The U.S. Supreme Court this term will hear an important case challenging the display of a 40-foot-tall cross on state-owned land in Bladensburg, Md. The structure was erected in 1925 to honor residents of Prince George’s County who fought in World War I. In 1985, it was rededicated to honor all veterans of that conflict.
As Americans United has pointed out many times, a cross, as the predominant symbol of Christianity, can’t represent all veterans. Crosses are fine for private memorials, but when a sectarian symbol like the Bladensburg Cross is erected and maintained by the government, it sends the message that Christianity has some sort of special relationship with the state. It also excludes veterans who aren’t Christian.
I live in Maryland in the county adjacent to Prince George’s, so a few days ago I decided to visit the cross. I was curious to see the site. It was not what I expected.
As I had read, the cross is highly visible, sitting at the intersection of several busy highways. The small plot of land that houses the cross contains no other memorials.
I was immediately struck by the poor shape of the cross. Although it has been owned by the state of Maryland since 1956, the cross has obviously not been well maintained. (The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission has admitted as much, calling the structure a “public eyesore.”) At the top of the cross, there’s a cap of some sort with struts wrapped around the arms.
I’m sure the cross looked much nicer in 1925. In 2018, it just looks sad. I walked away thinking about men like my grandfather, who fought in the trenches of France during the war. I couldn’t help but conclude that we can do better for our deceased Great War veterans than this.
The Bladensburg Cross is indicative of the way this country has tended to overlook World War I veterans. They lack a proper memorial and because of that, some people have tried to press crosses into that service. In 2010, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in a case concerning a cross in the Mojave Desert that was often described as a World War I memorial. It was certainly nothing special, consisting of two metal pipes painted white. The structure, which now sits on private property, is not exactly accessible and again, as a Christian symbol, it fails to honor all veterans.
Plans are under way to create a national World War I memorial in Washington, D.C. Rather than fight over the crumbling Bladensburg Cross, I wish government officials in Maryland and elsewhere would focus their energies on creating a proper secular memorial in the nation’s capital, one that does something the structure in Bladensburg can never do: honor all of the men and women who gave their lives during the Great War.