Soon there will be solemn wreath-laying ceremonies nationwide—on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—honoring the fallen and all of our war veterans. It’s a tradition going back to November 11, 1918, with the armistice that ended World War I.
But if a militant atheist group gets its way, this will be the last Veteran’s Day ceremony held at the Bladensburg World War I Veterans Memorial since it was dedicated in 1925. The American Humanist Association (AHA) is basically complaining that since the monument is in the shape of a cross—which they insist is an “exclusively Christian” symbol—it cannot exist on public property.
More than 90 years ago, ground was broken for the memorial erected in Bladensburg, Maryland, and paid for through American Legion fundraising. It stands at a crossroads just outside Washington DC, and honors the memory of 49 local soldiers who died in World War I (WWI).
Remember, Remember the Eleventh of November
That’s a good thing, because Americans today are largely unaware of the utter and total brutality of World War I (1914-1918), its massive human cost, and the unfathomable price it imposed on the world’s societies and cultures. The overall toll for American military was 53,402 killed in action, 63,114 dead from related diseases and accidents, and 204,002 wounded. That all basically happened in the course of those last few months of the war that saw U.S. ground involvement. Worldwide, the war resulted in a military and civilian total of 38 million casualties.
The era’s brutal new technologies—such as the machine gun and poison gas—coupled with trench warfare created new miseries the world had never known. A French soldier at Verdun, Albert Joubaire, described it this way: “What a bloodbath, what horrid images, what a slaughter. I just cannot find the words to express my feelings. Hell cannot be this dreadful.”
It was a war that caused massive psychological transformations of whole societies, according to WWI scholar Vejas Liulevicius. His short and brilliant analysis delivered for the WWI centennial last year is loaded with insights and lessons for us all.
We forget World War I at our own peril. Whether we know it or not, society continues to experience its aftershocks today.
How to Describe This Cross In Atheist Crosshairs?
It’s a big monument, all right. That’s altogether fitting and proper for a war of that magnitude. The memorial became known as “Peace Cross” in keeping with the idea that World War I was “the war to end all wars,” so extreme in its violence, so unimaginable to survivors that humanity would ever embark on another.
The Bladensburg Cross Memorial’s concrete mass and its isolation make it indeed a monumental sight to behold. It shoots up 40 feet from the ground at the crossroads of Baltimore Avenue, Annapolis Road, and Bladensburg Road. I used to drive by it when I lived in the area, and it cries out: “Never forget!”
At the center of the cross is the emblem of the American Legion. A bronze plaque on the base names each of the 49 fallen from Prince George’s County. The gold stars in each corner of that plaque symbolize the loss of a mother’s son. Two of those mothers broke the ground for the memorial. Four virtues by which the fallen are remembered —valor, endurance, courage, and devotion—appear boldly on each of the four faces of Peace Cross’s base.
On the plaque also is this quote from President Woodrow Wilson: “The right is more precious than peace. We shall fight for the things we have always carried nearest our hearts. To such a task we dedicate our lives.” No word of religious devotion or exhortation stands anywhere on or around the monument.
‘Unwelcomed Contact’ with Peace Cross
AHA’s lawsuit filed last year, and currently before U.S. Fourth District Court Judge Deborah Chasenow, demands that the defendant (the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission, which maintains the monument) remove the Bladensburg Peace Cross. (The AHA has gained support from other organizations, including the Committee on American-Islamic Relations.)
Since Peace Cross currently stands on public land—it was transferred to its current spot in 1960—the AHA is using its special interpretation of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause to claim the monument is unconstitutional. AHA’s lead attorney, Monica Miller, claims that it’s “an exclusively Christian monument on government property” and therefore “violates this central command of the Establishment Clause by sending a clear message that Christianity is the preferred religion over all others.”
That’s quite a stretch. Establishing a state religion is a deliberate act by a government (such as in the Soviet Union, in which the state’s entire apparatus pushed militant atheism). It doesn’t happen through scattered memorials private parties erected long ago to remember their fallen.
The AHA’s interpretation says the existence of the cross on any public parcel of property means that government is somehow promoting Christianity over other religions. Or, more generally, promoting religion over non-religion.
So, what injuries has the Peace Cross inflicted on the plaintiffs? According to the brief AHA filed, one of the three plaintiffs, Steven Lowe, “was shocked when he first saw the cross and it upsets him whenever he passes it.” Another, Fred Edwords, is described as having “had unwelcome contact with the Bladensburg Cross on several occasions.” The third individual, Bishop McNeill “has had unwelcome contact with the cross at least four times. Each time he encountered it, he was traveling to local stores and businesses in the surrounding area.”
The horror. All three, according to the brief, “do not wish to encounter Bladensburg Cross in the future.” So they demand that it must go.
