At first glance, a 40-foot cross in a traffic circle may not have that much in common with an over 60-foot statue of Robert E. Lee in a traffic circle, but they do—I mean other than their obstructing the free flow of traffic. There are significant similarities between the recent arguments over the removal or “contextualization” of the Bladensburg cross and the equally vehement debates regarding the removal or placement of monuments to Lee, other Confederate generals or leaders, or generic Confederate soldiers.
First, let me state that I recognize one key distinction between disputes over crosses and disputes over Confederate monuments and memorials. The Constitution prohibits the government—federal, state, or local—from promoting a particular religion or religion in general. There is no such prohibition on promoting a political viewpoint or a certain interpretation of history. There are several reasons why there is this distinction, some of them logically sound, some of them accidents of history, but this distinction, however important for legal purposes, is not relevant to my argument here. (One sound reason for treating government promotion of religion differently is that disputes over religious doctrines are not in principle matters that can be resolved effectively through democratic discourse.)
Leaving the Constitution aside, there is a sociological and historical connection between these disputes. The connection is illustrated by comments made by Justice Breyer during the Supreme Court’s oral argument in the Bladensburg case. Breyer hinted at the possibility of “grandfathering” the Bladensburg cross and similar religious monuments, suggesting that “History counts. And, so, yes [to Bladensburg] but no more … We are a different country now … We’re not going to have people trying to tear down historical monuments, even here, okay?” In other words, the courts should prohibit any effort to erect stand-alone crosses in public spaces now—assuming such action would even be politically feasible—but as to those put up decades ago, why not give them a pass? Those seeking to maintain the Bladensburg cross in its current public location have argued that there was no proselytizing intent behind the cross. It was not expressly designed to promote Christianity or denigrate other religions or atheists. It simply was an accepted way to memorialize soldiers in 1919. No wording on the cross refers to religion, Christian or otherwise. Moreover, as a monument to fallen soldiers in World War I it has intrinsic historical value. Part of our heritage.
Those who have followed disputes about Confederate statues will recognize similar arguments have been made in defense of these monuments. The statues represent history and heritage, not hate. They were not intended to denigrate blacks or praise slavery, but to honor the sacrifice and courage of individual soldiers. The monuments themselves have no explicit pro-slavery messages. Furthermore, those who erected these monuments were sometimes comrades or descendants of these soldiers. Are not they permitted to honor their dead?
To begin, of course, such arguments don’t carry any weight with respect to many Confederate memorials. These memorials have been erected at many different times, but in general, they came in two waves: one at the turn of the twentieth century and the other during the modern struggle over segregation and civil rights (that is, in the 1950s and 1960s). The latter were transparent efforts to assert the continuing dominance of white supremacy. But even some of those that were erected not long after the Civil War were not mere memorials to the fallen. The speech given at the 1913 inauguration of the “Silent Sam” memorial, formerly prominently displayed at the University of North Carolina, was a sickening racist tirade.
But let’s assume, at least hypothetically, that those who erected some of the monuments, perhaps including the one to Lee which has dominated Richmond since 1890, didn’t give a moment’s thought to slavery, segregation, or the superiority of the white race. Does this make any difference?
No. No more than the possibility that those who erected the Bladensburg cross didn’t give a moment’s thought to the reaction of Jews, atheists, or those with other minority beliefs makes any difference. Indeed, the possibility that no thought was given to the message these monuments conveyed to those who had no voice in their community confirms their objectionable character. They represent constant, vivid reminders of a time when, in one case, not being Christian meant social ostracism and political powerlessness, and, in the other case, not being white meant legal, social, and political subordination.
Removal of crosses from prominent public locations does not imply disrespect for Christianity or denial of religious liberty. Private groups and individuals have nearly absolute freedom to display religious symbols. There is an abundance of crosses beside and atop churches, as well as statues to those the religious consider their heroes. With regard to memorializing veterans, it’s not clear why, if the Bladensburg cross means so much to some veterans’ groups, that they haven’t made an effort to acquire the cross, or erect something similar, on their own property.
Similarly, removal of Confederate monuments from prominent public locations doesn’t imply condemnation of individual Confederate soldiers or a refusal to acknowledge history. These soldiers weren’t fighting for the United States, but against the United States in order to preserve slavery, so they are not entitled to prominent public monuments, which would suggest endorsement of their cause. (Do we have prominent public monuments to Tories—those many Americans who fought for King George and against our independence? I’m not aware of any.) That said, one can acknowledge their humanity by placing their memorials in our numerous Civil War battlefields, parks, or cemeteries. (Indeed, those are the appropriate locations to honor them: it’s one of the tragedies of the human condition that humans have often displayed bravery and fortitude while having been misled to fight for an unjust cause.)
To echo Justice Breyer, history does count. But that history—a history of ignoring the views of religious and racial minorities if not treating them with utter contempt—buttresses the argument for the removal of monuments that embody that blithe bigotry.