As we reflect on Veterans Day, it's interesting to note how many veterans misperceive efforts to make war memorials more universal than the all-too-common cross variety that peppers our nation's public places. The most common complaint from those upset with efforts to remove religious war memorials from public spaces is that there's some anti-military sentiment involved, but that couldn't be further from the truth.
As the United States military slowly but surely removes itself from Afghanistan, many of us are left to wonder what the legacy of our actions in that country will be. Regardless of how we feel about decisions to enter into any field of battle, we can have respect for those who serve this country by risking their lives for us and our values through their military service, like my namesake, my great uncle Roy Crane, who fought in World War II. We should especially honor those who lost their lives during their service. Erecting public monuments to thank them for their service and supreme sacrifice is fully appropriate.
Unfortunately, the religious right and their allies in government don't really want to honor all those that served. While evangelical Christians are some of the loudest supporters of our troops, many of their leaders want to ignore or marginalize the sacrifices of minority religious and non-religious service members who fought on behalf of this country.
Many of the war memorials that have been erected on public land across America over the past century or so have been manipulated by conservative religious lawmakers and activists to be not only explicitly religious in nature, but also explicitly Christian. Some examples include the "Peace Cross," a World War I memorial in the form of a large Christian cross on public property near Washington, D.C., and the 43-foot cross that dominates the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial in San Diego, CA. Another explicitly religious war memorial, featuring a soldier kneeing in front of a cross, would have gone up in Lake Elsinore, CA had it not been stopped by a lawsuit filed by the Appignani Humanist Legal Center. And more exclusively Christian war memorials are being erected on public land all the time, with members of Congress looking to pass supportive legislation. But it doesn't need to be that way. Recent monuments that have either been approved or recently erected have not included religious elements.
Christian war memorials are plainly exclusionary, and fail to honor the sacrifices of Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and non-religious service members. And because of the government's involvement in the sectarian message that they convey, these memorials also violate the spirit of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution which forbids government endorsement of religion. By erecting a cross as a means to honor all those who fought for our country, conservative religious lawmakers and their supporters, intentionally or not, communicate that the only sacrifices worth remembering are those that were made by Christian soldiers.
Our military, just like that of many countries, is a diverse collection of people from all walks of life. While the religious right might not want to acknowledge it, there are service members of all faiths and of no faith fighting and risking their lives every day for what they think is right. When we as a country refuse to recognize that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths, we dishonor the millions who fought and died to create a nation where race, gender, sexual orientation, and religious views were less important than a desire to work hard and sacrifice for others and for our country.
It's true that we may not always agree on whether war is necessary or whether a specific conflict or crisis merits a military intervention. However, we can come together to honor those who bravely served America by building truly inclusive monuments that show future generations the real cost of war and the sacrifices that were made by those of all faiths and of no faith.
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