• The Problem with the Peace Cross

    Adam McDuffie (see profile)
    Religion, Law, History, Memory, Nationalism
    Item Type:
    Online publication
    Establishment Clause, World War I, Supreme Court
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    In June 2019, in the case of American Legion v. American Humanist Association, the United States Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that a World War I memorial cross could remain on public land without violating the Establishment Clause. This brief essay reflects on the implications of the Court’s decision, which was rooted in a history of the cross as a generalized symbol of the war, emptied of particular religious significance. This decision reveals ignorance of the pervasiveness of religious nationalism throughout World War I, and furthermore provides an example of the Supreme Court’s underexplored role as an arbiter of societal memory. Through examination of the role of religion in World War I, this paper argues that the Court has drastically misrepresented the impetus for construction of the Peace Cross in a manner which constitutes a harmful cheapening of the cross as a symbol of great significance to many Christians. The American Legion decision also signals cause for concern over the Court’s role as an authoritative source of American social memory. The Court interprets law through history, and the precedent the Court establishes has the capacity to shape the record of American history, and thus American memory. The Court’s recasting of the war memorial cross as a secular symbol threatens to alter the nation’s memory of this particular symbol with very real consequences for the application of the Establishment Clause.
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    Last Updated:
    3 years ago
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