Thursday, October 8, 2009

How The Sunrise Rock Cross Controversy is about Semiotics

WHY WOULD SOMEONE WANT to take down a cross that has stood as a symbol for American soldiers who have died during combat?

Well, in part because it is a cross.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard an unusual case that pitted freedom of expression against freedom of (and from) religion. In the Mojave Desert, a large metal cross looms above a rock outcropping. The cross is not part of a church. It does not belong to a religious organization. It was erected by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to honor their fellow military men whose lives were lost during war. Now, some want to see the cross taken down, claiming that it privileges Christianity, when many soldiers were Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or agnostic. And, since the cross stands on public land, there is a concern that it butts up against the Constitution's Establishment Clause--or what Thomas Jefferson called "the wall of separation between church and state."

At the crux (pardon the pun) of the argument is what the cross stands for.

Can a cross, for example, symbolize something more than Christianity? Or, more importantly, can a cross symbolize something that is not Christian? Is it even possible to see a cross and not associate it with religion? Judge Scalia argued in court that the cross is the default marker in the United States for the dead. Crosses in church might signify "Jesus" or "religion," but crosses on the side of the road, Scalia would say, signify "death" or "memorial."

Previous courts have held that the cross is a religious icon and breaks the law. In fact, it's been boarded up for two years now. The image of a boarded up cross raises its own issues, but the very notion that a cross could stand for many things but not one thing is a provocative notion.

Semiotics is the study of signs--what they mean, how we interpret them, and how they carry power and affect our lives. Every semiotic text has a signifier and a signified. The signifier is the object, the sign, the symbol; the signifier is what that symbol or sign means or stands for or evokes. In the United States, if we see a red octagonal sign with the markings S T O P on it, we know to stop moving. If we see an American flag, we don't think of Albania. In America, the signifer "flag" evokes many, many, signifiers.

In this case the signifier is the cross. What is at stake, though, and what remains the source of the lawsuit is what is being signified.

How can such a widely recognized and such a wholly sacred siginifier like a cross carry such different meanings? Well, in truth, loaded signifiers are the most likely to cause offense. Take the Confederate flag, for example. For some Southerners, the signifier of the flag signifies "heritage," "pride," "tradition," and "a way of life." For others, though, the very same object connotes "hatred," "slavery," and "racism."

The cross is no different. For Christians, it might signify "Jesus." For militant Muslims, the cross might carry connotations that are more about the West than about religion. The cross can also be a signifier for the Ku Klux Klan. And, if you are a vampire, the cross enjoys a whole different set of signifying powers--none of them good.

To be sure, Judge Scalia is correct that in the United States we tend to assume a cross in a graveyard signifies death. But, the setting of a cemetery helps you read the cross as a burial marker, not so much as a religious symbol. This is a good example of a signifier being contextual. A cross on fire in a front yard means one thing; a cross with a singular flame and a halo means something else. In the case of the Sunrise Rock Cross, there is no cemetery. There are no other markings to indicate that the space is a place of burial or mourning. It is public land and fairly vacant.

In this setting, a cross, in general, probably signifies a church is nearby or a Christian has simply erected a big cross on his land to show the world his level of religious commitment. The question is, does a big cross like this on public land with nothing else around it to signify "war dead," mean that the federal government is privileging Christianity and sanctioning one religion (and one religious symbol) over others.

The answer is yes.

Does that mean the cross should come down?

Well, that's complicated. And it shall, at this point, have to remain the subject of another post.

But, I'd love to hear what you have to say about this topic.


  1. This is America and in America the cross is the symbol of the religion the country was founded on. It should stay up.

  2. If the cross is on land that is owned by the government, no group can put up a religious icon. I think your point is that a cross might not always be a religious icon, but that may not be true. It has to stand for something or the soldiers wound't have put it up to begin with. It stands for Christianity (ok maybe other things to) but that for sure.

  3. Psalms 66:1-4:

    Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands: Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious. Say unto God, How terrible art thou in thy works! through the greatness of thy power shall thine enemies submit themselves unto thee. All the earth shall worship thee, and shall sing unto thee; they shall sing [to] thy name. Selah.