In 1925, several of Maryland’s Prince George County families joined with the American Legion to erect a 40-foot-tall cross in honor of 49 Prince George men who died in World War I. In the wake of a recent U.S. Court of Appeals decision, that cross may now have to be torn down.
The journey toward the Peace Cross’ removal began in 2015 when a federal judge ruled that the monument was both secular and historically significant. That decision bought the cross some time until December of 2016 when the case was set before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The decision at hand: whether the monument violates the 1st Amendment’s prohibition of legislation that endorses any faith tradition over others.
This past Wednesday, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled that the cross does, in fact, violate the 1st Amendment. The court expounded on its ruling by observing thousands of public dollars spent for the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission to maintain the cross.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution
President and CEO Kelly Shackleford’s law firm, First Liberty Institute, represented veterans at the American Legion who have been trying to protect the ‘Peace Cross’ against demolition. Shackleford lamented possible unforeseen consequences that may result from the court’s decision saying that the court’s ruling could encourage more lawsuits against other veteran memorials erected on public land. One such memorial is Arlington National Cemetery’s Argonne Cross.
Looming over Shackleford’s foreshadowing is a far more ominous concern: the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit didn’t just rule against the ‘Peace Cross’ but also in favor of the Post-Christian Era.
Of course, this isn’t to say that American has ever been a formal theocracy, “a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler.” In fact, founding father John Adams firmly documented the religious neutrality of America in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. The treaty was certified to maintain peace between America’s colonies and the 18th and 19th-century Muslim states of North Africa:
“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen,-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mehomitan nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.” – John Adams, Treaty of Tripoli (Article 11)
In further review of the personal perspectives of our country’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson also documented a preference for religious neutrality in a 1823 letter to John Adams:
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. … But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding….”
Taking the founding father’s documents at face-value, one can easily surmise that America was never meant to be a Christian nation and that the problem of the U.S. Court of Appeals’ rule in favor of a Post-Christian era is illegitimate. But Supreme Court Justice David Brewer (1837-1910) appeals to the context of America rather than its content as evidence of a largely Christian nation. On page 57 of his book The United States: a Christian Nation, he expounds his point:
“Now, as I have pointed out, Christianity was a principal cause of the settlements on these western shores. It has been identified with the growth and development of those settlements into the United States of America, has so largely shaped and molded it that today of all the nations in the world it is the most justly called a Christian nation.”
Recognition of America’s Christian context even got a hold of John Adams himself— that very same U.S. President who wrote to the North African states that we are not a Christian nation. In his 1798 Proclamation, he promoted a national day of prayer and fasting and declared that the well-being and wealth of nations invariably rely upon “the blessing of Almighty God.”
We may never reach consensus determining just how Christian our nation is. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals’ decision this past Wednesday has undeniably etched one more notch in the belt of secularity’s courtroom crusade against Christian symbolism. From the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 decision to remove the Ten Commandments from Oklahoma’s State Capitol to a federal lawsuit threatening to remove ‘In God We Trust’ from American money, some of the most treasured relics of Christianity are being erased from American culture one-by-one.
The omen of yet another court decision in favor of the Post-Christian era isn’t just religious, it’s social. Between 1775 and 1776, thousands of newly established colonial Americans passionately debated whether people were virtuous and moral enough to self-govern. Founding father Benjamin Franklin said it with eloquent brevity:
“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
There is a heavy necessity to the constitution that requires our submission. If we fail to obey laws like the 1st Amendment, we fail to be civil. But there is also a sense that civility doesn’t just materialize from within and certainly not voluntarily. It must be compelled from somewhere— from Someone.
As more and more Christian symbols and relics are court-mandated out of plain sight, it’s worth asking: what will stand, erected high in permanence and set in stone, to remind us of the virtue required of us? What is left to visually compel us beyond the subjectivity of mere morality, beyond the present realities of corruption and viciousness, and into an objective state of Good?
“I said to the LORD, “You are my Master! Every good thing I have comes from you.” – Psalm 16:2 NLT