Two strips of metal deep in the Mojave desert split the Supreme Court this week by a predictable 5-4. The strips form a seven-foot-high memorial cross, put up privately on federal land in 1934 to honor American soldiers who died in World War One.
In 2001, when a federal judge ruled that the cross violated the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”) by conveying “a message of endorsement of religion,” Congress did a quiet little two-step. It arranged for the acre on which the cross stood to be sold to a veterans’ group, making it private land in the middle of a national park. But the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco recognized the ploy for what it was and said the cross had to come down. Thus the case reached the Supreme Court — whose majority has just ruled, astonishingly, that the cross is a universal symbol representative of all religions.
Some say that this manifest absurdity on the part of the five conservative justices — Kennedy, Scalia, Roberts, Thomas and Alito — is because they are blinded by their Catholic faith. That may be part of it, but I’d say it’s due as much to their being blinded by the power of advertising.
Their brains have been washed by the most successful logo ever created.
The cross is so simple, anybody can make one. Two scratches in the sand with a stick, two fingers held up across each other, or just one body with arms outspread, and there you go. Abstract and figurative at the same time, it’s brilliant. The Star of David and the Crescent Moon are graphic failures by comparison. Only the Nike swoop (the simple tick copyrighted as a trademark) can compete for elegance, and I think it’s safe to assume that Nike will not last as long as Christianity.
The power of the cross is embedded deep in the superstitious psyche of the West. Cross your fingers, touch wood, don’t walk under a ladder — all these are based on the ‘original’ cross. Never mind that it wasn’t the original one. Or that Jesus of Nazareth was only one of tens of thousands of people crucified by the Romans. Or that the Assyrians were busily crucifying people when Rome was still a mere village.
Christianity adopted it as a symbol, and because that symbolic power is so entrenched, you don’t have to be Christian for it to get to you. The seemingly endless rows of white crosses in the World War Two killing fields of Normandy, cited by Kennedy, Roberts, and Alito, are indeed deeply moving, though the ones that get to me most are the hand-made ones by the side of the road all over America, small altars to family members, usually teenagers, killed in car crashes.
But Kennedy, Roberts, Alito, Scalia, and Thomas — I’d use the title Justice if I thought it still fit — should know this: if I die in a war or by the side of the road, erect no cross for me. If you do, I swear I’ll come back and haunt you, a copy of the United States Constitution in my right hand, and a medieval Jewish amulet against evil in my left. To you your symbols, to me mine.
Odd, though — I would have thought the Constitution was one of theirs too.