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A Cross or a Crossbeam?

Frederick S. Lane is an author, attorney, expert witness, and lecturer who has appeared on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS, the BBC, and MSNBC. He is the author of six books, including The Court and the Cross: The Religious Right's Crusade to Reshape the Supreme CourtAmerican Privacy: The Four-Hundred-Year History of Our Most Contested Right and the just-released Cybertraps for the Young.

4424As any sports fan will tell you, even the best umpires and referees sometimes blow a call. Every Red Sox fan over the age of 40 remembers the name Larry Barnett and can tell you how his inexplicable failure to call Ed Armbrister for interference helped cost the Sox the '75 series. But hey, blown calls are part of the game. Regrettably, as in sports, so too in punditry.

There are few members of the media that I admire more than Jon Stewart. For the past 15 years, he has nearly single-handedly waged war against the forces of ignorance and stupidity that have all but overwhelmed the so-called mainstream media, Washington, and much of American society. Even better, he was kind enough to invite me on his show in August 2006 to discuss my third book, The Decency Wars: The Campaign to Cleanse American. For a struggling and (still) largely unknown writer, that's the equivalent of a Papal benediction; even five years later, it's usually the first thing that people mention when they introduce me to a lecture audience.

As a smart, passionate, and unabashedly scatological moral arbiter of American society, Stewart calls 'em like he sees 'em, and to this resident of the People's Republic of Burlington (VT), his accuracy is pretty impressive. But during his show on August 4, 2011, he made a mistake of Joycean proportions. In a segment labeled Culture War Update, Stewart lambasted the American Atheists organization for filing a lawsuit to prevent the installation of a cross-shaped fragment of steel beams at the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan. Here's the beginning of his diatribe:

"[A]theists, why do you give s**t? That cross is an artifact. It was found at Ground Zero. It has come to mean something to people who view it as a symbol of comfort. If it really bothers you, why not just think of it as a metal t-shaped thingy? Or purely in architectural terms: it's not a cross, it's a crossbeam. Don't think of it as an ode to Jesus, the Christian savior; think of it as an homage to Jesus, the Canaanite with the relatively unsuccessful carpentry business. But you know what, that's fine, that's fine. That's our system. You can file lawsuits. Just because there's a lawsuit doesn't mean that it will be successful. Everyone's entitled to their day in court. It's not like the atheists are being total dicks about it. [Segue to Fox News clip featuring an inflammatory quote from American Atheists president David Silverman.]"
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Any one who has watched Stewart regularly over the years knows that he feels particularly strongly about issues surrounding the events of 9/11. He has been heroic in his advocacy for medical coverage and compensation for the city's first responders, and I couldn't agree more. To paraphrase one his more poignant lines, I don't care if a first responder spends the rest of his or her days sipping asbestos martinis while sitting unsunscreened on frayed vinyl chloride beach chairs downwind from a nuclear plant, all the while using copies of Silent Spring to put a nice dark char on their hormone-laden t-bone steaks -- if they get sick, they deserve full medical coverage regardless of the cause.

But Stewart's reaction to the atheist lawsuit against the Ground Zero cross demonstrates the peril of allowing emotion, however justified, to trump logic and reason. It's precisely the same impulse that led Congress to hastily pass the Patriot Act, which in turn has led to secret and unchallengeable domestic surveillance, FBI raids on library records, and invasive TSA pat-downs of senior citizens and toddlers (all of which Stewart and his colleagues at the Daily Show, needless to say, have ruthlessly and justifiably mocked).

I'm not an atheist (I'm actually more of an agnostic tree-hugging polytheist with a fondness for Yiddish), but having studied these issues in depth for my book The Court and the Cross, I think I can answer Stewart's fundamental question.

Atheists give a s**t because in matters of religion (or race, gender, national origin, creed, etc.), our government is not supposed to take sides or express a preference.

The very first clause of the First Amendment makes this perfectly clear: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, OR prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..." There were no professional sports teams kicking around in the late 18th-century, but the Founding Fathers implicitly understood this basic premise: the arbiters of society -- whether referees, umpires, judges, or even bureaucrats -- are supposed to neutral and even-handed.

Stewart seems to be arguing that the atheists should simply figure out a way to ignore the seventeen-foot-high, multi-ton cross, much in the same way that the Supreme Court has ordered them to ignore the use of the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, "In God We Trust" on our currency, or the daily benediction that (somewhat futilely) opens Congress each day.

I'm closer to the absolutist end of the First Amendment spectrum than not, but I don't have much of an issue with a little benign deism in American political life. When I was chair of the Burlington School Board, I cheerfully led the Board and attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. And every Fourth of July, I re-read Jefferson's magnificent Declaration of Independence, including the optimistic phrase "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." Just as the rebels did then, we need all the help we can get right now.

The Supreme Court's tolerance for the use of "God" in the pledge and on currency stems in part from the fact that the word is open to interpretation. When we pledge that we are "one Nation, under God," each of us can can insert our own working definition of "God." (Atheists are SOL because of the historical practice argument -- since our nation has invoked a higher power in one form or another for two centuries, the Court says, it's part of the fabric of our lives.)

As Stewart's own comments make clear, however, a cross is not a benign symbol of a inchoate national Deism opposed by only the most cantankerous First Amendment absolutists. His own description of the so-called "artifact" underscores the precise problem that atheists and most other non-Christians have with the installation of crosses on government property. It's not just a t-shaped metal thingy, and it's not merely a crossbeam (after all, it's not as if a "+" sign, or an "x" would generate as much enthusiasm). Regardless of whether one views the cross as a enduring symbol of one man's martyrdom on behalf of a sinful humanity, or merely as a homage to the world's most-quoted rabbi, it is still intended to represent Jesus Christ, the central figure of one religion.

By its very nature, the installation of a cross at the Ground Zero memorial is an exclusionary act, one that implicitly suggests that the sacrifices of some victims deserve more recognition than those of others. Nearly 150 years ago, when President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier's National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he closed his remarks by noting that the sacrifices made there were to insure that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." He did not say "of Christians, by Christians, for Christians."

If the Ground Zero memorial is truly intended to honor all of the individuals who died on that tragic day, then it should reflect our highest ideals -- equality, fairness, liberty, and justice for all. The Supreme Court has made it clear (and I agree) that our government does not have to be faithless, but it can't favor one faith over all others. Let's find a new, non-governmental home for the cross, and let each visitor to Ground Zero bring their own personal beliefs to honor the dead and find increased devotion to the task of making this a more just and tolerant nation.