Christian Is Not a Religion (and Jews Have a Cross to Bear)

October 9, 2009
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the flap over Sonia Sotomayor’s gender and ethnicity, when the right went nuts over her “wise Latina”comment, I noted (here) the invisibility of dominant characteristics.
White male is the default setting. White is not a race, male is not a gender. Only blacks, Hispanics, and others have race. Only women and gays have gender.
I should have added that usually these are invisible only to the whites and the males. I also should have added that, in the US at least, Christian is not a religion.

From Wednesday’s New York Times
As the Supreme Court weighed a dispute over a religious symbol on public land Wednesday, Justice Antonin Scalia was having difficulty understanding how some people might feel excluded by a cross that was put up as a memorial to soldiers killed in World War I.

“It’s erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all of the war dead,'” Scalia said of the cross that the Veterans of Foreign Wars built 75 years ago atop an outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve. “What would you have them erect?...Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”'

Peter Eliasberg, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case, explained that the cross is the predominant symbol of Christianity and commonly used at Christian grave sites, not that the devoutly Catholic Scalia needed to be told that.

''I have been in Jewish cemeteries,'' Eliasberg continued. ''There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.''

There was mild laughter in the packed courtroom, but not from Scalia.

“I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that that cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion,” Scalia said, clearly irritated by the exchange. [emphasis added]
Just as white is the universal race (in the eyes of whites) and male the universal sex (in the eyes of males), Christianity is the universal religion. The Times writer says that Scalia did not need to be told that the cross is the symbol of Christianity. But Scalia says that it’s “outrageous” to think that the cross honors only Christians. In other words, the Christian religious symbol is the universal religious symbol . . . at least in the eyes of Christians like Scalia. I think Justice Ginsburg might disagree.

UPDATE. The Times this morning published a letter which says, in part, “The cross does not represent ‘establishment’ of a particular religion. It is a simple, and neutral, recognition that those honored were, by an enormous margin, Christians.” The writer, Ron Holdaway, is a retired judge in Wyoming.

What a persuasive choice of words. Neutral! Neutral is good (by Polonius). The old neutral cross.

That saying, “It’s Sinatra’s world, we just live in it,” is funny when it’s about Ol’ Blue Eyes. But when it’s changed to “It’s Christianity’s world; we’re just allowed to live in it,” it loses much of its humor.

(As for Judge Holdaway, I picture my grandmother, were she alive: “Holdaway, Ron Holdaway,” she muses, rolling the name around in her mind, looking at it from different angles for several seconds. Then, “Doesn’t sound Jewish.”)


Man of Letters said...

So very true. I remember reading in Beverly Tatum's book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" an anecdote about a visit to a classroom she made. She asked the students what their ethnicity was, and when she came to one white girl, her response was "I'm just normal." While I really didn't care much for her arguments in the rest of the book, I found this particular story to nicely illustrate the "invisible" nature of dominant traits in a society to people who share these traits. And it's not just true in America. In Africa where the demographics are reversed, it would be blacks and not whites setting their own set of racial and cultural traits as the norm.

But I also think it's important to note that there is a tendency by minorities to see the majority as being as aware of these traits as they are.

For example, an immigrant living in America might give preferential treatment to someone else from the same country. Yet they weren't so generous to their countrymen back home? Why? Because there, people of that nationality were normal. Here, they're rare, and there's an urge to stick together. But there is a tendency by those in the minority to project their own acute awareness onto the majority population. That is to say, a black man who is very aware of his blackness will believe that whites in his society are very aware of their whiteness.

It's significant because it leads to a false impression that dominant white society has been designed over the generations to benefit whites when it would really be more accurate to say that it has been designed to NOT benefit non-whites. Biased white employers, for example, don't feel any particular obligation or desire to employ white workers but rather have a reluctance or unwillingness to employ non-white workers.

The same is more or less true of women, but because the ratio of men to women is considerably closer to 1 to 1, the dynamic changes a bit. But it is also interesting to wonder if gender becomes magnified by racial or religious differences. If Sotomayor, to refer to your earlier posting, had been a white woman, would her jabs about white male judges have been focused on so much by conservative white males? And would the same have been true if she had been a Hispanic male making a statement about white judges? I doubt it.

Man of Letters said...

Scalia: “What would you have them erect?...Some conglomerate of a cross, a Star of David, and you know, a Muslim half moon and star?”'

I forgot to mention it in the first comment, but I was also really amused by Scalia's statement because this is quintessential, pig-headed Scalia. As if the only possible form a war memorial could take is either a cross or some kind of Frankenstein monster of all the world's religious symbols. It's an intellectually dishonest argument. He probably knows it. But it's easier to obfuscate than to admit that the VFW could just as easily have erected a structure without religious symbols. Personally, even as a militant agnostic, I don't find the cross monument a problem. First of all, it was erected 75 years ago in a completely different America. A little historical perspective on the part of the ACLU would not be unreasonable to ask for but would be completely unreasonable to expect.