Legend has it that in May 1915, after burying a friend killed by a German artillery shell during the Second Battle of Ypres, Lt. Col. John McCrae, a field surgeon assigned to the Canadian artillery, sat on the back of an ambulance and wrote a poem that countless school-age children have had to study for decades since.
That work begins: “In Flanders Fields where poppies blow/Between the crosses, row on row/That mark our place; and in the sky/The larks, still bravely singing, fly/Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
The poem, “In Flanders Fields,” is among the best-known writings of the First World War. It’s a stirring piece of literature in its own right, but it also offers a glimpse into the improvised cemeteries constructed by soldiers during battle. And indeed, McCrae’s words create some vivid imagery.
While it’s impossible to say exactly what that Flanders cemetery looked like in 1915, scholars agree that Christian or other religious symbols are inconsistently employed by soldiers to mark impromptu graves hastily constructed during combat. In many cases, soldiers merely mark the resting place of their dead comrades with a simple piece of wood or a bayonet and helmet. And after fighting ends in a particular conflict, at least in the United States, individual national monuments constructed by government are secular in order to reflect the varied beliefs of the dead they memorialize.
Unfortunately, the Religious Right and its allies are either unwilling or unable to accept these truths. Increasingly, these groups are erecting Christian symbols on public land, then claiming after the fact that these markers are “war memorials” when they face legal scrutiny.
In other cases, attempts have been made to add sectarian language or symbols to secular war memorials after they are built.
In their quest to fill the public square with symbols meaningful to them, leaders of Religious Right groups don’t hesitate to make flatly wrong arguments about soldiers’ improvised graves and the universality of Christian symbols; they also exhibit general disregard for the diversity of veterans.
A recent high-profile case concerns a religious symbol masquerading as a war memorial on public land atop an 822-foot-high bluff known as Mt. Soledad. In 1952, the city of San Diego authorized the Mt. Soledad Memorial Association to build a 43-foot Latin cross on top of Mt. Soledad. The cross was dedicated in a Christian service on Easter Sunday in 1954 as a “gleaming white symbol of Christianity,” and it was used as a site for Easter services for the next 40 years.
Although the Religious Right has insisted (and the media has reported) that the cross was erected as a memorial to veterans of the Korean War, there is no evidence to support the claim. It appears this argument was made well after the fact.
Indeed, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals concluded in Trunk v. City of San Diego in 2011: “The fact that the memorial also commemorates the war dead and serves as a site for secular ceremonies honoring veterans cannot overcome the effect of its decades-long religious history.”
Additionally, the court said, the controversy over the cross “cast a long shadow of sectarianism over the memorial that has not been overcome by the fact that it is also dedicated to fallen soldiers, or by its comparatively short history of secular events.”
Amazingly, the case has been knocking around in the courts for more than 20 years. The latest twist occurred in December, when U.S. District Judge Larry Burns called the cross unconstitutional and said it must come down. In his order for the case, now called City of San Diego v. Mount Soledad Memorial Association, Burns discussed alternatives that have been offered to somehow “secularize” the cross, which would seem an impossible task for the most recognizable symbol of Christianity.
“A plaque dedicating a cross as a war memorial could not cure the [First Amendment] violation,” Burns wrote. (His decision did not end the decades-old saga, as it has been put on hold pending appeal.)
The Mt. Soledad controversy began in 1989, when two Vietnam War veterans filed suit to have the cross removed from government-owned land. Their action sparked a legal battle that would meander through the courts for over two decades, even though lower courts repeatedly ruled the cross should be removed. The case eventually captured the attention of Congress. In 2006, it voted to transfer ownership of the property from the city to the federal government in an attempt to preserve the cross as a national memorial.
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy even got involved, issuing the cross a brief reprieve in 2006 by staying lower court rulings. In a disappointing four-page decision, Kennedy cited Congress’ action and a local referendum showing strong local support for the cross as reasons to keep the structure.
Americans United took issue with that at the time. A post on the group’s “Wall of Separation” blog pointed out that neither reason is sufficient to excuse a constitutional violation.
