The American Humanist Association is, after all, sick of looking at that cross on state land.
In 1919, the town of Bladensburg began the construction of a “Peace Cross” to commemorate the residents of Prince George’s County lost in the Great War. Because the town lacked the funds needed to complete the monument, a local chapter of the American Legion was granted ownership of the project. Under their care, it was finished in 1925 at a total cost of $10,000. In 1956, as the result of a Circuit Court decision, the monument was transferred to the State of Maryland who retains the property today.
Designed and built by local craftsman John Early, the Bladensburg Peace Cross is one of several historic examples of his innovation in the use of exposed-aggregate concrete. (The waterfall, walls and stairs of Meridian Hill Park are the most prominent example).
The words “Valor,” “Endurance,” “Courage,” and “Devotion” adorn the cross’ four-sided base. Below these, a bronze plaque records the names of forty-nine men who died in the war. It also includes a quote from Woodrow Wilson honoring their effort. The monument faces west; toward a dike that protects Bladensburg from floods on the Anacostia River. Behind it, a pawn shop operates at the edge of the town’s industrial district. Unreachable except by jaywalking, the Peace Cross towers over a narrow patch of grass, triumphant but ignored. Its plaque is unreadable from the road.
In a lawsuit filed in February 2014, The American Humanist Association asserts that the monument “supports and approves of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, and [demonstrates] that the state may even prefer Christians and Christianity over other religions.” The group requests the removal of the cross from government property and claims that its presence violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Perhaps it does; but I have my doubts that the Peace Cross functions in the way that the Association claims.
To begin with, the intersection of Annapolis/Bladensburg Road and Baltimore Avenue is a humble and inaccessible place, incapable of accommodating many pilgrims. If Maryland’s State Highway Administration were interested in promoting Christianity, this would be a strange place to start. Secondarily, as the demolition of D.C.’s Third Church of Christ has recently demonstrated, brutalism is “out” at the moment for inspiring spiritual devotion. Though Early’s concrete was considered ornamental in 1919, the material has since lost any association with prestige or holiness.
It is difficult for me to imagine anyone being encouraged in the state’s approval of their Christian faith based on the presence of the enormous concrete cross. It is more difficult for me to imagine that the state intentionally uses the monument to communicate its preference for Christians.
Supposing, though, that the lawsuit is successful and the monument is removed. What will the American Humanist Association have accomplished?
As I contemplate the destruction of the Peace Cross, I am reminded of the recent images out of Ukraine: Lenin’s statues being ripped in effigy from their pedestals. As the country’s pro-Russian government was ejected, bronze monuments provided a golden opportunity for symbolic vandalism. News footage from 2003 depicts an almost identical scene: Iraq’s monuments to Saddam Hussein - uprooted along with the overthrow of the leader himself.
Does the association have a similar ritual in mind for Bladensburg? Probably not.
What could they hope to overthrow with the destruction of this monument? The Americans of the early twenties who might realistically expect Christendom to receive power and preference from the state are gone. In 2014, it is unimaginable that Maryland, bluest of states, would use its land to promote Christian privilege.
The removal of the cross, if it happens, will be cheered as a victory by the American Humanist Association. It will be a short–sighted one and will set an unpalatable precedent.
The Bladensburg Peace Cross is a relic of the early twentieth century. In form, subject, and material, the monument represents a culture that was. It is a statement from the Marylanders of 1919-1925, a durable record of their inspiration and technology. Ultimately, wouldn’t the monument’s demolition by the Highway Administration be a form of state censorship?
Out of respect for the free speech of the monument’s creators and an acknowledgement that it has little impact on contemporary spirituality and politics, the cross should be left alone. Nearby, in Washington, D.C. several military-themed monuments are currently under construction. Like the Bladensburg Peace Cross, they are a statement of contemporary American values directed to the Americans of the future. They are all designed to last more than 95 years.
"Memorial Cross." The Town of Bladensburg MD Memorial Cross. Web. 20 Mar. 2014. http://townofbladensburg.com/cms/memorial-cross/
"Humanists Sue to Move Peace Cross - DC News FOX 5 DC WTTG." Web. 20 Mar. 2014.
Breiseth, Elizabeth, and Paul Weishar. Maryland Historical Trust Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties Form - Inventory No. PG: 69-005-16. Crownsville, MD: Maryland Historical Trust - DHCD/DHCP, Oct. 2007. PDF. http://www.mncppcapps.org/planning/HistoricCommunitiesSurvey/Documentations/PG%2069-005-16%20Peace%20Cross/PG%2069-005-16%20Peace%20Cross%20MIHP.pdf