A resolution to the matter described below was announced yesterday. In order to preserve the religious memorial without violating the separation of church and state, the Park Service has agree to give the land it sits on to two private citizens who take care of the monument. Problem solved?
The Supreme Court is in the process of deciding whether a cross erected 75 years ago as a memorial to war veterans violates the constitutional separation between church and state. The cross sits on the Mojave National Preserve and, therefore, is on public land. After lower court rulings, the cross was covered in plywood.
In deliberations, Justice Scalia tried to argue that the cross is a neutral and universal symbol. He said:
It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead… What would you have them erect?… Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?
Faced with an argument that the cross is distinctly Christian, he said:
I don’t think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that’s an outrageous conclusion.
Scalia’s comments reveal a common phenonemon that we’ve discussed in terms of race and gender, but not yet religion. As Jay Livingston pointed out at MontClair SocioBlog, one can only think of Christian symbols as non-specific if one thinks of Christianity as somehow normal, neutral, and for everyone. In the U.S., because Christianity is the dominant religion, many people simply see it as default. You’re Christian unless you’re something else. Something else that marks you as different and specific, Christianity does not.
This is one way that dominance works. It makes itself invisible.
UPDATE! Dmitriy T.M. pointed out that Steven Colbert addressed this issue on The Colbert Report back in 2009:Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.