“The problem with these facts is that they are irrelevant to the case,” AU’s Rob Boston wrote. “The designation of the 43-foot cross as a national war memorial is clearly a political stunt. More to the point, a cross – the primary symbol of the Christian religion – cannot memorialize the Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, atheist and other non-Christian war dead.”
As AU pointed out in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the case, the cross can only represent Christian veterans; it can’t honor the sacrifices of non-Christians. The Supreme Court eventually declined to hear the case, despite Kennedy’s interference, and sent it back to Burns.
Years later Congress is still meddling in the matter. U.S. Rep Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a frequent champion of far-right social issues, proposed a bill in January that would once again attempt to transfer the land on which the Mt. Soledad cross sits to private hands so that the symbol can remain in place.
Critics see all of the jockeying over the cross as little more than political misuse of our nation’s war dead.
“Certain advocates have found it politically expedient to exploit dead soldiers in their mission to enshrine Christianity as the national religion,” Jason Torpy, a former U.S. Army captain and president of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers, told Church & State. “As a combat veteran and West Point graduate, I find the nationwide tactic of declaring Christian shrines to be war memorials dishonest on its face and profoundly disrespectful to military service.”
Given all the holdups with this case so far, it’s difficult to say when it will be definitively resolved. The American Civil Liberties Union, which has litigated the issue on behalf of the Washington, D.C.-based Jewish War Veterans and San Diego residents since 2006, maintains that the cross must be removed.
“Sacrificing the very constitutional principles that many veterans have risked their lives to defend is no way to pay tribute to our military,” said ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief Senior Staff Attorney Heather L. Weaver in a December blog post. “It’s time for the government to give up its indefensible defense of the Mt. Soledad cross and embrace a memorial that honors all veterans equally, without regard to faith.”
Another ongoing case involves a memorial that was planned to honor veterans from the start. It is government sponsored, and it has become a center of controversy because it is laced with Christian symbols.
In a lawsuit filed in November 2012 on behalf of Steven Hewett, a decorated veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Americans United asked the City of King, N.C., to remove the Christian flag as well as a statue of a figure praying in front of a cross from its official veterans memorial.
Hewett, who won the Combat Action Badge and Bronze Star during his service with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan, first raised concerns about King’s overt promotion of Christianity in July 2010. A non-Christian, he asked for the removal of the Christian flag from the city-sponsored memorial out of respect for the many non-Christian veterans who have served their country.
Hewett’s request was greeted with contempt and derision from city officials who reaffirmed their belief in Christianity as the only true faith. Community residents who learned of the controversy also besieged the council with demands that the Christian flag remain in place.
After a complaint from Americans United, the city council voted in September 2010 to remove the Christian flag, but that was only temporary. In November 2010, the city – following advice from the Alliance Defending Freedom, an Arizona-based Religious Right legal group founded by radio and television preachers – created a “limited public forum” in which a flagpole at the veterans’ memorial was reserved for a rotating group of pre-approved flags. The city conducted a lottery and selected 52 flag applications, one for each week of the year.
The result of the lottery was that the Christian flag flew at the memorial for 47 weeks in 2011 and 2012.
“I proudly served alongside a diverse group of soldiers with a variety of different religious beliefs,” Hewett said in a 2012 press statement. “The City of King should be honoring everyone who served our country, not using their service as an excuse to promote a single religion.”
In court, King officials are arguing that Christian symbols, such as the cross, are somehow “universal grave markers” that are used regularly by soldiers, even during combat. As such, the city claims, creating a permanent military memorial paid for by taxpayers can include symbols specific to one faith without violating the U.S. Constitution. The argument is that those symbols aren’t necessarily religious and are in keeping with the traditions of soldiers.
To counter this claim, Americans United lined up an expert in military history to show that the cross is not a universal grave marker used by soldiers during wartime.
AU’s expert, Dr. G. Kurt Piehler, an associate professor of history at Florida State University and director of the Institute on World War II and the Human Experience, noted that soldiers rarely have time during active combat to construct complex grave markers; he also pointed out that military regulations do not allow them to use crosses in that circumstance.
