Honoring Everyone Who Served: A Veterans Day Reflection

Time and again, when legal challenges to crosses on government property are filed, non-Christian veterans are the first to stand up and point out that the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith doesn’t include them.

In 1952, a private group sought permission from government officials to erect a large cross atop Mt. Soledad near San Diego. They did it because they wanted a place to hold sunrise services on Easter. Once erected, the huge cross was dedicated to “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” during a Christian service.

As time went by, some people began to question whether it was appropriate to display a towering symbol of Christianity on government-owned land, and in 1989 a lawsuit was filed.

Desperate to keep the cross up, its defenders began arguing that the most recognizable symbol of the Christian faith wasn’t really religious; it was, they asserted, actually a war memorial designed to honor veterans. They said this even though virtually no one had made this argument in the early ‘50s. Back then, it was widely known that the cross had been erected for purely religious purposes.

After 25 years of litigation, the case was finally settled when the cross and the land under it was sold to a private entity. But as the case percolated in the courts, Americans United, which was not a party to the lawsuit, filed several friend-of-the-court briefs pointing out the obvious: A cross does not represent everyone who served our country.

On this Veterans Day, it’s important to get back to basics: This day was created to honor all of our veterans. It’s not just for the Christian ones. Veterans Day also reminds us of the American principles and values those veterans fought to preserve, and, in some cases, died for. Among them is religious freedom for everyone. That includes Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans, atheists, etc.

These days some groups claim to honor veterans but are cynically using them as tools to undermine separation of church and state. These groups erect Christian symbols on public property with the clear aim of creating a symbolic union between their faith and the government. That is their goal. Yet when someone complains, they bluster that the cross, a representation of the instrument upon which Christians believe Jesus Christ died, is actually a war memorial – and how dare you attack our brave veterans?

Well, our brave veterans did not risk their lives so someone could exploit them by using them as pawns in a political scheme. Many veterans know this. Time and again, when legal challenges to crosses on government property are filed, non-Christian veterans are the first to stand up and point out that the preeminent symbol of the Christian faith doesn’t include them. A sectarian symbol leaves too many men and women behind and ignores their service. (In Mt. Soledad, Jewish war veterans joined the case against government display of the cross.)

Veterans who are history buffs know that the cross has not been used as a generic symbol of military sacrifice. One of the briefs Americans United filed in the Mt. Soledad case was prepared by a group of military historians. It makes this point clear.

“The military has long understood that the Latin cross is not a secular symbol,” they wrote. “When the military displayed the Latin cross as a grave marker during the World Wars, it used it as a Christian symbol to memorialize Christian soldiers. Recognizing that it was invoking the Latin cross’s deep Christian meaning, the military took care not to mark the graves of Jewish soldiers with the cross. In permanent cemeteries, the military used the Star of David – a symbol of the Jewish faith – to mark Jewish soldiers’ graves. Even on the battlefield, the military used a variety of non-Christian symbols to mark the graves of soldiers who were not Christian.”

It’s fitting to honor our veterans today. The best way we can do that is by freeing them from the clutches of devious Religious Right leaders who offer a lot of airy talk about patriotism and sacrifice when their real goal is establishing a system of religious supremacism, with their narrow, exclusionary and fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity at the top.

If these people really cared about veterans, they would see to it that all of them were recognized, embraced and honored by our public monuments and memorials – every single one.

There’s only one way to do that: through secular, inclusive monuments that, in the true spirit of military values, leave no one behind.