Religious Arrogance and the 9/11 Cross

September 7, 2011

The planned placement of a cross-shaped piece of metal (hereinafter “the cross”) in the museum portion of the National September 11 Memorial and Museum has gained quite a bit of attention lately, including legal attention in the form of a lawsuit brought by our friends at American Atheists. Some of the attention has been generated by vigorous disagreement among nonbelievers about whether placement of the cross in the museum would be an Establishment Clause violation and should be opposed. The answers are “probably not, not with this Supreme Court” and “yes.”

The Establishment Clause, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, prohibits, among other things, promotion or endorsement of a religious belief. There would be a solid argument that placement of the cross in the memorial proper would be unconstitutional. In the setting of a memorial to the victims of an attack on the United States, a huge cross would send the unambiguous message that we are a Christian nation. But, as some commentators have pointed out, the cross will not be in the area specifically designated as a memorial. The 9/11 memorial proper will be an open area containing reflecting pools, waterfalls, and about 400 trees. The names of the victims of the terrorist attack will be inscribed in bronze along the pools. There are no state-sponsored religious symbols in this area.

The cross will be in the museum, and the rationale for placing it there is that it is part of the history of the 9/11 attacks. The cross was found among the rubble of the World Trade Center, and it is claimed that it inspired many. There appears to be more than sufficient evidence to support this claim.

That said, although American Atheists may have an aggressive understanding of the Establishment Clause, I don’t think AA’s lawsuit is frivolous, as some have argued. First, although the cross will not be located in the memorial gardens themselves, the National September 11 Memorial and Museum is one site administered by one foundation. The museum is not itself the memorial, but it is on the memorial site. The memorial and museum are closely linked, even if they are not identical.

And the cross was not found with a label stating, “This is historically significant debris.” Precisely what makes the cross an artifact of historical significance worthy of inclusion in a museum? The fact that some people—presumably Christians—found it inspiring? Does everyone’s source of inspiration count as “museum worthy” or only the items found inspiring by Christians? Were there only Christians among the victims and rescuers? Were only Christians more firmly resolved to defend our nation, our constitutional democracy after the 9/11 attacks?

To me, the selection of the cross for inclusion in the museum bespeaks an arrogance found all too often among the Christian majority. “What we find meaningful, is meaningful. The cross is a symbol of hope for everyone because it’s a symbol of hope for us.” Religious minorities and skeptics do not even register on the radar of some Christians; therefore, their views can be safely ignored or dismissed.

The cross had a home for about five years at a Catholic church. That’s a perfectly appropriate place for it. The religious have every right to display religious symbols on their property, but they should not assume their symbols speak to us or for us.

I don’t know whether the cross is vulnerable to a constitutional challenge; at the end of the day, it may actually depend on how the cross is displayed. (The courts are now big on the importance of context in resolving challenges to religious symbols.)  But just because something may withstand legal scrutiny does not make it acceptable. If you don’t think the cross should be selected (out of the thousands of other available artifacts) for display in the museum, then let your voice be heard. One way you can take action is by signing an on line petition, which calls for removal of the cross from the museum.

In closing, let me briefly comment on two objections that I anticipate. One objection is that calling for removal of the cross is a form of censorship akin to asking for removal of an offensive display from an art museum. This analogy is flawed. The art in the museum is selected for inclusion (presumably) because of artistic merit, not because it will appeal to the beliefs of many who visit the museum. No one has claimed the 9/11 cross has artistic value. It has value only because those with certain religious beliefs have invested it with value.

Second, someone might point out the museum will also have a Star of David cut from a piece of steel found at the World Trade Center. Please. Including a Jewish symbol in the mix is the standard gambit of Christians who want a religious display. “Oh, let’s throw in a menorah with the nativity scene so they can’t say we’re promoting Christianity. And if they attack the menorah, we can say they’re anti-Semitic.”  I don’t think manipulative marketing is one of the values we want to honor at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.



#1 Maura (Guest) on Wednesday September 07, 2011 at 8:33am

I think you raise some valuable points, ask good questions, and I would have had a much more supportive response to the article as a whole if not for the final paragraph, which disappointed me. First, it is not clear to me what point you are trying to advance with it; are you claiming that this particular Star of David is being used as a distraction to make acceptance of the cross easier? That it does not otherwise have a similar source of inspiration for those who submitted it? Also, I am not sure *what* you feel about the inclusion of the Star of David in the museum; are you fine with its inclusion but against the cross being part of the display? If so, I think there is incongruity to what you are advancing and it weakens your argument. If not, I would have appreciated your making that point clear.

