The WTC Cross: Like it or Not, It’s a Piece of History

Among the many government-funded museums of New York, Washington, and other cities across the country, there are historical artifacts and pieces of art that are significant to their creators and to their later admirers for their religious meaning. From ancient Egyptian idols and glyphs, to Renaissance paintings of Christ, from the religious trinkets of concentration camp victims in the Holocaust Museum, to Bibles owned by American presidents, all these items have a place in our national memory and deserve to be housed and protected at taxpayer expense, not because they are religious, but because they help tell the story of who we are, and who we were. Regardless of our religious or nonreligious affiliation, they are part of our human story.

That is why that even as a hardliner secularist, even as an evil, arrogant, militant, fundamentalist New Atheist, I believe that the so-called World Trade Center cross belongs in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. American Atheists, a group with whom I have worked and whose leader, Dave Silverman, I know and deeply respect, is suing to keep the cross — two steel girders which emerged from the smoldering wreckage of Ground Zero in a cross shape — from being displayed in the museum on mainly constitutional grounds, lest it be accompanied by religious and nonreligious symbols from all sects that wish to have their point of view represented.

I think this is the wrong fight. As with the examples I mentioned in the opening of this post, the cross is a part of the story of the attacks and their aftermath. It so happens that we live in a predominantly-Christian country, and in the event of such a trauma, there will be a lot of meaning that surrounds the accidental appearance of such an object, and events will coalesce as they will. Yes, it’s meaning is religious, but its existence is historical.

Here’s a piece of American Atheists’ argument:

[Plaintiffs] find the cross, a symbol of Christianity, offensive and repugnant to their beliefs, culture, and traditions, and allege that the symbol marginalizes them as American citizens.

[ … ]

Plaintiff American Atheists opposed inclusion of a cross on the grounds that other religious groups were not given the opportunity for a similar faithbased memorial at the site of an American tragedy.

It would be different if a Christian-themed display were being constructed out of whole cloth just for the purposes of the museum. That would be a clear violation of the Constitution, and I would join American Atheists in opposition. But this is akin to suing to hide away Lincoln’s Bible. It doesn’t matter that Abe’s book was a Christian tome. What matters is that it was Abe’s. If he were also leafing through his own copy of On the Origin of Species, I’d want that saved, too.

To get a clearer picture of the intent, read the museum’s own description of its mission, and it’s idea of what the cross represents:

The mission of the National September 11 Memorial Museum, opening in September 2012, is to tell the history of 9/11 through historic artifacts like the World Trade Center Cross. In the historical exhibition, the Cross is part of our commitment to bring back the authentic physical reminders that tell the story of 9/11 in a way nothing else can.

In addition to the Cross, other religious artifacts that will be displayed in the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s historical exhibition include a Star of David cut from World Trade Center steel and a Bible fused to a piece of steel that was found during the recovery effort.

In everyday context, these things are purely religious. In the context of the events of that day, as the American Jewish Committee’s Mark D. Stern told the New York Times, “It’s a significant part of the story of the reaction to the attack, and that is a secular piece of history.”

And so it is. I don’t like the idea one iota that in a time of great tragedy, people find their hope not necessarily in each other’s goodness, but in the notion that an invisible sky-emperor took the time not to save lives or change hearts, but to stick a couple of pieces of debris in the shape of a T. I wish with all my heart that people did not waste their energy and emotions on a being that is not really there and never will or can do anything for them.

But I don’t have to like it. The World Trade Center cross was there, and the people of New York divested it with meaning, and thus it became a character in the story of the 9/11 attacks. Its placement in the museum is not an endorsement of Christianity, it’s a page in that story. Whether I like that part of the story or not.

Update: Katherine Fellows makes an excellent point on Twitter, one which I wish I’d made myself.

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