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Weekly, year in and year out, we sight new evidence that defining what is “religious” and what is “secular” remains difficult in the United States.
One way to trace some attempts is to read The Humanist, as we often do. “Cross Purposes,” in the current July-August issue, is an example.

In it, Rob Boston plots the curious, not-always-thought-through and apparently self-contradictory actions by “the religious right” that “secularize” the Christians’ sacred “central symbol.” Boston provides legal examples.

He takes for granted that “the cross is the most [sic] preeminent symbol of Christian faith,” the unifying marker for more than one billion people, the reminder to them of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

You’d think believers would guard the centrality and sacrality of the cross.

Yet, to achieve certain worldly and civil ends, many recent court cases reveal the Religious Right leaders in public contexts saying, in effect, “Never mind. We don’t mean it. The cross isn’t really religious. . . it has become a generic symbol to memorialize any dead person” (e.g., in the Salazar v. Buono case where friend-of-the-right Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia ruled that the cross can be a secular symbol. If so, asked plaintiff Buono, a Catholic, “why don’t we see crosses in Jewish cemeteries?” Similarly, a Utah court said the cross can be deprived of religious significance, as on highway signs.).

Boston writes that such uses of the cross reduce it to the “level of a public service announcement,” which is “a novel interpretation of law and theology, to be sure.”

Agreed. You’d think firm Christians would be the first and loudest to protest such reductions, but in these court cases they promote the secularizing practice.

For this “meager payoff,” as Boston calls it, “the religious right is willing to deny the meaning of the most significant symbol of Christianity.”

He is brusque: “Rubbish. Who looks at a cross and thinks, ‘My, what an interesting way to arrange two planks of wood?'”

Why, he asks, with this reduction prevailing, should believers still be asked to “take up the cross”? Why make it the focal point of churches, incorporate it into devotional art and celebrate it in hymns? Has any non-Christian, he asks, ever felt compelled to cling to “the old rugged cross?”

Believers and non-believers alike have reason to back off in some cases on this scene, and not always be crabby, jumpy and super-scrupulous about the intrusions across the “wall of separation of church and state.”

Ours, we remember, is a messy religious, secular and pluralist society in which lines are never clear and walls are seldom the best symbols for separation, which is complex and changing. Sometimes to keep the civil peace or civil tone, citizens can wink and live with the mess a pluralist and contentious society creates.

Boston may be over-alert to these issues, but he raises enough flags that Christians, including many not only on the right, may become more aware of the risks.

“At the end of the day what will [the cross-planters on public spaces] have achieved?”

Not all of their games played with the cross as symbol have to be as cynical as Boston sees them. There can be naïveté and generalized reverence in some of these cross-posting moves.

But critics may be doing articulate Christians a favor when they observe militant Christians having mounted crosses alongside highways and atop mountains, “simply and conveniently forgetting they did so by denying the symbol’s importance. They should ask ‘what if the secular symbolism sticks?'”

For many, it has stuck.

Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. His column first appeared in Sightings.

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