#2 Cory Brunson on Wednesday September 07, 2011 at 8:34am

I agree that the objections you anticipate are unfounded — especially the first, since you stated earlier that you would be happy for the cross to have a permanent home in a (publicly accessible) church. I also concede that the entanglement of the “memorial” and the “museum” introduces problems.

We had a discussion over this at a Freethinkers meeting and i found myself defending the inclusion of the cross. As i’ve come to understand, the relevance of the cross is not just that it “inspired” many people at an individual level but that, if only because of the hype surrounding it, it became part of the aftermath story. That’s *not* to say that it was a necessary chapter in that story or that it behooves Christians and non-Christians alike to revere it, but that the phenomenon surrounding it is relevant to the telling of the overall story. The cross itself is certainly not necessary to tell that story — an informational plaque with a photo would suffice — but when the artifact itself is readily available, to procure it seems reasonable. (To display it upright, whereas it was presumably identified amid a tangle of metal, might still be objectionable.)

Here’s a question i haven’t seen answered: What artifacts might the curators be ignoring, that were significant to non-Christians (or even other Christians) in the aftermath? The Star of David is the first i’ve heard of, but i haven’t scoured the news for examples.

Were the museum totally separate from the memorial, your other objections would still be worth consideration, but would you still advocate against the inclusion of the cross in the museum?

#3 gray1 on Friday September 09, 2011 at 9:46am

Whether something represents “art” or happens to be a symbol of something that might somehow offend someone is chiefly in the eye of the beholder. Anyone offended has the right to simply suggest that “That’s a particularly ugly and meaningless piece of wreckage” and let things lie at that.

Regardless, if anything (symbolic or not) happens to be located on private property constructed by private citizens such as a foundation, since “There are no state-sponsored religious symbols in this area,” I fail to see where there is any problem except that atheists do not happen to control that particular foundation which is quite free to act much like any church or synagogue complete with symbols and worship services if it wishes to do so.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Great words… Personally, as long as nothing permanent is installed and it’s not actually being led or promoted by civil authorities I fail to see why citizens cannot “assemble” on (their own) public property and be free to express any particular religious or irreligious orientation the same way they might assemble to protest or celebrate any given cause in a peaceful and legal manner. 

It’s called “freedom”.

#4 socratus on Saturday September 10, 2011 at 8:31am

Physics and Theology.
/ About creators of God. /
Everybody creates his God according to his own image and spirit
If triangles made a God they would give him three sides
/ Charles de Montesquieu . Persian Letters, 1721 /
# If physicists made a God they would give him
concrete physical parameters.
# Which parameters they can be ?
We know that God is something Infinite.
What is ‘INFINITY’ ? Nobody knows.
The conception of ‘ Infinity’ we can find not only in Bible
but in Physics too.  Are they equal ? Are they different ?
I think that ‘INFINITY’ is ‘INFINITY’ and can be only one
for every knowledge, for every meaning.
I think there isn’t special ‘INFINITY’ for Bible and special
‘INFINITY’ for Physics. I think the conception ‘INFINITY’
is equal for every part of Science.
# Again and again the ‘INFINITY’ appears in many physical
and mathematical problems.
It means that ‘INFINITY’  is some kind of reality. (!)
Does Physicists meet God in the Infinite ?  (!)
Does God live in the INFINITE / ETERNAL spacetime continuum ?
To understand this we need to find the answers to the questions:
1) What is / are the physical parameters of the ‘INFINITY’ ?
2) What is connection between the infinity and the concreteness ?
3) What is connection between infinity and quality ?
4) How to explain the unity and inconsistent character between
the infinity and the concreteness ?
The Physical formulas and equations prove
the existence of the ONE GOD.
# The ‘INFINITY’ is Vacuum, Nothingness, Emptiness: T= 0K
The Emptiness isn’t emptiness.
It is uncreated and it is some kind of reality. (!)
Best wishes.
Israel Sadovnik Socratus
Does God So Love the Multiverse?
/ By Don N. Page . /
But we don’t know how many Multiverse God love.
Maybe infinite numbers .
And therefore I ask: Why Does God So Love the INFINITY ?
Best wishes.
Israel Sadovnik Socratus

#5 gray1 on Wednesday September 28, 2011 at 11:29am

The cross being used as a symbol of the meeting of the spiritual (vertical line) with the worldly (horizontal line) predates Christianity and probably any written language for that matter.  (FYI)

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