something particularly noxious about pulling a piece of antiquity from a place of reverence. Like covering a partially nude statue, it’s a denial of history, and kind of pointless, too. Through the passage of time, art acquires meaning independent of its original nature — by the time it was removed, the Altar of Victory wasn’t a pagan icon. It was a Roman icon.

Accordingly, even if Kennedy writes the opinion too broadly (as he often does), I find it hard to worry too much about Salazar v. Buono, No. 08-472 (Apr. 28, 2010) (pdf), decided yesterday. Separating the case from the procedural morass that forms the real substance of the dispute — and recognizing that this is not, in fact, a final decision on the merits — Salazar is “about,” politically, a cross, privately built and maintained, and situated on federal land, to honor soldiers who perished in World War I. As noted, the real issue in the case is a complicated question of procedure, but the Court’s resolution of it leaves the cross intact, while the contrary conclusion would’ve pulled the cross down, as a violation of the Establishment Clause.

In deciding the procedural question, Kennedy makes almost passing mention to how he’d resolve the Establishment Clause question, were it squarely before him, of whether a private monument, in the form of a cross, placed on federal land, ought to violate the Establishment Clause. He focuses on the monument’s antiquity:

Time also has played its role. The cross had stood on Sunrise Rock for nearly seven decades before the statute was enacted. By then, the cross and the cause it commemorated had become entwined in the public consciousness.

It’s foolish to say that such monuments ever truly lose their religious context. A cross is a cross. But it’s also foolish to equate this case with that of a hypothetical monument, built yesterday, amidst a background suggesting it was built to convey a message of exclusionary religious endorsement. Such facts are nowhere indicated here, and if they were seventy years ago, they’ve long since lost their sting.

Time does, indeed, play its role, by changing the posture of any controversy. Building a monument is an affirmative act; maintaining it, in this case, is a passive one, and one taken as much in defense of history, as in defense of any particular faith. Why tear it down? Because people in the past used to be Christian, and used to have the government’s ear? They were, and they did, but these aren’t facts we have to run from. And if we do, are we really rectifying an offense, or perpetrating our own?



  1. Nice to agree with your legal assessment for a change Ames. If the monument had gone up last week – yeah, take it down. This is beyond religion.

  2. Definitely. For me it’s controlled by respect for history, which does carry legal significance in these cases. There were the two Ten Commandments cases — one put up the last year went down, one that’d been there for forty years stayed. Seems right…

  3. This never comes up with pre-historic sites of a religious nature that are found on public land. I guess the rationale is that if the monument was put up post-Constitution then the builders should have known better. I kind of see the logic there and that’s why I would never support a new monument of that nature. Still, historical significance or mixed-metaphors should sometimes transcend the Establishment Clause.

    I also found it interesting to think abou this in light of what I saw in the Library of Congress when I was there 3 weeks ago. Lots of religious references. I felt like I was in the Vatican.

  4. Yeah, DC is replete with that imagery — sometimes from a couple traditions. The Apotheosis of Washington is a fairly pagan design…

    1. Don’t get me wrong – I loved the building and it doesn’t bother me – but it’s easy to see how someone would object.

  5. I’d say “same thing” as to the Supreme Court’s “God save this honorable Court.” It’s what they’ve done, for two hundred years.

  6. The whole discussion is somewhat disconcerting.

    1. Hahahahaha. How so?

      1. You and Mike agreeing so much, it seems wrong somehow. Usually you two will have a twenty comment thread disagreeing over some that becomes progressively more minor the longer it goes on.

  7. And not to be too much of a stickler, but the Founding Fathers never wanted to remove religion from the public square – they only wanted to enjoin the government from approving a single religion and then forcing it down everyone’s throat.

    1. It’s not just a problem of “a single religion”. We have no problem with religious iconography such as the the cross because it represents all Christianity, not just Catholocism for instance. However, the cross still does represent Catholocism, and Baptism, Methodism, Lutheranism, etc. Approving and elevating multiple religions is in essence multiple instances of approving single religions.

      I think it’s something that Americans in general gloss over. A pass is given to generic Christian symbols while the similar use of imagery associated with only a single denomination would be more likely scrutinized.

  8. James F · ·

    *puts up a Flying Spaghetti Monster statue right next to it*

    I KID, I KID! Don’t send angry letters!

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