June 18, 2007

A war on memory

By Michael Medved
Yahoo! News – USA

What shocking visual image inspires so much fear, disgust and outrage that even in this era of unfettered free expression, federal courts feel compelled to take drastic steps to cover it up?

Judges will rarely use their power to hide public sculptures depicting sadistic brutality, or to obscure billboards peddling sex and nudity, but in the California desert they've ordered the concealment of a simple white cross that has honored the nation's war dead for more than 70 years.

In 1934, the Veterans of Foreign Wars erected a monument on a barren hilltop known as "Sunrise Rock" in the Mojave National Preserve to commemorate "the dead of all wars." More than a half-century later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California challenged the memorial, claiming that it violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because the cross (recognized by the government as a war memorial) stood on public land. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the dismantling of the monument, but Congress took action in 2004 to authorize the transfer of the ground surrounding the cross to private parties.

A federal district judge invalidated that transaction, even as officials responsible for the desert refuge took steps to hide the cross while the legal wrangling continued. Government agents covered the offending crossbeam with boards, making it look like a crude screen, or a shallow box, perched incongruously on a stick in the middle of the California desert.

An easy, favorite target

The absurd status of this ongoing struggle shouldn't obscure its serious and alarming undercurrents - including a common attitude among militant "separationists" that treats Christian symbols with more hostility and less tolerance than those of any other religious tradition.

Imagine that the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum decided for some reason to erect a large Star of David on top of its stark building in Washington. Would the ACLU object to the raising of this religious (and, yes, national) symbol on a structure that has been built, after all, on federal land? In the unlikely event that anyone stood up to oppose such symbolism, reasonable people would respond that the Jewish star represented an appropriate commemoration to the millions of predominantly Jewish victims honored by the museum.

By that logic, a cross (whether in the Mojave Desert or in another controversial war memorial on the top of Mount Soledad near San Diego) represents a similarly suitable tribute to fallen warriors who have died for the United States - because the overwhelming majority of those soldiers considered themselves Christians. To this day, more than 85% of Americans describe themselves as Christians, and many recent studies (including the excellent Imperial Grunts by Robert D. Kaplan) report that devout Christian believers are, if anything, overrepresented in our volunteer Army.

The government recently authorized a Wiccan symbol (a five-pointed star, or pentacle) to appear on the military cemetery gravestone of a GI who died in Afghanistan - despite objections by some Christian activists that Wicca (a proudly pagan tradition that incorporates elements of druidical nature worship) carries unwholesome associations with witchcraft and Satanism. The armed forces rightly gave the family of the fallen soldier the right to choose its own symbolism in tribute to him, even if that symbol appeared on public property. After all, the military already allows grave site recognition of Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Mormonism and even atheism (represented by a stylized diagram of an atom).

In the same sense that no one should feel offended by honoring the war dead with symbols of their faiths, so, too, even the most radical secularists ought to accept the war memorial cross as the right way to honor the overwhelmingly Christian identification of those who have died defending our country.

The intolerant reaction to crosses on various hillsides and mountaintops has nothing to do with a fear that non-Christians (like me) might feel unconstitutionally compelled to worship the emblem of the nation's majority religion. In truth, we remain blessedly free to view that symbol with indifference, respect, curiosity, devotion, bemusement or even contempt - in the same way that our Christian neighbors can look on displays of Hanukkah menorahs that have begun turning up on public property every December.

A display of the cross (especially a cross that has been there for decades, such as the one in the desert) doesn't amount to "establishment of religion" or the imposition of theocracy, but it does function as a reminder of the fervent Christianity that has played such a potent, even predominant, role in shaping and sustaining this country. My Jewish kids aren't intimidated or threatened by such reminders, but they would be damaged by enforced ignorance of the Christian ideals and idealists behind crucial historical movements - from the pilgrims to the civil rights marchers, from the establishment of our most prestigious universities (nearly all of which began as Christian seminaries) to the battles to free slaves and resist international communism.

Reflecting a Christian past

Of course non-Christians - including atheists, agnostics and members of minority faiths - have also played heroic roles in every era of the American past. But with the current freewheeling diversity in our religious marketplace of ideas - where missionaries for Scientology jostle the enthusiastic advocates of the Kabbalah Center - we're in little danger of viewing our culture's present or future in monochromatic or intolerant terms.

We do face formidable efforts, however, to erase and distort the nation's Christian past. In this sense, it's almost appropriate that secular activists focus on the crosses used in various war memorials: the very designation "memorial" derives from the word "memory," and the effort to obliterate these monuments in various locations amounts to more than a program to redecorate the landscape. The campaign against religious symbols represents a war on memory itself - and an intolerant effort to eradicate all prominent reminders of the faith-based heritage of this civilization.

Nationally syndicated radio talk host Michael Medved is the author of Right Turns. He is also a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.