In 1925, a cross was erected in Bladensburg, Maryland, to commemorate the lives of forty-nine local men who lost their lives fighting in World War I. Though maintained on public land with public dollars, the Supreme Court ruled this week that the cross does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. Essentially, the Court held that a Christian symbol isn’t always a Christian symbol.
“ After the First World War, the picture of row after row of plain white crosses marking the overseas graves of soldiers who had lost their lives in that horrible conflict was emblazoned on the minds of Americans at home, and the adoption of the cross as the Bladensburg memorial must be viewed in that historical context.” See American Legion v. American Humanist Association, No 17–1717. (S. Ct. 6/20/2019). Justice Alito gives several more examples of the cross acquiring a secular meaning in non-religious contexts, including on the flags of secular countries like Switzerland and international organizations like the Red Cross, and in trademarks like those of Bayer and BlueCross BlueShield.
It should strike no one as surprising that symbols can have fluid and evolving meanings. We are all familiar with how words can change their meanings over time. In The Symbolic Species, anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence Deacon provides an account of how symbols arise and evolve, drawing on philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce’s theory of signs. In this account, symbols are a complex web of referential relationships, built up out of smaller, simpler such relationships. The simplest of these relationships is the icon, essentially a direct representation of the thing it refers to, like a bust or a drawing. When two or more icons are regularly and reliably correlated with one another, each can become iconic of the other, and the next type of sign — the index — is created. Some examples of indices include the footprints of an animal or measuring devices like thermometers and weather vanes. Where icons refer directly to their objects, indices point to possible states of reality.
When multiple indices are regularly and reliably correlated with one another, the symbol is born. As an example, Deacon cites Napoleon Chagnon’s description of an alliance ceremony between two rival Yanomamo clans. The guests arrive and brandish their weapons and utter war cries at their hosts, who remain seated and calm. Then the guests sit down and remain impassive as the hosts take up their arms and make their own threatening gestures. When the hosts take their seats again, a state of peace is understood to exist between the two clans. Weapons, threatening gestures, and war cries are all iconic of conflict, and their performance together is an index of war. Juxtaposed with indices of peace, themselves built out of icons of calm, non-confrontational behavior, the ceremony becomes of symbol for its performers.
Symbols are inherently social. Indices can certainly create expectations among those capable of interpreting them (a change in barometric pressure may indicate rain; scratches on a tree trunk may apprise one of the presence of a grisly bear; etc.), but symbols create expectations that are enforced not by the reliable co-occurrence of natural phenomena, but by social norms and beliefs. In Deacon’s account, symbols almost certainly began as performative rituals, and only later became embodied in spoken and written vehicles. They served initially to create and maintain the kinds of social bonds — like marriage — that are found in all human societies.
For Christians, the cross symbolizes Christ’s sacrifice to redeem the world from sin. But what that means in practice — that is, how the symbol of the cross is meant to regulate social behavior — has always been contested, no more so than in our modern era of nominally secular government committed to a stance of neutrality with respect to competing religious visions. So it should come as no surprise that in a social context in which the symbolic meaning of the cross has become so vague, it should acquire a more abstract meaning. Justice Alito refers to the rows of crosses that became iconic of soldiers killed in action, and it is not much of a logical leap to conceive of the cross as a symbol, not specifically of Christ’s sacrifice, but of the sacrifice of anyone’s life for something greater than oneself.
Symbols often tread this path from the concrete to the abstract. In The Unfolding of Language, linguist Guy Deutscher refers to language as a “reef of dead metaphors,” many of whose original meanings are lost on everyday speakers. “[W]hat really erupts is a volcano, not conflicts; what really leaks is water, not information; trees grow, not the economy; ships sink, not productivity; people drown, not comments; buildings collapse, not semblances of politeness.”
These considerations raise some interesting questions about the implications of the Supreme Court’s ruling. On the surface, American Legion v. American Humanist Association appears to be a win for religious conservatives intent on putting religious iconography back into the public square. But upon reflection, it seems the Court could only have reached the conclusion it did if that iconography had long since lost the specifically religious content its supporters want to promote. The cross may not be a dead metaphor, but could the defendants have prevailed if it wasn’t at least dying? Though an atheist, I was raised Christian and attended parochial schools, and I wonder whether devout Christians should really be cheering a ruling that will only encourage the further dilution of the symbol of their faith.
In Dynamics of Faith, the theologian Paul Tillich wrote that “what concerns one ultimately becomes holy.” He warned against merely transitory or finite concerns like the nation or personal success, arguing that when we place these at the center of our identity, we are bound be disappointed. These are, in other words, false idols. And so I wonder, what is left of the cross when it can symbolize sacrifice on behalf of the nation, which looks a lot like an idolatrous concern, but can also symbolize caring for the sick and injured, which seems a lot more holy, even to a heathen like me? And what is a Court to do when asked to pass judgment, and its decision will force it either to assist in the transformation of a religious into a secular symbol, on the one hand, or else wade into a theological controversy, on the other?