Politics & Policy

Memorial Madness

A World War I monument in the shape of a cross comes under attack from secular extremists.

The secular extremists are at it again.

This time, they are attacking a monument located just outside the nation’s capital in the working-class community of Bladensburg, Md. The monument was erected in 1925 in honor of those residents of Prince George’s County who lost their lives on battlefields in France during World War I. Known to locals as the Bladensburg Peace Cross, the monument was funded and erected by the American Legion, which was six years old at the time, having been founded in 1919 by veterans of World War I. At its crux, the monument bears a modified version of the American Legion’s emblem.

What could be so offensive about a local monument to war dead? The fact that it is in the shape of a Latin cross, of course.

In 2012, a group called the American Humanist Association sent a letter to the state of Maryland demanding that it remove the memorial. The group received no response, and this year, in February, it filed a lawsuit against the Maryland–National Capital Park and Planning Commission, arguing that the memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution, applicable to the state of Maryland via the Fourteenth Amendment.

Thus, a monument dedicated to the memory of Americans who paid the ultimate sacrifice has become the latest front in the ongoing culture wars. On one side are those who would strip the public square of all references to our religious cultural heritage; on the other, those who would preserve public space as a legitimate forum for public expression, including the expression of religion.

This isn’t the first skirmish in this battle. A memorial built in 1934 — also in the shape of a cross — in the Mojave Desert by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor war dead has been subjected to vandalism and court challenges. In this instance, as a result of the controversy, the land the memorial sits on was transferred to private ownership, a move the Supreme Court found constitutional in the 2010 case Salazar v. Buono.

In the decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that the cross “is not merely a reaffirmation of Christian beliefs” but a symbol “often used to honor and respect” heroism. “Here, 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.”

“The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion’s role in society,” he continued. “The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement [of religion] does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm.”

Speaking at the American Legion’s 54th annual Washington conference in March, Eric Baxter, senior counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, echoed Justice Kennedy, saying, “Crosses are not just a symbol of Christianity, but they are a widely known symbol of death and sacrifice.”

“Not every situation is the same,” he observed. “And our effort is to urge the courts to consider carefully, and weigh always, what is the religious liberty interest, what is [its] sincerity and history, against what is the government’s compelling interest in overriding that.”

The cross as a symbol of death and sacrifice has its roots firmly in the cultural heritage of Christianity, even if one can argue that the cross no longer strictly or explicitly refers to Christianity, as is the case in the Bladensburg cross. Culture and religion are inextricably linked, and religion helps give expression to the transcendent aspirations of a political community. This is why Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration that it is our Creator who endows each of us with unalienable rights, among which are “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

To suppress the Christian cultural heritage of the United States is to undermine the philosophical assumptions that were essential to the Founding and that are necessary to sustain our political community. Indeed, John Adams, writing to the officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, unambiguously stated: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

While Adams was not suggesting that we should conflate the institutions of the church and those of the state, he was suggesting that the nature of the American system is such that it assumes of its citizens certain moral characteristics. These characteristics, he thought, could be rooted most firmly in religious belief.

Our religious heritage, then, is integral to the sustaining of our political order, and to our national identity. To suggest that the Constitution requires the elimination of religious symbolism from the public square is to radically misunderstand the origins of our political system and the assumptions on which it rests regarding human nature and the relationship between religion and the public sphere.

The motto of the American Legion is “For God and Country.” This implies that rather than being distinct and incommensurable, God and country are better understood as intimately linked and inseparable. God is honored through our patriotism and gratitude for His blessings on our country, and we protect our nation and our heritage by honoring God.

The Bladensburg cross — like the Mojave cross — points to this inextricable link between God and country, but it represents, as Justice Kennedy stated, “far more than religion.” It represents the memory of those who gave the last full measure of devotion on behalf of a grateful nation.

The American Legion is committed to defending this important memorial dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives in the Great War. It has therefore filed a motion through the Liberty Institute requesting that it be allowed to become a party in the suit. “The Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial has stood for almost 100 years in honor of the fallen,” Liberty Institute senior counsel Roger Byron said. “We are committed to ensuring it stands for 100 more.”

This Memorial Day, let’s honor the memory of those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our conscience.

For God and country.

— Shaun Rieley is a member of American Legion Post 28 in Delaware, and he serves on the American Legion’s national staff in Washington, D.C.


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