Once again, we’re fighting over the cross. God forgive us.

 

The Supreme Court recently heard arguments from a Maryland case involving a 40-foot cross that was constructed by the American Legion in 1925 as a memorial to veterans of the First World War. The original complaint came from the American Humanist Association in 2014, who argued that the cross breached the “establishment clause” of the first amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”

The district court rejected this argument, upholding the right of the city to maintain the cross on public ground. (The city has reportedly spent $100,000 since 1985 to maintain the monument.) I wonder, would we affirm $100,000 in government/tax support of an Islamic memorial or a Humanist memorial? But in 2017 an appellate court sided with the American Humanists, reversing the lower court’s decision, citing government entanglement with religion.

That’s how we got here. What ought to concern us is where we are going.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the matter in June, and early indications favor the high court reversing the appellate decision and again upholding the cross – but no decision will settle the church/state arguments that have been brewing since, well, since Jesus said, “Render Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.”

On the one side are those who argue with Justice Elena Kagan that “in such a case the particular religious content of a cross could be "stripped of" significance” (Ariane de Vogue, CNN Supreme Court Reporter, February 27, 2019).

By this argument, the government isn’t advocating for Christian religion because the cross has become just a monument to war dead. By its acceptance as a cultural icon, a symbol of memorial, the cross has no specifically religious content. Therefore, the government can support and maintain such a monument using Christian (and Jewish and Muslim and Humanist) tax dollars. It’s not a Christian symbol. It’s a secular monument.

On the other side are the Baptists, like me, who agree with Kagan’s argument – and who stand deeply offended by that same argument. I am concerned by the implication that in ANY case the particular religious content of the cross could be stripped of significance!

I know these are difficult arguments, and I realize that a lot of folks will not understand a Baptist minister siding with the American Humanist Association – but Baptists have always been strange that way! From the very beginning, as misunderstood as they have often been, Baptists have insisted on religious liberty: full, free, unabashed, all-encompassing liberty.

Before he was exiled from the colonies, where religious leaders were already trying to re-establish a State Church like they had had in England, the very first Baptist in this country, Roger Williams, demanded freedom. Williams argued: let the Papists be Papists (Catholics), the Turks be Turks (Muslims), the Jews be Jews, and let the natives practice their own brand of religion, whatever it be. Williams wasn’t understood either, but in no small measure, due to the insistence of Williams and other early Baptists, religious liberty is a cherished value in this country today, and is ensconced in the first amendment to our constitution.

In one of the most famous Baptist speeches in U.S. History, George W. Truett, a Baptist pastor from Dallas stood on the steps of the U.S. Capital on May 16, 1920, and articulated the Baptist standard. Included his powerful remarks is this steadfast conviction:

“Our contention is not for mere toleration, but for absolute liberty. There is a wide difference between toleration and liberty… Toleration is a concession, while liberty is a right. Toleration is a matter of expediency, while liberty is a matter of principle…. It is the consistent and insistent contention of our Baptist people, always and everywhere, that religion must be forever voluntary and un-coerced, and that it is not the prerogative of any power, whether civil or ecclesiastical, to compel [people] to conform to any religious creed or form of worship, or to pay taxes for the support of a religious organization to which they do not believe. God wants free worshippers and no other kind. …”

There is a lot at stake in this argument over the cross. There is the historic affirmation: religious liberty means freedom for all people, religious and non-religious, alike. This is not just a Baptist principle, it’s at the heart of this nation’s bold, unique experiment with freedom. 

And there is the Christian affirmation: we ought to stand firm in our belief that the cross is NOT a relic of history, NOT a cultural icon, NOT a war memorial.

If the way we justify the support of a 40-foot cross in Maryland, or any religious icon in this free land, is to strip it of any specifically religious significance – then we ought to at least be aware what we are losing in the process.

That is a concession this Baptist is not willing to make, so I happily side with the Humanists on this one.

 

(Dr. Russ Dean is a graduate of Clinton High School. He and his wife, Rev. Amy Jacks Dean, also a CHS graduate, are co-pastors of Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte.)

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