The Winter of Our Cross Dissent

As I write we are eight days away from oral arguments in Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission v. American Humanist Association, in which the AHA will argue, again, that a giant Christian cross on government land is unconstitutional. We will argue that in addition to a government’s endorsement of one religion over all others, dedicating the Bladensburg cross to all war veterans dishonors and excludes non-Christian Americans who have served their country in the US Armed Forces.

There was a time when I didn’t fully grasp the necessity of pursuing these cases where a cross stood on public land. But as our country becomes more ethnically diverse and the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans grows, the idea that non-Christians should somehow assimilate into a predominantly Christian culture becomes increasingly absurd. It also ignores the fact that the United States is not, and never has been, a theocracy. Nor has it ever declared an official religion; the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment guarantees that it never will. And yet, when a cross stands on government land, affixed with a plaque honoring Americans who fought and sacrificed in war, a person standing before it could be excused for thinking that this is, indeed, a Christian nation. I see now how important it is to clarify that it’s not. Part of the issue too with the cross in question, which towers forty-feet high on a busy traffic median in Bladensburg, Maryland, is that it’s just so damned big. The message—THIS IS A CHRISTIAN PLACE—so overwhelming.

As stated so succinctly by AHA Senior Counsel Monica L. Miller, who will argue AHA’s case before the Supreme Court, “Using a Christian cross as a war memorial does not make the cross secular. It makes the war memorial religious.” If folks want to maintain the structure as a war memorial, its shape will simply have to change. For some good examples see “What a Secular Memorial Looks Like” herein.

I’ve heard other nonbelievers say that if Christians weren’t so hell-bent on running everyone’s lives—dictating women’s reproductive choices and everyone’s gender identities and sexual preferences—they wouldn’t care about a giant cross. I can only imagine what the extreme religious right would make of the activities discussed in this issue’s fascinating piece by Becky Garrison on polyamory. Exploring various forms of ethical nonmonogamy, it’s fascinating (and I suppose shouldn’t be surprising) to learn how varied these relationships can be, and that while resentments and other conflicts can hamper polyamorous relationships, those who succeed point to “a solid sense of self, excellent communication skills, plus deep trust in the integrity and emotional stability” of the others involved.

Also in the issue at hand, we welcome US Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA), whose insights on climate change and legislative action will surely interest humanists. As a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee (which covers many aspects of climate change as well technology, telecommunications, and healthcare) and a member of the Science Committee, McNerney is also a member of the AI Caucus, the WIFI caucus, and the Grid Innovation Caucus, among others (including the Congressional Freethought Caucus the AHA was instrumental in bringing about last year). His clear-eyed assessment of the obstacles and challenges of addressing climate change are matched by an energetic call to explore the opportunities before us. With the Green New Deal—a nonbinding resolution to pursue environmental sustainability, introduced February 7 by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA)—we look forward to hearing more from McNerney on these opportunities.

As the cover intones, war is not sacred. Fifty years ago Kurt Vonnegut published his bestselling novel Slaughterhouse-Five, which in myriad, inventive ways makes that point. Delving into Vonnegut’s views on the bombing of Dresden, which he survived, Wayne Laufert details the ways Vonnegut approached the bewilderment, absurdity, bleakness, and immorality of war and its participants. “To properly represent his experiences in the war, Vonnegut realized, he had to forget about portraying soldiers as something other than hapless victims of circumstance.” Would Vonnegut think any kind of memorial to them made sense? Hapless victims or heroes, one can bet he’d want each and every one of them to be represented fairly and authentically.