Why did some churches support removing the Peace Cross in Bladensburg, Maryland whose constitutionality the U.S. Supreme Court just affirmed?
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Baptist Joint Committee all signed a court brief siding with the American Humanist Association in urging removal of the Maryland state-owned 100 year old Peace Cross honoring WWI veterans.
The presence of a large cross on state owned land in a traffic circle supposedly violates the separation of church and state. Last week in 7-2 decision the Supreme Court ruled the 40 foot tall monument to war veterans had no sectarian purpose.
In their brief, the liberal Mainline Protestant signers claimed the Peace Cross “demean[s] the most sacred symbol of the faith” and “desacralize[s] the most sacred symbol of Christianity.” Interestingly, the liberal Protestants sounded like evangelical revivalists in their warnings:
On one widespread reading of Christian scriptures, the promise of eternal life is only for Christians. It comes with explicit threats of damnation for non-Christians. These Christian teachings are widely known, most famously from John 3:16. This widespread interpretation makes it impossible for the cross to honor non-Christian soldiers.
Amusingly, the liberal Protestants, in their focus on the unique Christian theological truth claims about the cross, quoted Bible verses they are not accustomed to citing, with hopes of scaring and repulsing the Supreme Court. And they cited the influence of dreaded Evangelicals:
Most troubling of all, on one widely known understanding of Christianity, the cross symbolizes the threat that non-Christians are damned. This view is most prominently associated with Protestant Evangelicals, who emphasize the need “to trust and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.” Evangelicals are the largest group of Christians in the United States, so their understanding of Christianity is widely known.
So the Peace Cross should be removed because Evangelicals will exploit it as a warning of damnation. The liberal Protestants further warned:
This understanding of Christianity is reflected in a Bible verse much publicized by Evangelicals: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”
Evidently the liberal Protestants are admitting they themselves, unlike Evangelicals, don’t much focus on John 3:16. To inspire further terror, they further intoned:
On this version of Christian teaching, some humans get the promise, and other humans get the threat. The cross divides the world between the saved and the damned. That alone makes it impossible for the cross to commemorate non-Christians.
The liberal Protestants, for the sake of their political argument against the Peace Cross, emphasized the cross in traditional Christian theology, even if they no longer fully subscribe to that tradition. Ironically, Mainline Protestantism for 100 years, since before the erection of the Peace Cross, has deemphasized the cross as instrument of personal salvation. Instead for them the cross became the symbol of wider human reconciliation and building a more harmonious society. Ironically, the builders of the Peace Cross in the 1920s may have been influenced by that then ascendant Social Gospel understanding.
Defenders of the Peace Cross, in their court arguments, largely accepted by the justices, stressed the Peace Cross had no specifically theological purpose. It only honored the dead and commemorated their sacrifice, while hoping for an end to war. Long before liberal Protestantism, the cross throughout Western Civilization had become a broader icon of sacrifice and service. One example: the Red Cross, which was prominent in WWI.
Even non Christians can admit Jesus was sacrificial and that His followers have in His example likewise sacrificed in service to humanity. Only a very narrow fundamentalism would reject the wide meaning the cross has assumed universally, which is a compliment to Christianity and doesn’t detract from the cross’s core theological purpose.
It’s sad that some elites of declining Mainline Protestantism, having often withheld the cross’s core theological purpose from their own constituency, now want its broader message literally expunged from public space. Thankfully the U.S. Supreme Court was wiser than they.