The Battle over Memorials: Inside the Religious Right's Campaign to 'Christianize' America's War Monuments

By Brown, Simon | Church & State, February 2014 | Go to article overview

The Battle over Memorials: Inside the Religious Right's Campaign to 'Christianize' America's War Monuments


Brown, Simon, Church & State


Legend has it that in May 1915, after burying a friend killed by a German artillery shell during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lt. Col. John McCrae, a field surgeon assigned to the Canadian artillery, sat on the back of an ambulance and wrote a poem that countless school-age children have had to study for decades since.

That work begins: "In Flanders Fields where poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row/That mark our place; and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below."

The poem, "In Flanders Fields," is among the best-known writings of the First World War. It's a stirring piece of literature in its own right, but it also offers a glimpse into the improvised cemeteries constructed by soldiers during battle. And indeed, McCrae's words create some vivid imagery.

While it's impossible to say exactly what that Flanders cemetery looked like in 1915, scholars agree that Christian or other religious symbols are inconsistently employed by soldiers to mark impromptu graves hastily constructed during combat. In many cases, soldiers merely mark the resting place of their dead comrades with a simple piece of wood or a bayonet and helmet. And after fighting ends in a particular conflict, at least in the United States, individual national monuments constructed by government are secular in order to reflect the varied beliefs of the dead they memorialize.

Unfortunately, the Religious Right and its allies are either unwilling or unable to accept these truths. Increasingly, these groups are erecting Christian symbols on public land, then claiming after the fact that these markers are "war memorials" when they face legal scrutiny.

In other cases, attempts have been made to add sectarian language or symbols to secular war memorials after they are built.

In their quest to fill the public square with symbols meaningful to them, leaders of Religious Right groups don't hesitate to make flatly wrong arguments about soldiers' improvised graves and the universality of Christian symbols; they also exhibit general disregard for the diversity of veterans.

A recent high-profile case concerns a religious symbol masquerading as a war memorial on public land atop an 822-foot-high bluff known as Mt. Soledad. In 1952, the city of San Diego authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to build a 43-foot Latin cross on top of Mt. Soledad. The cross was dedicated in a Christian service on Easter Sunday in 1954 as a "gleaming white symbol of Christianity," and it was used as a site for Easter services for the next 40 years.

Although the Religious Right has insisted (and the media has reported) that the cross was erected as a memorial to veterans of the Korean War, there is no evidence to support the claim. It appears this argument was made well after the fact.

Indeed, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals concluded in Think v. City of San Diego in 2011: "The fact that the memorial also commemorates the war dead and serves as a site for secular ceremonies honoring veterans cannot overcome the effect of its decades-long religious history."

Additionally, the court said, the controversy over the cross "cast a long shadow of sectarianism over the memorial that has not been overcome by the fact that it is also dedicated to fallen soldiers, or by its comparatively short history of secular events."

Amazingly, the case has been knocking around in the courts for more than 20 years. The latest twist occurred in December, when U.S. District Judge Larry Burns called the cross unconstitutional and said it must come down. In his order for the case, now called City of San Diego v. Mount Soledad Memorial Association, Burns discussed alternatives that have been offered to somehow "secularize" the cross, which would seem an impossible task for the most recognizable symbol of Christianity.

"A plaque dedicating a cross as a war memorial could not cure the [First Amendment] violation," Burns wrote. …

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