The Peace Cross Symbolizes Self-Sacrifice
We honor the fallen because of their self-sacrifice. If you are able to grasp that reality, then you understand the need for an effective symbol to express it. More than anything else, the Bladensburg Peace Cross is a symbol of self-sacrifice in keeping with the enormity and the calamitous history of World War I. No other symbol so efficiently communicates self-sacrifice and suffering. No other symbol serves also to signify the hope that the dead did not die in vain, that they laid down their own lives so others would live in peace and freedom.
The cross also serves as a symbol of valor. Consider that the United States Distinguished Service Cross, second only to the Medal of Honor, has one word inscribed on it: Valor.
Self sacrifice. Valor. Endurance. Courage. Devotion. Hope. Peace. If only the plaintiffs could understand that the Peace Cross memorial symbolizes these universally acknowledged virtues, perhaps they wouldn’t be so anxious to banish it.
The AHA misreads the significance of the Peace Cross. But even if its representatives were correct—which they are not—in assuming it is an exclusively Christian symbol, their argument to banish the monument is foolish. This would mean that absolutely no memorials on government land may ever under any circumstances reflect the character and beliefs of a nation’s own people, even as a matter of history.
For example, if you consider the U.S. World War I cemetery at Meuse-Argonne in France (as well as the World War II cemetery at Normandy) the vast, vast majority (I haven’t counted—well over 95 percent?) of the burial markers are crosses, reflecting the religious identities of the fallen Americans. At Meuse-Argonne, 14,245 American soldiers were laid to rest. Here’s a representative photo of some of the graves there:
All of this, at least according to atheist logic, would be banished were it on public lands in the United States—for what? For fear of contaminating the American public with the shameful and illegal notion that most Americans of the day were Christian?
The Heckler’s Veto of History
A heckler can stop a speech just by being enough of a nuisance. In this case, AHA’s noise ends up denying history. The historical record is loaded with undeniable facts that make the Peace Cross a historic monument with significance that far transcends any concerns a citizen might have with any perceived religious content. Here are a few specifics to keep in mind.
The Bladensburg Cross is one of relatively few WWI monuments in the United States. It was recently placed on the National Registry of Historic Places due to the efforts of a local resident, Renee Green. (She also produced a documentary series for the public.)
World War I is under-studied and under-appreciated and even woefully unknown among students today although it was a seismic event in world history. It was the first total war with aftershocks that continue to this day, and people need to be aware of it.
Many (maybe all?) of the fallen commemorated on the Bladensburg Peace Cross Memorial were among the 1.2 million American soldiers who fought in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive or The Battle of the Argonne Forest, which has been identified as the largest offensive in U.S. military history: 26,277 were killed and 95,786 wounded there. It hastened the end of WWI, and it should not be forgotten.
The Bladensburg Cross was erected at a time when the cross was a commonly understood symbol of suffering, sacrifice, and hope. This fact in itself is relevant to the history of the architecture of monuments.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross has been a local landmark for 90 years. It’s unlikely even a single resident can recall it not existing. Removing that monument would destroy an emblem of community.
Where Does It All End?
Crosses are everywhere. So where does it end for the AHA and other militant atheists in their mad pursuit to remove every jot and tittle of perceived religious symbolism from the public sphere? Where will they draw the line?
They are likely to feel “unwelcome contact with the cross” in many, many places. In fact, even bureaucrats are known to wear crosses visibly while working in public offices. For militant atheists with global aspirations, what to do about the Red Cross, the Swiss national flag, and all five of the flags of Scandinavia, which are basically Latin crosses, not to mention the Union Jack, with its crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew?
What about references to God? It’s all over our currency, of course. And millions of tourists have visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery—on federal land—and read this inscription: “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
What about the Washington monument? Yes, it’s an obelisk (which happens to be another religious symbol), but did you know there’s a devotion to God inscribed at the top? On the eastern face at the very top is written “Laus Deo,” which means in Latin “All glory to God.”
You might say it’s like America’s greeting to God, compliments of George Washington, every morning as the sun hits it in the east. You can check Newt Gingrich’s book “Rediscovering God in America” for a virtual walking tour of religious imagery all over our federal government buildings right in Washington DC.
‘If Ye Break Faith with Us Who Die, We Shall Not Sleep’
As we commemorate this Veteran’s Day and consider the fate of the Bladensburg Peace Cross, we ought to pay special attention to each and every word of the moving elegy “In Flanders Field.” It was written in 1915 by Canadian physician Lt. Col. John McCrae, who was as close as one can get to the nightmare of World War I. In it, the dead speak to us from their graves:
In Flanders Fields the 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.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe;
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.