WASHINGTON — It was my old friend and mentor, Luigi Barzini, who asseverated: “Americans talk too much.” He was sitting in the elegant library of his home in Rome. The year was 1978, though I cannot recall the contemporary controversy that aroused him. Luigi’s point was that we were wrangling again fortissimo con brio, and he thought our jabbering was again obscuring careful thought. He was a great friend of America. He had been partly educated here. He wrote in both Italian and superb English. In fact, at the time he was finishing one of his many fine books, The Europeans. It contains a friendly chapter on the USA full of shrewd insights. He believed we often argued garrulously about things that were not worth arguing about.
A case is about to be tried in the Supreme Court that fits Luigi’s diagnosis. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit in 2001 demanding that a seven-foot cross erected in the California desert in 1934 commemorating sacrifices endured by our soldiers in World War I be taken down. At some point after 1934 the land on which the cross was erected became federally protected, and thus the cross became a fit issue for the ACLU’s squalling about the separation of church and state. The creation of this World War I monument was — get this! — part of a 1930s medical program to help World War I veterans recover from shellshock. Physicians treating them thought that their work in the desert heat would be therapeutic. In 2004 the Ninth U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the ACLU, but veterans groups objected — thus the case’s journey to the Supreme Court.
Now it would seem to me that the cross is a historic monument that need not be subject to contemporary fashions in thought, to wit, the fashion of hunting down religious symbols and eliminating them from government property. The cross simply represents the feelings of soldiers from a bygone era. There are religious symbols on public display from the past elsewhere. For instance, there are religious symbols on the Supreme Court building. If I recall, I have seen a carving in the Court’s chamber of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments from God. There may even be a picture of God up there. Viewing the 1934 cross today might give curious Americans a sense of what our country was like back in those days before the ACLU was spreading goodwill around the country by harassing people of faith.
Yet that is not the way the battleaxes at the ACLU see it. One of its learned lawyers, Peter Eliasberg, told the Washington Times, “For us to choose the principal symbol of one religion that says Jesus is the Son of God and He is divine and say that is an appropriate way to reflect the sacrifice of people who don’t believe that…is excluding by its very nature.” Well, “we” did not choose the symbol. Veterans from what was once called the Great War did, apparently with the consent of their physicians. This is an interesting historic memorial that the ACLU would deny us.
Veterans groups that are opposing the removal of the cross disagree with Eliasberg. Their members argue that the cross represents the “Fallen Soldier Battle Cross.” That is a rifle and crossed bayonet that is driven into the ground to honor a fallen comrade. Will the ACLU oppose this too? Jim Sims, of the Military Order of the Purple Heart, told the Times the controversy is “about thousands of veteran memorials and monuments around the country. This is about the issue of honoring veterans.”
It is trendy in our noisy public discourse to see “the right” being accused of injecting religion into politics. Actually very often “the right” or more specifically “the Christian right” is merely defending settled manifestations of religion that go back decades in our history, occasionally centuries. As I see it the ACLU would have us rewrite American history, eliminating all references to God, the Bible, and other such artifacts. Of course, for people of faith these artifacts are reminders of faith. So maybe the ACLU could begin a campaign to disallow people of faith from lapsing into prayer in front of such reminders. Possibly the ACLU’s next campaign will be to eliminate religious symbols from public buildings, starting with the Supreme Court. As Luigi noticed, some Americanos are too disputatious.
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