In his weekly column, Paul Waldman of the American Prospect does a good job of highlighting a bizarre exchange during recent U.S. Supreme Court arguments in which Justice Antonin Scalia seemed unable to acknowledge, or maybe to believe, that the cross is a Christian symbol. Scalia said that it’s simply the most common symbol used to recognize or honor the dead and this commonality somehow distances the symbol from its Christian origins.
I’m thinking maybe it’s not the most common symbol in any countries/cultures in which Christianity is is not the most common religion. Waldman correctly points out that Scalia is not dumb, in fact he’s very smart. But in this case, he’s a little blind.
Scalia’s comments occurred during oral arguments in a case in which the ACLU was challenging the placement, by the VFW of a big cross — on federal government land — to honor the war dead. Here’s the text of the exchange (Peter Eliasberg is the ACLU lawyer):
JUSTICE SCALIA: The cross doesn’t honor non-Christians who fought in the war? Is that — is that —
MR. ELIASBERG: I believe that’s actually correct.
JUSTICE SCALIA: Where does it say that?
MR. ELIASBERG: It doesn’t say that, but a cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and it signifies that Jesus is the son of God and died to redeem mankind for our sins, and I believe that’s why the Jewish war veterans —
JUSTICE SCALIA: It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead. It’s the — the cross is the — is the most common symbol of — of — of the resting place of the dead, and it doesn’t seem to me — what would you have them erect? A cross — some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Moslem half moon and star?
MR. ELIASBERG: Well, Justice Scalia, if I may go to your first point. The cross is the most common symbol of the resting place of Christians. I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew. (Laughter.) So it is the most common symbol to honor Christians..
I’m not a hard-liner on questions like this. I’m not a Christian, but I know this is a majority Christian country and it’s hard to know where the line of government sponsorship of a religion is located. Closing schools and everything else for Christmas is probably a bigger deal, but also not something that rises to the top of my list of injustices (and I would advise the ACLU to stay away from it).
But Justice Scalia’s strange, obviously heartfelt spluttering is a pretty good illustration, as Waldman suggests, of a certain kind of inability to think about how things look to someone who is not a member of one’s own group, and especially when one’s own group is the majority.