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The many meanings of a cross

The dispute over a cross in the Mojave points to how entangled religion and culture are.

October 19, 2009|GREGORY RODRIGUEZ

I'm all for the separation of church and state. I believe that government endorsement of any particular religious sect or tradition has a corrosive effect on both the state and the faith in question. But I also think the attempt to separate religion from government is veering toward a foolish, parochial and ultimately impossible quest to separate religion from culture.

Last week, the ACLU of Southern California's Peter Eliasberg argued the case of Salazar vs. Buono before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case, which involves a cross that has stood, in various forms, for 75 years as a memorial to World War I veterans in the Mojave Desert, elicited a heated exchange between Eliasberg and Justice Antonin Scalia.

In a debate over whether the cross, which is on property surrounded by the Mojave National Preserve, violates the 1st Amendment ban on the establishment of religion, Eliasberg argued that a cross "is the predominant symbol of Christianity" that "signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind from our sins." Therefore, it shouldn't be allowed to "stand alone" as a war memorial in a national park. Scalia offered a different definition. "The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of the dead," he said. The Times reported that Scalia "sharply disagreed" with Eliasberg.

Eliasberg responded: "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew," he said.

Scalia wasn't persuaded: "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."

I see Eliasberg's point, but Scalia's notion that the cross has become a generalized symbol of memorial strikes me as true too. Sure, you might suspect that Scalia, a practicing Roman Catholic and a well-known conservative, is simply seeking an argument that would allow the cross in this case to pass constitutional muster, but he's also accurately pointing to how entangled religion and culture are.

Eliasberg's reading that the cross has a specialized religious significance symbolizing the son of God who died for mankind's sins seems way too narrow an interpretation. Does it mean that? Yes. Does it have other significance? Absolutely.

Consider another common symbol, the Star of David. It is a symbol of Judaism, but it is also an ethnic, national and political symbol. It'd be hard, then, to say that its significance is entirely spiritual or theological.

Sometimes, religious symbols have historical significance that in some contexts can transcend their theological meaning. Five years ago, under threat of a lawsuit by the ACLU, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted to remove a cross from the county seal. In the iconography of the seal, which had a number of symbolic images on it, the cross stood for the Catholic missions whose founding in the late 18th century signaled the dawn of modern Los Angeles history. But the ACLU claimed it represented "an impermissible endorsement of Christianity by the county government." The supervisors didn't fight it, but they should have.

In his 1996 book, "The Truth of Broken Symbols," philosopher and theologian Robert C. Neville observed that in predominantly secular societies, religious symbols often lose their theological specificity and become broadly generalized. In fact, he points to the American military cemetery in Cambridge, England, where a "sign explains that a Star of David on a tombstone signifies the grave of a Jewish soldier whereas a cross signifies 'all others.' " Likewise, he notes that "clergy blessing governmental ceremonies are performatively invoking divine aid by their very presence but are likely to pray in terms so general as not to be specific to their own religion's symbol system."

Culture is moving toward greater syncretism, something you can see in the increase in interracial marriage and the election of a black president. As for religion, a recent survey found that Americans who don't identify with any religion -- now 15% overall and 22% of all adults ages 18 to 29 -- make up the fastest-growing religious "tradition" in the country.

The problem with the ACLU's approach to religious symbols is that it's zero sum and old school -- it is, dare I say it, puritanical. Its narrow vision could rob the public sphere of symbols we need to understand who we are, what we're about and where we came from.

The truth is that even as we become a more secular country, religion will continue to be an integral part of our society, history and culture. Indeed, our very notions of politics and good government are the legacy of zealously religious people. Even our ideals of religious freedom and church/state division have roots in the theological convictions of Colonial and Revolutionary-era Baptists and Presbyterians as much as in the Enlightenment. Even if we don't as a nation profess one faith or another, religion is at the core of American identity. To seek to root it out of civic life and culture altogether is not only impossible, it's silly.

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grodriguez@latimescolumnists.com

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