HEARERS OF THE WORD: Fear of symbols can be taken too far

I was walking the other day in downtown Tupelo, beside the angel that my father reconstructed on the old courthouse lawn, and I got to thinking about a radio program I’d heard. High school kids in Georgia had started a tradition of writing Bible verses on those paper banners the players run through before football games.
Under pressure from the ACLU and the Anti-Defamation League the principal put a stop to it. The host of this call-in show was upset about the decision and was berating a caller who spoke in favor of it.
To paraphrase, the host said, “Well, sir, who said you have to look at the sign if you’re at the game?”
I thought that was a little intellectually dishonest. It was like saying you don’t have to look at the scoreboard. I understand that the kids wore t-shirts bearing Bible verses as a protest. Good for them.
Not long ago people were having a similar argument about the Ten Commandments hanging in courthouses. Former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore brazenly defied federal orders to remove the monument from the state judicial building, but he lost his fight in the end.
I think the hearts of the kids in Georgia were in the right place, but I also think they were wrong. There’s really no getting around the fact that a religious display like that in a public place impinges upon the rights of those who don’t share those beliefs.
On the other hand, it’s easy to take this too far.
There’s been much ado recently about a cross planted on a hill in the Mojave Desert. So far as I can tell it’s so far out that it isn’t hurting anybody.
It was erected in 1934 by veterans of World War I to honor their fallen comrades. It now sits on federal land and a fellow named Buono seems to think it absolutely must go. It’s been covered over for the past two years while the courts work things out.
I find Buono’s objection to the cross about as compelling as the radio host who said not to look at the cheerleaders’ sign.
I also think there’s a distinction to be made here between written religious statements and a symbol.
Bible verses are fairly explicit. A symbol, like the cross, works on another level, a pre-literary level, one that’s more primordial and universal, one that, despite what the ACLU lawyer in the cross case has said, really transcends religion.
Philosopher Paul Tillich said religious symbols spring up from a current of emotion and shared experience that we all have in common. Images like the cross, while explicitly Christian on one level, also suggest more elemental and ancient religious symbols, like trees, ones that carry the weight of millennia of collective religious experience, that tap into a dimension of human existence that’s beyond words. These symbols give rise to thought. They are, I believe, more subtle, more nuanced, more democratic.
The ACLU lawyer said the cross doesn’t honor the Jewish dead. I beg to differ. So did Justice Scalia.
It’s important to be judicious about where we allow explicit religious material to be displayed. Court houses and school yards, in my opinion, aren’t the proper places. On the other hand, we can’t go around living in unreasonable fear of religious symbols. They’re everywhere, in so many places we don’t even recognize them.
If we could just slow down in our rush to get offended about everything, we could perhaps see that what appears to stand for another religion can hold meaning for us as well.
Every time I walk by that angel, I’d swear she’s whispering that very thing.

Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or galen.holley@djournal.com.

Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal

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