Caroline Mala Corbin is professor of law and Dean's Distinguished Scholar at the University of Miami School of Law. Her scholarship focuses on the First Amendment’s speech and religion clauses, particularly their intersection with equality issues.
There is nothing universal about a Latin cross in general, nor the Bladensburg Latin cross in particular. The Bladensburg cross is a forty-foot monument standing in the meridian of a busy highway in Maryland. It was erected as a World War I veterans memorial in 1925. Plaintiffs challenging this display argued that by maintaining this preeminent symbol of Christianity, the government unconstitutionally favored one religion above all others in violation of the Establishment Clause. Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court in American Legion v. American Humanists Association (2019) upheld the government’s Latin cross.
Although the Court did not dispute that the Latin cross was a Christian symbol, it claimed that the Latin cross was also a universal symbol of WWI and the sacrifices made in that war: “[T]he image of a simple white cross developed into a central symbol of the conflict.” The majority further concluded that removing the cross would not represent a “neutral act” but “a hostility towards religion that has no place in our Establishment Clause traditions.” This reasoning provides a textbook example of Christian privilege.
Peggy McIntosh described privilege as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious.” One unearned advantage that Christians in the United States enjoy is that Christianity and Christian experience is the unstated norm. For example, most Christians worship on Sunday (with a few observing on Saturday), and a week with a Saturday and Sunday weekend is the standard week in the United States. Moreover, the privileged group often fails to understand that their experience and perspective is not the one true objective one but one of many—after all, other countries with different religions have different weekends.
This tendency to obliviously make the Christian perspective the unstated norm is evident in the Supreme Court’s analysis of the Bladensburg cross. According to the Court, the Latin cross is associated with World War I in large part because of the image of Christian crosses over the individual graves of American soldiers buried in Europe. Because the Latin cross became linked to the war—“when Americans saw photographs of these cemeteries, what stuck with them were rows and rows of plain white crosses”—it can represent the war and the sacrifices of those who died in it. Thus, the Christian symbol became, the Court reasoned, the symbol of WWI for everyone.
But the cross was not the universal symbol used to commemorate the dead in WWI; it was the symbol used to mark the Christian dead. Jewish soldiers who gave their lives never had their graves marked with a Christian cross because it is, self-evidently, a Christian symbol. Instead, they were honored with a Star of David, a Jewish symbol. Indeed, there are no crosses in Jewish cemeteries. While the Court acknowledges the existence of these non-Christian dead, and their non-Christian graver markers, it goes on to erase them by arguing that it is the Christian cross that symbolizes the sacrifice of all our WWI soldiers. It is Christian privilege that lets them translate the Christian experience into a universal one.
Christian privilege also tends to breed Christian fragility. That is, attempts to change the status quo to a more equitable system is often experienced at hostility by those used to a system of privilege. This is evident in the way the majority equates any attempt to end the government’s relationship with the Latin cross (such as moving it to private property) to hostility to religion. Note first the unstated assumption that religion equals Christianity. That is, not only is the Christian Latin cross the norm for WWI memorials, but Christianity is the norm for religion itself.
In any event, while Christians may interpret the removal of the government’s monumental Latin cross as an attack on their religion, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, and countless others are unlikely to interpret it as an attack on theirs. On the contrary, one of the foundational principles behind the Establishment Clause's separation of church and state is that all religions flourish best when none is singled out for special government favor. If there was any failure of religious neutrality in this case, it is the government aligning itself with the predominant symbol of the dominant religion. But instead, the Court held that refusing to favor Christianity was an attack on religious neutrality, rather than a move towards equality for all religions.
In short, two major moves of the majority reasoning—equating the Latin cross with the First World War, and claiming that the move towards equality is hostility to religion—very much embody Christian privilege.