The Old Rugged Cross
This article is being updated 16 months after it was originally published, because the case of the Peace Cross has today (February 27, 2019) reached the Supreme Court, which seems to be looking for a narrow way to find in favor of leaving the Peace Cross to remain in its location based on historical consideration. It is a scholarly and challenging case, and the court is doing its job in a scholarly and reasonable way. Here is the original piece I wrote in October of 2017, and I continue to stand by my argument that the Peace Cross is not a religious symbol. I also agree with the expressed sentiment that this same sort of monument probably would not and should not be erected today, even though, yet again, I maintain it is not a religious symbol. One of these is enough.
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What is a “cross”? When is a cross a Christian symbol? Why does the sight of an upright column with a cross-member near the top offend enough people to take the issue to court and for that court, by a 2–1 vote find that such a cross, which has stood in the middle of a public road for 92 years violates the Establishment Clause?
It is not as simple as some would like it to be. Not the members of the American Humanist Association, nor of nominal Christians who are often those who also believe there is a “war” on Christmas, Christianity, and all things “American.”
The Peace Cross memorial in Bladensburg, Maryland, has stood in its present location since it was erected in 1925. It has for decades been listed on the register of historical places. It was erected in memory of the 49 American soldiers from Prince George’s County, Maryland, who died fighting in World War I.
What I think or feel or believe in relation to religion or God or Jesus (none of which are in any way mentioned upon the Peace Cross or its grounds) is irrelevant, but for the record I will tell you: I was brought up in a nominally Christian home as a child, drifted from my non-doctrinaire church around the age of 19, evolved into a “spiritual, not religious” person who continued to study both theology and philosophy ever since, and who is now one who is frankly made uncomfortable by public displays of saccharine piety, conflation of religion with politics and governance, and, for that matter, worship of any inanimate object. I am, in fact, rather a fan of the Jesus of both Christianity and Islam, the one who spoke forcefully against public displays of religiosity, at least according to what John Shelby Spong refers to as “the Jesus stories.” I am not a fan of crucifixes. I am not one to notice random crosses whether in cemeteries (except for ancient Irish cemeteries), on random churches, nor on distant hilltops. I am not an atheist, but I generally enjoy congenial relations with atheists and agnostics, with whom, usually, I can have the most clear and enjoyable discussions concerning what’s what about life, death and what’s left outside those two domains.
I am not a very “good” Christian. I aim, however, to be a very good person, and I do have my certain convictions about the nature of the universe which I will not share here because they are not relevant to what is being discussed…which is a 40 foot tall concrete and marble memorial in the shape of a cross (in that it is made of two intersecting members) and has zero religious wording inscribed upon it.
In fact, the only words on the Peace Cross memorial are four, one on each of the four equal sides of its 40 foot tall base, near the bottom, which are: “valor,” “endurance,” “courage” and “devotion.”
Not bad words to throw out into the middle of a three-way intersection in a small and somewhat historic blue collar town on a site that used to regularly flood and tax the patience of motorists on most rainy days, and which has been a reference point for commuters from Prince George’s County into and out of the District of Columbia for nearly a century.
The Cross is, in fact, very near another, locally legendary, landmark, The Crossroads nightclub, which was once something of a roadhouse, a biker joint, a live music venue, and most recently, before its closing, a Reggae club.
For the record, the memorial in question is, in fact, on public land (again, in the middle of a three-way intersection), and is maintained by the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, a quasi-governmental agency with one of the most confusing names anyone is likely to have heard. It manages and polices all the parks in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, as well as developing and approving all land use issues in those two counties. It has a headquarters in each of those counties.
It is a peculiar agency, a unique institution, and is usually referred to, in the interest of brevity, as the MNCPPC.
The MNCPPC has issued a statement to the effect that it has no intention of doing anything to or about the memorial, except to keep it and its grounds in good repair and free of trash and vandalism.
So then, are we memorializing a war? “The War to End all Wars”? Well at least 49 of its combatants, yes.
