04/10/2014 04:49 pm ET Updated Jun 10, 2014

The Mt. Soledad Cross and the Religious Case for Secularization

For reasons that are beyond the scope of this post, I believe that some kind of relationship to the sacred is psychologically, socially, and aesthetically good. But I am equally convinced that religious Americans' fear of secularization is completely backwards. If you encounter the sacred through a symbol, the last thing you should want is the state controlling, defining, and using that symbol for its own ends.

In December, a Federal District Court in California issued the latest in a series of fiercely contested rulings about the constitutionality of a 30-foot cross on federal land in San Diego. The District Court had initially ruled that the cross could be maintained without violating the Establishment Clause of the Federal constitution. The Ninth Circuit reversed that opinion and the District Court has now ordered the cross to be removed. The case will be appealed back up to the Ninth Circuit and is likely to go to the Supreme Court. The Obama Administration filed a brief on Monday stating its opinion that the cross should be maintained.

Judging by the reaction from religious Americans, the dominant view seems to be that removing sacred symbols from state-controlled spaces is a troubling sign of the secularization of public life. This may be because most of the arguments for their removal are made in pursuit of non-religious values. There are egalitarian, political, and economic reasons to support the removal of religious symbols from state control. But if this removal is secularization, perhaps the best reason to support it is religious.

The case of the Mt. Soledad Cross is illustrative. A large Latin Cross has stood on Mt. Soledad since 1913. Although it has changed hands, been re-built, and been maintained by various groups, the Federal Government currently controls the land and the cross. When two non-Christian Vietnam veterans sued to prevent the government from maintaining it, the primary question that the Federal courts' decisions hinged on was whether or not a 30-foot Latin Cross was a Christian symbol. Astonishingly, the District Court originally upheld the federal maintenance of the Cross by declaring that it was not:

[T]he cross has a broadly-understood ancillary meaning as a symbol of military service, sacrifice, and death; it is displayed along with numerous purely secular symbols in an overall context that reinforces its secular message; and it is historically significant. As a result, the specter of government endorsement of religion or favoring a religion is not apparent, let alone obvious and primary.

The great irony of this holding was that most of the people who applauded it were Christians who believed that it represented a victory against secularization. When the Ninth Circuit heard the appeal, Christians found themselves arguing against the court's eventual ruling that the Cross was, in fact, Christian.

In a non-theocratic state, it is inevitable that state control and use of religious symbols will change their meaning. It will distort and harden them into tools of the state. One might call this distortion true secularization. But if secularization means only removing the Crèche from the Capitol, the Commandments from the Courthouse, or the Cross from Mt. Soledad, those who are able to encounter the sacred through those symbols should join the voices of the protesters and call for a more secular state.