The Inclusive Cross?

Is it permissible, in a religiously pluralistic society, to use a cross as a symbol to honor veterans and remember war dead?  The question is a recurring one.  Many people (and some judges) say “no”: it is not permissible to use a “sectarian” Christian symbol for this purpose.  Others say “yes,” and they will often argue that the cross need not be viewed as a sectarian or exclusively Christian symbol; it can convey other meanings as well.

Here is a different rationale, which I quote from one of the exam answers in a course I taught recently in Lisbon: “[T]he cross can’t exclude anyone without denying itself, for Christianity . . . views non-believers as their brothers and sisters, putting love and understanding towards them on a first place.  It is a core of Christianity to be for all, not excluding anybody, but of course, only on their voluntary acceptance.”  (Please excuse the sketchy syntax, etc., which are no worse than what I often see on timed exams– or even first drafts– from native English-speakers.)  The student goes on to conclude that the cross is an ideal symbol for a war memorial.

I haven’t heard this sort of rationale offered in this country.  Someone making this contention for this purpose could expect to be criticized for a kind of religious bigotry.  Still, I found the answer intriguing.  Might it be defended?

The intention, it seems, is good: the idea is to include others– to include everyone, in fact, not just Christians, not just “reasonable” people.  Doesn’t that intention deserve some commendation?

Still, good intentions only take one so far.  The most obvious objection, I imagine, is that even if Christians view their faith as in some sense universally inclusive, and even if the cross symbolizes this aspiration, this is still a specifically Christian expression of a specifically Christian inclusiveness.  Everyone is being “included” by being viewed as a brother or sister in Christ.  And if the government is associated with that kind of specifically Christian inclusiveness, then it is understandable that non-Christians would object.  They presumably don’t want to be “included” in that Christian way.

Thus, even in its professed (and presumably sincere) inclusiveness, the cross– and the rationale supporting it– are sectarian.  The point seems cogent enough.  So I don’t expect to be making this student’s argument anytime soon.

Still, I wonder.  Won’t every offer of inclusiveness be grounded in some underlying position that not everyone accepts?  Will all forms of inclusion thus be partisan, or if you like sectarian, in the way this student’s rationale is?  We can say why the rationale is problematic in a pluralistic society.  But is there any other position that escapes the problem?  True, the rationale is inclusive on its own terms.  Can any position do better than that?

(Enter at this point Rawls et al.  Repeat questions.)


— Steve Smith

One response

  1. Steve, nice post. The Italian administrative court in Lautsi made a similar argument about the allegedly nonsectarian, inclusive meaning of the cross. Alone among religions, the court argued, Christianity accepts the other; for Christianity, tolerance is even more important than “faith in an omniscient god” (!). “The cross,” the court continued, “as the symbol of Christianity, can therefore not exclude anyone without denying itself; it even constitutes in a sense the universal sign of the acceptance of and respect for every human being as such, irrespective of any belief, religious or other, which he or she may hold.” Quite apart from its questionable description of Christian theology – faith in God really takes a back seat to tolerance? – the argument requires that non-Christians accept tolerance on Christian terms, which are hardly neutral, as you write. The argument about the inclusive, nonsectarian meaning of the cross faded into the background and the ECtHR did not rely on it.

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