Now we are getting into pointless wars (WWI was one of the most pointless, it could be argued, and one of the shortest, at least where our involvement is concerned). Is the American flag that is flown on the monument grounds, and which is distinctly an object of worship among Americans, offensive to the sight of the American Humanist Association? Apparently not. I wonder why not. Perhaps that is a battle for another day.
I am tempted to mention the hundreds upon hundreds of crosses tolerated in the Arlington National Cemetery. Are those religious symbols on public ground and are they offensive? The de facto response to that question is that those are in an actual cemetery, and so not offensive in the way the Peace Cross is, since actual people have to actually see it while driving into or out of Prince George’s County.
According to an article in The Baltimore Sun “A divided U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit found Wednesday that the World War I Veterans Memorial ‘aggrandizes the Latin cross’ to the point that an observer would conclude that the government entity that owns and maintains it is endorsing Christianity.”
Here is a picture of a “plan” of a Latin (cruciform) Cross such as are in common use in Christian churches and based upon the Catholic crucifix:
The ratios are always the same and the cross is clearly intended (though not necessarily historically accurate) to accommodate a human with arms spread and legs crossed at the feet, affixed by nails or rope.
It looks nothing like a Celtic cross, which predates Christianity and always contains, at the juncture of the two members, a nimbus (and so okay, since the nimbus is thought by some to represent the Roman sun god Invictus, in that respect it could be considered Latin, but certainly not Christian). The Roman Invictus of course was taken, via Greece, from the Egyptian Rose Cross, which also represented, among other things, the sun (Ra?) and had (and still has) a rose-colored centerpiece on the necessarily bulky cross (just like the Peace Cross memorial cross). The Peace Cross contains within its structure, a nimbus, smaller than most Celtic nimbi, but still there, and clearly visible from the correct veiwpoint, as here:
The arguments and finding of the 4th Circuit Court are, therefore, specious at best. The Peace Cross is clearly a military memorial, quite possibly a Celtic cross or a Rosicrucian or Masonic design, and definitely not by any means a “Latin” cross.
Which all pretty much establishes it is not a religious symbol and certainly not a Christian one — unless a passer-by chooses to view it as that.
And what then of the AHA and its finding offense in this memorial sitting on public land? That it might just, to some people who see it, raise in the minds of observers the notion that some of us might, perhaps, believe in our secret heart that there is more to the world, to the universe, than just man? Of course the cross in question was designed and built by men, to memorialize men, just as is the Iwo Jima statue in Arlington (which promotes flag worship), or all those crosses in Arlington Cemetery which memorialize the lives given by countless American soldiers whether in actual or perceived defense of this country.
The Peace Cross has, again, stood where it stands for 92 years, unmoved by flood, fire, gunshot, urine, trash, and occasional errant automobiles. It is no less “sacred” than those crosses in Arlington National Cemetery. It is in some practical ways more sacred, to locals, as a means of finding one’s way through the little town of Bladensburg.
Has the American Humanist Association abandoned its dedication to the essence of humanism, which as a philosophy stands for the “philosophical and ethical stance that emphasizes the value and agency of human beings, individually and collectively, and generally prefers critical thinking and evidence (rationalism and empiricism) over acceptance of dogma or superstition”? Does it deny the sacrifice made by those 49 humans who gave their lives in a perhaps pointless and futile war in defense of our allies in Europe in 1917 and ‘18? Has humanism as a philosophy simply become a secularist movement, adopted a more palatable name for atheism? And if so, what of the human aspect of humanism which, once, stood for something rather than merely against something, some something collectively created, in this instance, by humans, for humans, in the quest for a better and more just world?
When we speak, perhaps against the ideals of contemporary humanists, that the cross in question stands as “evidence of things not seen” that in fact there is no evidence seen on that cross of those things of which it stands accused?
Surely there are more important issues to address using critical thought and reason, and perhaps even the logic of the humanist’s argument against the existence of this particular cross is flawed logic, arguing evidence of things not seen?
This writer submits that critical thinking and reason are perhaps abused when used to argue against what manifestly is not seen nor seeable, and that those precious faculties might be put to better use in working toward a world where men and women might be free to see in an object what they choose to see, whether or not there is any actual evidence of those things.
Just a thought.