In a report submitted to the court, Piehler wrote, “[T]he nature of combat in World War II and the Korean War often made it difficult for soldiers on the battlefield to bury their fallen comrades or to mark their graves at all.”
In light of that, he observed, a section of the War Department Field Manual dated January 1945 that governed battlefield burials in active war zones that may be made under hazardous conditions mandated that troops were not to construct a cross. Instead they were to use a “stick, or large rock, or a bayonet with a helmet superimposed” to mark graves of fallen comrades.
Piehler also said that it would take an act of extreme insensitivity for soldiers to bury a dead comrade under a cross if that soldier were not Christian.
“[E]ven if soldiers regularly disregarded the clear instructions from the War Department’s field manual, it is unlikely that soldiers would have been so insensitive to their deceased comrades that they would have knowingly buried a non-Christian under the sectarian religious symbol of the cross,” he observed. “Likewise, it is extremely unlikely that the graves of non-Christian soldiers buried in temporary cemeteries would have been marked with crosses.... [T]o the extent this happened, it resulted from unfortunate errors or insubordination that would hardly be worth commemorating in a universal veterans’ memorial.”
Even with such strong arguments against the universality of the cross and the prevalence of its use in the military, it’s hard to say what the outcome will be in the King case. There have been some bizarre rulings in this area, none stranger than a case concerning a statue of Jesus on public land in Montana.
In July, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Christensen said a statue of Jesus on government land on Big Mountain in Whitefish, Mont., can remain there because the statue does not necessarily convey religious meaning. The statue was erected more than 50 years ago by the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, supposedly to honor World War II veterans.
More often, the six-foot-tall statue is used for prank photos. Skiers typically like to pose for photos with it, sometimes sticking ski poles into the statue’s outstretched hands or placing a ski helmet on top of its head. Critics say it’s hard to see how any of that honors veterans or respects their sacrifice. There is a plaque next to the statue, which tells a bit of the history of the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division, but the plaque has no connection to the Jesus statue.
Curiously, when Christensen, an appointee of President Barack Obama, issued his ruling allowing the statue to remain, he didn’t mention its alleged use as a war memorial as a justification for his decision.
“The government neither owns the statue nor exercises control over the property on which it is located,” Christensen wrote. “Big Mountain Jesus constitutes private speech reflecting the personal views of its private owners and therefore cannot be seen by the reasonable observer as reflecting government promotion of religion.”
Aside from these battles, an ongoing situation focuses on the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. Some members of Congress are pushing for the addition of a lengthy Christian prayer to the memorial.
The memorial is more than 10 years old, and its design was chosen after a well-publicized, nationwide competition. The design went through a multi-layered process approved by the Department of the Interior and other agencies. Yet it’s only now that some members of Congress are insisting that parts of the memorial be altered to add a prayer that President Franklin D. Roosevelt recited on June 6, 1944, as the D-Day invasion was under way.
Americans United says there’s no need to add a prayer to the memorial, which is a popular draw for visitors in the nation’s capital. But the matter continues to linger and was last considered at a hearing by the National Parks Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources in July.
These instances of religion mixing with the military are part of a growing problem. Torpy, for one, said the conflicts show “how pervasive evangelism is in military culture.”
Efforts to “Christianize” war memorials, critics say, are especially ironic, given the military’s growing religious diversity.
A 2010 study by the Military Leadership Diversity Commission found that the 1.5 million men and women serving in the Armed Forces, most of whom are young, reflect trends in America’s youth population: They are more diverse on religious belief than ever.
America’s military now includes not just every variety of Christian but also Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists/humanists, Wiccans, Pagans and many others.
Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn said the Religious Right’s efforts in this area must be resisted.
“Our nation’s military memorials must acknowledge all of the brave veterans who died for our freedom, not just those who happen to subscribe to one particular faith,” Lynn said. “After all, when soldiers fight on behalf of the United States they fight for everyone.”