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Government bailouts of Christianity





That’s what I think we ought to start calling these state/church separation issues. A phrase like “violation of the Establishment Clause” might interest nerds who are into constitutional law and secularism, but it’s the kind of phrase that causes everyone else’s eyes to just gloss over when spoken.


Anyway, this particular bailout comes in the form of a very weird case that goes back to 1934, when a group set up a big cross in the Mojave Desert to honor the dead from the first World War. Nobody really noticed it for a while.

The problem with this cross (besides the fact that many non-Christians died in WWI, but more on that later) is that it’s on federal land and so it amounts to a government establishment of religion, which flies in the face of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Having been challenged, the government offered to sell a single acre of the surrounding land to a private organization which would then maintain the cross on “their own land.”

This is kind of the reason we have humans for judges instead of just applying the exact letter of the law in every single case like a justice-distribution machine. It’s obvious what’s happening when someone buys a single acre in the middle of a 1,500,000 acre federal nature preserve where the only thing around is a giant cross. The interested parties were just trying to get around the law by making the area immediately around the cross “private property” on paper.

So this too was challenged, it eventually reached the Supreme Court, and last week they ruled in favor of keeping the cross in the desert. The way I see it, the only way to justify this ruling would be to say that the cross was “grandfathered in.” This means that it went unchallenged for so long that any challenges to it on constitutional grounds would be invalid. But the court’s “swinger” Anthony Kennedy went even further than that by insisting that the cross is not really just a symbol of Christianity. From the Globe:

“Here,’’ [Kennedy] added, “one Latin cross in the desert evokes far more than religion. It evokes thousands of small crosses in foreign fields marking the graves of Americans who fell in battles, battles whose tragedies are compounded if the fallen are forgotten.’’

This is a reiteration of an earlier and even more ridiculous exchange between Kennedy’s fellow justice Scalia and Peter Eliasberg of the ACLU on the same case:

JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?
MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.
MR. ELIASBERG: So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians.
JUSTICE SCALIA: I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.
MR. ELIASBERG: Well, my — the point of my — point here is to say that there is a reason the Jewish war veterans came in and said we don’t feel honored by this cross. This cross can’t honor us because it is a religious symbol of another religion.

I think Scalia and Kennedy and the other three who shared this opinion were trying to appeal to the popular images of national cemetaries where the war dead are buried. You’ll see lots of crosses there, but the reason for that is just because most soldiers – like most civilian Americans – happen to be Christian. If you look amongst the rows of crosses, you’ll see spotted here and there other grave markings of either some other religion or none at all. For example:

I don’t mean to ramble on about this forever, but the above image is of a gravestone where the family had to fight the government in court for their right to have a Wiccan symbol there. Now if soldiers all felt honored by the cross regardless of their religion, why do some opt out of having a cross? And why do some get lawyers to make sure they don’t have one there in the first place? And in the case of WWI, the reality of the draft and huge deployments overseas makes the possibility that none of them would have raised similar concerned if they were alive to do so an unrealistic premise. But those are the kinds of premises the right side of the Supreme Court seems to like best these days.

This post originally appeared at Bunting’s rather awesome blog  nanobotswillenslaveusall

  • Christian

    Well written. I will just put my bias out there; I am a Christian — culturally speaking and even though I am not a practicing one I am fond of my heritage my culture and my faith and also my struggles with it. The one thing I love most about our Judao-Christian nation is it’s paradoxical desire to do the right thing; our goal is not to be an unbiased nation but to be a tolerant nation. I agree with Justice Scalia. In my judgement the cross was erected to honor those who suffered and died for something bigger than themselves. Tearing it down would be missing the point and pissing off the majority of Americans. One can only be tolerant if they don’t feel threatened. Most people who resent Christians and the faith project those feelings onto its symbol — Christ. Mis-placed and over simplified. One thing that most minority groups forget or take advantage of is that we are the most tolerant nation in the history of the world and it is seen by the very structure of our constitution. Where is the tolerance by these people in turn? By rejecting the positive meaning of this cross there is only hate and resentment left. Those two feelings are what lead to tyranny. We are a Christian nation that tolerates other cultures and their views. The part where we fail on that issue you point out with the war memorial. But, it’s not a reason to try to dismantle a Christian nation. Christ didn’t tear down the Jewish temple to destroy the Jews. He was destroying corruption. The faith wasn’t corrupt but the men were. In our nation it is similar. Lets not tear down crosses but tear down the laws of corruption instead. There is a better fight to take up and its with wall street lobbyists which is how I found your article. Lets not tear down crosses but make our representatives live up to its culture, faith and constitution. OK I’m done rambling and avoiding work. Thanks for writing your article.

  • http://nanobotswillenslaveusall.wordpress.com/ Josh

    Hey Christian. Thanks for your comments.
    America can only be called a Christian nation in the sense that it’s the religion of a clear majority of the population. But since this is a country of laws and not of religions or of a religion, the phrase “Christian nation” doesn’t go any further than that.
    Another problem with how you’re framing this is that this isn’t a conflict between Jesus-hating atheists and Christians. There are plenty of Christians on my side of this issue. For example, here: http://www.au.org/media/videos/archives/2010/barry-lynn-on-abc-news.html you can find a video of *Reverend* Barry Lynn speaking on this issue. He’s particularly upset that people would think that Christianity needs the US government to bail it out in order to survive – a premise that I would think more Christians would rally against, not for.
    The conflict is really between people who understand that governments establishing religion are a threat to freedom of religion and those, like you, who don’t. When the country was founded and our Constitution was written, our side won and your side lost. That was over two centuries ago. Get over it already.

  • http://nanobotswillenslaveusall.wordpress.com/ Josh

    And I’m having trouble reconciling how you said that you agreed with Scalia and then a few sentences later said that the cross is a symbol of Christianity. That is the exact opposite of what Scalia said.

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