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Advent strikes me as particularly beautiful for the way that it speaks to a fundamental element of human nature: the desire for communion with the divine. During Advent, Christians look forward to the coming of the Lord. The watchword is hope. Much of the art and song of Advent alludes to a humanity that struggles in darkness and awaits the coming of the light. This longing is not unique to Christians. All human beings hope for light and struggle in darkness. Indeed, we Catholics might say that “natural religion” is that struggle in darkness.
I can’t help but think about the religious dimension of human nature, not only because it’s Advent, but because this month I started taking my sons to gymnastics, and our route takes us through a busy intersection in Bladensburg, Maryland, in the middle of which stands a large cross. The cross is an old World War I memorial, originally part of a larger park system, now separated from that park by several roads. It was erected by the American Legion, but now the State of Maryland maintains it. Recently, the Supreme Court took up a case against the Bladensburg Cross, in which complainants argue that the memorial violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Of course, no one really thinks that a memorial to soldiers who died in World War I is an instance of Congress making a law respecting an establishment of religion. Rather, the claim is that when the government is involved in the development or maintenance of a display that includes religious symbols, then the state is excessively entangled in religion. Defenders of the memorial argue that it is meant to recall those who gave their lives in the fight for freedom, and that it is one of many monuments in the surrounding park land. The fact that this particular century-old memorial is shaped like a cross, its defenders suggest, should not compel its removal any more than the crosses and other memorials that dot Arlington National Cemetery. The Bladensburg Cross case is not the only one of these cases. A similar case has come up recently in Pensacola, Florida, and other cases have involved displays that include the Ten Commandments or nativity scenes.
During this season, I am especially struck by how inhumane our public landscape would be if stripped of memorials like the Bladensburg Cross. Faith and hope, a desire to reach towards something that one does not yet comprehend, impels people, all people, to strive for and to achieve great things. It is an impulse to sacrifice and to do good—precisely the impulse that motivated those local young men who gave their lives during the first world war. That impulse can bind us together. Our common humanity entails a common desire for some transcendent purpose. Often great achievements that are motivated by faith are crucial for the formation of our public life. A humane politics recognizes that memorials commemorating the goals, aspirations, and sacrifices of our citizenry are indispensable to the health of a nation.
Aaron Matthew Weldon is Program Specialist for the Office of Religious Liberty.
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