That Beleaguered Cross Again

JUDGING FROM EMAIL RESPONSES, the accidental cross-shaped form left standing at Ground Zero rouses great ire. All my mail has been sympathetic to the lawsuit against it on the grounds that the cross is not a secular symbol. (I never said it was. I said it resonated beyond sectarian distinctions. Quite a different thought.) It was erected “by CHRISTIANS,” one reader screeched. Some of the mail considers wariness toward Islam “defamatory” and, in the main, just plain not nice.

For clarity’s sake, let me take these one at a time, beginning with the (Christian) origins of America’s enthusiastic sectarian religiosity.


Engraving after G.H. Boughton's "Pilgrim Fathers on Their Way to Church"


The intricacies of serious topics tend to get lost in comment sections. Better to place things front and center. Bumper sticker simplicities—which comment sections tend to invite—are not helpful. For a more intelligent and nuanced understanding of the complexities of our founders views of religion and its place in the public square, let me recommend an article that appeared in First Things in March of this year. Thomas Albert Howard, history prof and director of the Jerusalem and Athens Forum at Gordon College in Wenham, MA, adapted an essay from his book God and the Atlantic: America, Europe and the Religious Divide, Oxford University Press, 2011. It ran in First Things under the title The Dialectic and the Double Helix.

It offers a succinct and subtle analysis of the ways in which the compatibility of Christianity and democracy—the crux of Church/State relations—confuses modern Europeans. (And, by extension, orthodox secularists antagonistic to Christianity.) Discussion of the American experiment in religious freedom begins this way:

Although the American and French Revolutions have often been seen as together forming “an age of democratic revolution,” in religious matters the transatlantic disparities overwhelm the similarities. The political theorist Hugh Heclo has used the arresting image of a double helix to capture what he sees as the specifically American “denouement” to the puzzle of reconciling Christian religion and civil authority.

“While the Christian gospel was a key long-term force shaping democratic vision, organized Christianity and democracy had had an ambiguous relationship throughout their respective histories. In America, for the first time, Christianity and democratic self-government launched themselves together in a kind of double-stranded helix spiraling through time. Christianity and civil government were both now freed from the old [European] dialectic of yes/no, unity or chaos, and became two maybes, moving together, each affecting the other.” (Heclo)

This metaphor seeks to capture the paradox of the fastidious separation of religion from the political order in the new American republic and religion’s enduring proximity to and influence on
the political order. By contrast, European intellectuals have more often presumed a zero-sum game, a yes–no dialectic between organized religion and the forces of modernity.


Allegory of the Freedom of Worship granted by Napoleon I in 1802


The cults and catechisms of the French Revolution (which presented itself as an alternate religion, a system of belief, much as atheism does today) took a very different tack on our own shores. Howard continues:

To be sure, the Puritan and Anglican establishments in New England and Virginia replicated the European state-church model, but the situation on the ground was rapidly changing toward what Philip Schaff later called “a motley sampler of all church history.” The emigration-fueled growth of religious pluralism and internal religious splits found in practically all of the colonies—combined with the principled arguments leading toward religious liberty put forth by William Penn, Roger Williams, and later Thomas Jefferson and James Madison—led, in meandering and often inadvertent fashion, to the principles of “no establishment” and “free exercise” of religion embodied in the First Amendment.

In contrast to Enlightenment and revolutionary Europe, strong vitriolic attacks on traditional religion of the écraser-l’infâme sort were virtually absent in the colonies. In fact, the colonies’ political and intellectual elites were more often preoccupied with the challenge of how “to encourage religion without setting up a European-style church establishment,” as Mark Noll has written.

Disdain for religion does not originate with Jefferson, et alia. Its line of descent is quite different. Do your own homework on that score. Read Howard’s essay, if nothing else, in its entirety and take your assignments from there.

For the left, the problem with America is not necessarily the profusion of erratic forms of religious life but the more fundamental fact that religion in general and Christianity in particular appear worrisomely insusceptible to the putatively secularizing forces of modernity and the “stagist” logic of history. What chutzpah had possessed religion in this upstart land to flout the learned prophets of its demise? America suffered from a congenital deficit of secularizing impulses. The revival-prone republic had generated no gripping “drama of atheist humanism,” to quote Henri de Lubac’s famous title. Consequently, traditional modes of belief, willy-nilly, have enjoyed a more visible and enduring role in America than in Europe.

All the respondents to my post on Ground Zero seem oddly retrograde, unaware even of German philosopher Jürgen Habermas’ writing on the limits of a philosophical secularism. The dogmatic, angry tone of each of them illustrates Raymond Aron’s term “secular clericalism.”

Next post: the soggy business of asserting one’s moral vanity by smiling on Islam, no matter what.


© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey


  1. Interesting follow up Maureen. From the nature and volume of responses to the previous post, I had a feeling that most of your reader response would have been via private channels.

    It is interesting that you are choosing to take your blog in this direction. I can only speculate at what has taken you from smiting Michael Fried to Secularism and Islamists. I have to admit, as a reader, the former was more entertaining, but that is only personal preference.

    I hope going in this direction doesn’t provide an undue amount of stress or harassment. Good luck!

  2. Taken as objectively as possible (for a former Catholic), the cross is an instrument of torture. Given the tortured emotions 9/11 still arouses, I suppose it’s only fitting.

  3. Oh, H, your note unsettles me some. I don’t intend a different direction. Not at all. But somehow, these more current concerns landed in the lap of Studio Matters. So . . . . There is art, and then there is the culture that produces it, valorizing some of it and ignoring or diminishing another portion of it. I am not sure that the question of meaning—which is what we care about—can be separated from the inner necessities of our time. These manifest themselves in images. The cross at Ground Zero is one of those images. The lawsuit against it treats it, in effect, as an art work. An offensive artwork, to be sure, but an artwork nonetheless.

    These are strange times. Given your own passion for art history, you must—I would think—be on guard against leaving questions of art’s ends only to recognized products of the art world.

  4. Yes, Dan Harper, you put it more clearly, perhaps, than I did. Your comment underscores what it is about a simple cross (distinguishing it from a
    crucifix) that makes it applicable to a mass gravesite.

  5. I’ve always found it frustrating to dialogue with atheists or secularists whose grasp of intellectual history doesn’t recognize the Christian basis for human rights. Human rights is taken for granted, as if the apparatus of beliefs we in America share about human dignity is written in DNA, or dropped from the sky, rather than the fruit of religious people working out the meaning of the Gospel over several centuries.

    So you get shallow arguments about how “Christianity threatens secularism” rather than an open appreciation for Martin Luther’s theological foundations for secularism itself. Or how Christianity justifies slavery, rather than provides the intellectual and ethical basis on which it has been, and is still being, abolished.

    When doctrinaire secularists want to enforce their understanding of equality, as is the case here, it’s like a child demanding everyone have equal time at the water faucet, but can’t grasp where the water itself and plumbing come from. Such secularists must actively not know or ask the question, because to do so would destabilize their self-styled egalitarianism.

  6. Thank you, RC. Your comment reminds me that FDR included prayer in his weekly radio addresses. He prayed as a Christian—Episcopalian, I think— yet was, and is, revered by non-Christian citizens.

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