On Thursday, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in the case American Legion v. American Humanist Association. By a margin of 7-2, the judges determined that a large Roman cross, known as the Peace Cross, could remain on public land and be maintained by the state.
The cross was erected after World War I by the mothers of fallen American soldiers. Its primary purpose as a memorial to the soldiers, rather than an expression of public Christianity, was a key part of the court’s determination to let it stand. But a cross is a religious symbol, and no other use of it can detract from that. While using a cross to honor the dead passed without question in previous decades, it is, at least to the humanists who demanded its removal, an implicit statement of faith on public land.
But the faith of whom? As a constitutional democracy, America has no faith—at least, no single faith—and the First Amendment concerns raised by apparently public confessional symbols merited the court’s consideration. In a democracy, the founding document of which begins “We, the people,” where does the faith of its people end and the government’s lack of faith begin?
Recently, many American Catholic writers have engaged in a contentious debate about whether our secular democracy is evolving—inevitably or otherwise—to the point where the public square cannot tolerate “the people” expressing their faith. The raft of lawsuits brought in recent years against universities and other institutions in the face of stifling restrictions on speech illustrates this point, as does public intolerance for anyone articulating a faithful understanding of natural law regarding human dignity and sexuality—an understanding which was widely held not long ago.
As Justice Alito noted in the majority opinion, it is unlikely such a cross could be built in such a place today. But, he wrote, “retaining established, religiously expressive monuments, symbols, and practices is quite different from erecting or adopting new ones. The passage of time gives rise to a strong presumption of constitutionality.” The decision considered the history of the monument, which was erected on what was, at the time, private land. Over the last hundred years that land became public, and the cross now serves as a prominent landmark at a busy crossroads. The private faith of a small number of people in Maryland a century ago has become an accepted and acceptable public monument, not just to the fallen soldiers but to the faith of the people who mourned them.
As the court’s decision noted, the Capitol's National Statuary Hall honors religious figures—including Father Eusebio Kino, who is carved with a crucifix around his neck and his hand raised in blessing. “These monuments honor men and women who have played an important role in the history of our country, and where religious symbols are included in the monuments, their presence acknowledges the centrality of faith to those whose lives are commemorated,” Alito wrote.
In a country of “We, the people,” the faith which shapes the people shapes the society and the country they build, and that can neither be denied nor expunged in the name of modern secular sensibilities. The nation’s morality may now be relativistic but history, it seems, is not. The decision in favor of the Peace Cross is a preservation order for the memory of the society we once were, but the fight to remove it reveals the society we have become.
Catholic debate will continue about whether secular liberalism can tolerate the faith, and whether the faithful can tolerate secular liberalism—given its enshrinement of abortion, corrosion of the family, and attacks on dissenters from its moral consensus. But these secular political debates exist within the Church as much as outside it.
Many American Catholics see themselves as Republicans or Democrats first, with pews divided by party instead of united in faith and baptism. The U.S. bishops’ document Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, meant to guide Catholics in their political lives, endorses neither party. But it firmly accepts the paradigm they represent as an unchangeable reality.
Few can be blamed for adopting the implicit premise that if neither party is good, American Catholics should vote for the lesser of two evils. If the faithful conscience is formed to that rationale, the need to justify the lesser evil—especially in polarized public discourse—guarantees the consequences for the communion of the faithful.
In the century since the erection of the Peace Cross, our politics has unanswerably become less Christian, and our Christianity demonstrably more political. The country’s most prominent Catholic politicians are more likely to be found voting for abortion laws than against them, with little effective or coherent response from the hierarchy. The court’s Peace Cross decision vindicates the premise that we, the people, have the power to shape the fabric of our country, and imbue it with our faith. But we have ceased to build, as the mothers of fallen soldiers did that cross, a society in which our private devotion can be recognized as a legitimate expression of a shared public sentiment.
Underneath the debate about the future of our liberal democracy is a fight over its inevitability: Does our constitutional system point us inexorably away from a Christian society, and can there be any viable alternative to the means it provides for governing our country? We should recall that for much of the first century of the United States, there was nothing “inevitable” about its survival. In consequence, the people held it lightly and presumed little.
The partisan strife in our parishes and incoherent witness in our public square is rooted in a presumption about our political reality: that our parties and country cannot be remade in the image of the whole of our values by the whole of the faithful. Today, rebuilding the culture that found no contradiction between the cross and the democratic order may require we finally commit to becoming much more Catholic in our Americanism, and much less American in our Catholicism.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?