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.