Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Mojave's Desert and the Military's Congress


I had found an editorial in a Chattanooga newspaper on this issue a while ago and made a mental note of it. But when I found an article through Yahoo News on this, I had to comment further on the issue in writing. The cross has been in the Mojave Desert for over 80 years and has been maintained through the Veterans of Foreign Wars (better known as the VFW) in some form or fashion since 1934. However, it also appears it has been funded by volunteer groups now, though their connection to the government is evident, since it was through government action that the plot of land has been shifted to a privately owned sector instead of what was originally public land. The issue comes from a case ten years ago from a former national park employee, arguing that the cross’ presence was unconstitutional on the grounds that it stood as an explicit federal support for the Christian religion.

The point of the 7-foot memorial was for soldiers who had died in the war and I can respect that, as little interest as I hold in their affairs or the general use of military force. It is good to have some form of memorial for those who have died in service to the country they held allegiance to, but the use of the symbol seems objectionable on a number of grounds, the first being that it was initially funded by a government organization, the VFW. This objection falls flat since it has been maintained by volunteers through private funds not related to taxpayer money. The second objection is stronger since the government, even if it is not directly supporting the existence of the memorial, is using their power to preserve its existence. The relation of the cross to what is a federally maintained group, the military, is undeniable. Even if the cross has been recently situated legally in a now private patch of land, the government’s involvement cannot be ignored. Their legal action was what allowed the cross to persist as a memorial for fallen soldiers. Vicariously, through VFW volunteers, Congress is still violating the establishment clause in respecting an established religion.

Similar to the National Day of Prayer incident, the issue hinges on how people interpret language and in this case, symbols. The argument for keeping the cross suggested that it did not stand just for Christianity, but for the graves of all the soldiers. The difficulty there is that it assumes that every soldier who died would have wanted a Christian cross on their graves. The rhetoric also tries to suggest the cross is a universal symbol of sacrifice, which is equally untrue. As one dissenting justice noted, the cross “is the symbol of one particular sacrifice, and that sacrifice carries deeply significant meaning for those who adhere to the Christian faith." To try to extend the meaning of a religious symbol into a secular idea is difficult not only because of the rooted understanding of the symbol, but that many believers would no doubt strongly object to the compromise of their highly sacred mark on grounds of protecting it. The existence of religious symbols in public life is not what the case is about. I see memorial crosses for children on the roads in Tennessee and I don’t object to them, especially since they are commonly privately funded. It’s when the government initially supports the existence of the memorial cross for 80 years on public land and then makes a land exchange to keep the cross protected that I have a problem. The motive was a combination of protecting the cross as a memorial that was religiously neutral in some sense, but also attempting to maintain its position as a historical monument. Both of these cases fail on the same grounds. The court is on the one hand purposely ignoring or skewing the intent and message of the Christian symbol to make it accessible to people who don’t feel the same about the cross and on the other is trying to extend the definition of a monument to what is a use of a particularly Christian religious symbol to commemorate the deaths of soldiers, many of which are Christian, but not all.

The dissenting position is quite similar to my own; the need for a memorial for the soldiers who have died is evident today with casualties still occurring in the Middle East. But for the government or even private groups to think that the way to show respect and honor the fallen is through a particular religious symbol is not only mistaken in looking at the religious diversity of the army, but also forgets that the establishment clause is larger in scope than just founding a “state religion”. When it says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” it seems clear that it is saying that no religion should be given special treatment through government legislation or action. And in this case, the cross is favoring the Christian symbol of sacrifice as the best way to commemorate the deaths of soldiers from many faiths. In this way, the unconstitutional nature of the cross’ presence is quite evident. To maintain that a status quo of Christian believers who support the troops or that some personal emotional investment in the cross should be the standard for why you keep such a symbol as the way to remember the valor of the armed forces is not only logically unsound but degrading.

No one symbol can communicate the respect and anguish a person feels for one who has died in service. As popular and meaningful as it is to people who believe in Jesus Christ, I don’t feel it’s either appropriate or fair to use it as the way to show respect to those who protect the freedom to practice one’s faith without interference or special merit from the government. If you want to make a private memorial for Christian soldiers who have died in the line of duty, that’s your prerogative and you can do it through legal methods and with your own funds. But to suggest that you make what was a government established National Reserve alter the status of one patch of land in order to maintain the existence of a cross that could be moved to a privately owned area is not only showing blatant favoritism towards the demographic majority of Christians in this country, but compromising the government’s supposed neutrality towards religion because you bend to the will of the people whenever it suits the majority. I’m not suggesting the cross be torn down, so don’t misunderstand. The protection of religious exercise is just as important as the need for the government to be as neutral as possible on religious establishments. So why try to protect religious exercise on the one hand while contradicting yourself on the supposed need for neutrality on those religious exercises? I’m just asking for the government to be consistent. Until next time, Namaste and Aloha.

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