As a rabbi, a lifelong Democrat and a former card carrying member of the ACLU, I am an unlikely contributor to these conservative Christian pages, but from time to time my conservative friends get it right and we liberals don’t. Such is the case regarding the controversial war memorial in Bladensburg.
The liberal contention is that the First Amendment requires that government should be strictly neutral in religious matters, neither favoring one religion over another, nor promoting the cause of religion in general. According to this view, the only role of government regarding religion is to protect its free practice. Government is here to raise an army, pave roads and issue postage stamps. The state has no religious competence, authority or expertise. Attempts at government-issue religion are, at very best, awkward and annoying. I want my senator to be a good senator, not my rabbi.
In something like this spirit — strict church-state separation — an atheist group has challenged the legality of a World War I era memorial, sponsored by the American Legion, from standing on public property because it is in the shape of a cross.
This rabbi likes the memorial as it is.
The Bladensburg cross was not, and is not intended as a vehicle to proselytize. Jews and others have, for centuries, been proud to wear military decorations that had cross shapes (the George Cross, the Victoria Cross, the Iron Cross, to name a few). I have never heard of a rabbinic authority object. Various national flags contain crosses and are saluted. Rabbi Moses Feinstein, the outstanding Orthodox Jewish decisor, permitted Jews to wear sweatshirts with college crests with crosses, maintaining that these have become secularized. My Georgetown class ring has no less than three crosses on it and I am told that I am very far from being Catholic.
Yes, the cross is a religious symbol in its origins. The Bladensburg cross might evoke religious sentiments among some Christians. So might the names of some cities named for Spanish missions, such as San Francisco or Corpus Christi although these are just the names of municipalities to most of us and are not very likely to conjure images of Saint Francis or the body of Christ, even among the most pious. There is a point at which neutrality in religious matters becomes anti-religious iconoclasm. A sunset, after all, might also inspire religious awe.
Just as we judge historic figures in light of the values of their times, perhaps we should do the same for the Bladensburg memorial? When it was built, the cross was a symbol of inclusivity. Most people Americans were Christian of some description and anything else was rare and exotic. Protestants and Catholics were thought of as belonging to different religions (I recall Will Herberg’s 1955 book Catholic, Protestant, Jew.) Today, Catholics and Protestants are generally thought of under the general rubric of “Christians,” and are likely to have more in common with one another than with various Protestant practitioners, to the right or left. These days it would hardly be an overstatement to say that a Catholic is really just a Protestant with a pope. That wasn’t so a century ago. The religious and cultural differences were greater.
Let me be clear, if the American Legion were to hold a design competition for a war memorial now, I would hope that they would find a symbol which would be more inclusive. There are many non-Christians who gave all for our country and no right-minded person would want to exclude these service men and women. But nobody is trying to exclude them by preserving the historic Bladensburg memorial.