The cross-shaped monument stands 40 foot tall and was built in memory of the 49 men of Prince George’s County who died in World War I. 

Photograph by Amanda Voisard for the Washington Post

The meaning of the Bladensburg cross

Rev. Daniel Headrick

March 22, 2019

A towering, 40-foot concrete cross in Bladensburg, Maryland is at the center of a fascinating Establishment Clause case pending before the United States Supreme Court. Originally erected as a memorial to deceased veterans of the First World War, it was eventually acquired by the state of Maryland, and now is the subject of American Humanist Association v. American Legion.

There are a host of interesting legal and constitutional issues wrapped up in this case. Will the court continue to use the Lemon test or further erode its Establishment Clause jurisprudence? Will the court’s newest conservative justices establish where they stand on the pivotal First Amendment issue? But at the beating heart of the case is an interpretive question: what is the meaning of the cross? 

The government and other interested parties have argued in their court filings that the original intent of those who financed the memorial, along with its unique history, should determine the meaning.[i] And that meaning is decisively secular and recognizably American, to wit, that the cross is nothing more than a memorial to honor the sacrifice of war veterans. After all, the argument goes, the veterans’ mothers simply wanted to mirror the tombstone cross which marked the gravesite of their loved ones’ remains in Europe. 

This is all true, but a bit disingenuous. To claim that the cross is merely a secular grave marker ignores history, culture, theology, tradition, and common sense.

To claim that the cross is merely a secular grave marker ignores history, culture, theology, tradition, and common sense.

To understand the government’s argument in this case, it helps to have in view American civil religion with all its distinctive totems and catchphrases. Think Jerry Bruckheimer, long wind-swept views of Arlington Cemetery, and the sound of a lone bugle playing, and you’ll have the meaning of the cross as advanced by advocates of American Civil Religion.

There is another, perhaps less known meaning to the cross, at least in America. I say this tongue in cheek, but only half so. And that is the meaning argued for by the appellees and the various “friends of the courts” who filed supporting briefs with the Supreme Court. One such organization is the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC), which filed a superbly argued amicus brief with several interfaith and ecumenical organizations.

The BJC argues that the meaning of the cross is decisively religious, not secular: “The cross symbolizes the central Christian story of Christ’s death and resurrection, and for Christians, it symbolizes God’s gift of Jesus, who died on a cross and rose from the dead, offering the promise of eternal life.”[ii]

This is true, and a powerful reason why Maryland’s continued display of the cross violates the Establishment Clause. And yet, the meaning of the cross is both more complex and richer than the space and conventional parameters of argumentation in legal briefs allow.    

To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross. As Stanley Hauerwas has argued in War and the American Difference, “[t]he sacrifices of war are undeniable, but in the cross of Christ the Father has forever ended our attempts to sacrifice to God in terms set by the city of man.”[iii]


To reduce the cross to a symbol memorializing war sacrifice is a quintessentially American act, but such a meaning is profoundly at odds with the theological significance of the cross.

But a whole edifice has been built on allowing the “city of man” to dictate the terms of our theological imagination. American governmental displays of the cross necessarily seek to advance the interests of the nation state. The nation state seeks to valorize war as the ultimate sacrifice, but all sacrifices in this system are made to a god other than the God who became incarnate in Jesus Christ.  

The God who became flesh in Jesus submitted to death on a Roman symbol of humiliation and punishment, not charging a machine gun nest for a nation, but laying down his life so that all might have life. The cross as a symbol of torture, scandal, the emptying of God’s power, and of redemptive life is at the center of the Christian understanding of the cross. 

The government argues that the military virtues emblazoned at the base of the memorial cross signify its predominantly secular purpose: “Valor,” “Endurance,” Courage” and “Devotion.”[iv] This is perhaps the argument sine qua non of American Civil Religion, namely, that military virtues are necessarily the best and highest expressions of religious meaning and purpose in American life.

Jesus died a criminal’s death, in ignominy and humiliation. The cross, prior to Christianity, was the symbol of torture and death for the lowest enemies of the Roman Empire. That the God of the universe submitted to die on such an instrument of torture is a far deeper truth than any forwarded by the state of Maryland.

Jews and other non-Christians who regularly see the Bladensburg cross as they drive know that it is intended to signal the cultural hegemony of Christianity in the pantheon of American Civil Religion. Any reasonable person would know that the cross is a distinctively Christian symbol, which belies the government’s claim that there is no favoring of one religion over another. 

From a constitutional perspective, I believe the meaning of the Bladensburg cross as a distinctively Christian symbol constitutes an Establishment Clause violation. But from a Christian perspective, there is something deeper afoot. Namely, that Christians risk conflating discipleship with nationalism when they buy into the nation’s appropriation of the cross as a symbol of military virtue and sacrifice. If the cross is to mean something more than War is the Ultimate Sacrifice in Honor of the Nation—which of course it does—Christians would do well to rethink their relationship to both war and the nation’s usage of Christian symbols.

It should be an odd sight for those traversing the intersection where the cross stands to see a Roman symbol of capital punishment, death, and torture. That it is not seen by many as signifying much other than the sacrifice of war suggests how hard it is to see the cross through American eyes. 

Whether the Supreme Court decides for or against this or that meaning of the cross may be finally immaterial. America long ago decided what the cross means. The infinitely richer, more complex, and life-giving meaning of the cross which stands at the center of the universe, entering history and illuminating eternity…what would American Civil Religion know to do with that?

The Rev. Daniel Headrick is associate pastor of Northside Drive Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia. Prior to joining Northside Drive, he practiced civil litigation with a law firm in Knoxville, Tennessee. He is a former fellow of both the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

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