Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Providence Cross meets Allah, Buddha, Jesus and Saraswati

Tuareg Cross
Are the letters run in the Providence Journal really the best, most thought out critiques of current events and politics that the readers of the paper are capable of? Given the general low quality of most of the letters published, can you imagine how terrible the rejected stuff is? The Journal should consider having an editor actually read the letters for intelligible and sensible commentary instead of going with whatever is on the top of the slush pile.

Case in point would be today's letter from Christopher M. Curran entitled "Hypersensitive on cross." The letter starts wrong and goes downhill fast [the emphasis added is mine]:
The hypersensitivity toward Peter Montaquila’s installation of a cross bearing the slogan ”God Bless America” on Providence’s Pleasant Valley Parkway, is just another example of the current wave of extraordinary political correctness
Standing up for the Constitution of the United States is not hypersensitive, I would contend, but patriotic. Any way you want to cut it, permanent sectarian religious displays on public property are contrary to the Constitution, and contrary to everything Rhode Island stands for as a beacon of religious liberty. Instead of hypersensitivity, Curran should have chosen the word "vigilance" or even "hyper-vigilance" to describe the stance of those interested in preserving the necessary and pragmatic separation of church and state.

"Political correctness" is a pejorative term used by conservatives to decry any kind of defense of race, gender, religion or cultural identity. Unfortunately for Curran, he is here using the term backwards, because it is his defense of religious privilege and out-of-control expression of religious conscience that is the politically correct position today. Defending the Constitution and the concept of separation of church and state is the conservative position. Just ask a libertarian.
Atheist and humanist organizations are attempting to exploit benign symbols as rallying cries for their own misplaced agendas.
Providence Cross
By atheist and humanist organizations Curran means specifically The Humanists of Rhode Island, a group that I am currently proud to serve as President. It was our letter to Mayor Taveras requesting the removal of the cross that sparked the publicity around the event. We wrote a letter, expressing our position that the cross was in violation of the Constitution, or at the very least would lead to a wave of similar displays on public property that would clutter the landscape of Providence.

At no point was the cross in providence a "rallying cry" and if you read our letter, easily found on our website, you will see that we thought of the issue as "no big deal" and we expressed our desire to not involve groups like the ACLU or the Freedom from Religion Foundation. 

What is this "misplaced agenda" Curran complains about? That would be our defense of the Constitution. One wonders what kind of Patriot thinks of the Constitution in terms of misplaced agendas.

There is also this idea that the Christian Cross is some sort of "benign symbol." This statement is more insulting to Christians than humanists. The cross is the ultimate symbol of faith to millions upon millions of believers throughout the world, going back almost two thousand years. This is an important symbol of reverence, faith and power. Would anyone ever consider calling the flag of the United States a "benign symbol"? Symbols encapsulate meaning, and when they are used in certain contexts they have extraordinary power.

Peter Montaquila was quoted on 630WPRO radio saying that he wanted atheists to leave Rhode Island. This cross was, at least in part, an expression of this desire. Can a symbol erected to run those you disagree with on matters of religion out of town possibly be considered benign? 
No one’s civil liberties have been violated by the erection of this symbol.
And no one said they were. What was pointed out in the letter was that either the cross must be removed from public land or that public lands were now free speech zones where anyone could put up any message they wished. Allowing some people the use of public lands for their religious messages and denying such access to others is wrong and unconstitutional, as I'm sure Mr. Curran would agree, were he interested in the truth.
For that matter, a cross has been used in many religions, Christian and other wise, for thousands of years. 
Huh? Though there is some evidence that the cross was used as a religious symbol before the rise of Christianity and there may well be somewhere on the world today someone who uses a cross as a religious symbol to refer to a deity other than Jesus, this statement, given without context or citation, is just enormously wrong. The cross is the symbol of Christianity, and Christianity alone. It is without doubt the most important symbol in the lives of well over a billion living Christians. To hold otherwise is dishonest or ignorant. Wikipedia does a great job detailing the history of the symbol.
Furthermore, the God in ”God Bless America” could be Allah, Buddha, Jesus or Saraswati, which are all deities whose religions incorporate crosses as symbols. 
Another statement that smacks of dishonesty and lawyering on the part of Curran. When someone scrawls the words "God Bless America" on a wall somewhere, it's barely possible to claim that the God being referred to could be any god we chose to believe in, but when it's painted on a cross, it's referring to Jesus. To hold otherwise is silly at best, stupid at worst.

Going further, Buddha is not a god, as anyone with a passing understanding of Buddhism would know. Saraswati, a Hindu deity, is technically a Goddess, and only one of many gods and goddesses of pantheistic Hinduism. Note that the cross says "God" not "Goddess" or "gods" or even "power outside ourselves." 

Muslims do not use the cross as a religious symbol. Giving Curran the benefit of a doubt, let's assume he's talking about the Tuareg Cross, which is used by some Sunni Muslim Tuareg people in Saharan Africa. This cross is not a religious symbol and does not represent Islam. The cross used in conjunction with Saraswati would most likely be a swastika, a traditional Hindu symbol. (Good luck putting that "benign symbol" up on public land.)
The universal hope that a deity will guide and protect our country is a positive sentiment.
More deep ignorance from Curran. Many people do do believe in a deity. Many that do believe do not believe that a deity will or should "guide and protect our country." To call such belief a "universal hope" is pure tripe. It's questionable as to whether such belief is a positive sentiment. A case could be made that belief in a god that will swoop in and rescue us leads people to not care enough about the future, resulting in terrible short term planning and bad decisions.
No matter what one believes or does not believe, how can that wish offend anyone’s sensibilities? 
Note how Curran twists the argument in the last line. He makes a series of claims in his short letter, none of which argue his main point that "hypersensitivity" on the part of local humanists lead to the removal of a "benign" cross on public land. He builds a case for a cross that only exists in his mind: a cross that is universal and non-sectarian and erected with only the best of intentions. In reality, where the majority of us reside, the cross was distinctly sectarian, and placed on public land to divide, not unite our state.

Christopher Curran should educate himself, first by reading the various comments made by Peter Montequila here, then acquainting himself with the involvement of the Humanists of Rhode Island in the removal of the cross here. If Curran truly cares about religious liberty, he should be joining with us to prevent such abuses, not dishonestly twisting the facts to advance religious privilege.


  1. This is a powerful response, Steve -- cogent, informed, patient, and persuasive. It gives me a distinctly good feeling to know that you're doing the work you're doing.

  2. ProJo letters are great fodder for blog posts. I swear the editors must have a special place for the wingnuts. I've kind of stopped reading ProJo lately. It's just their shallow news coverage isn't exactly a draw.

  3. It was noted a couple of days ago that now Mr. Montaquila has A-frame signs in the middle of the road, advertising his business. Anyone have the heart to tell him it's illegal to place advertising signs on public property? ;-)

  4. Why can't you just not freaking look at it! He has freedom of speech! He should have the right to put up what ever he wants! IT'S A CROSS! HOW COULD A CROSS BE HARMFUL! Quit the seek and destroy mission and leave people and their religious relics alone!

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. "Freedom of speech" does not include the right to put up *free-standing* displays on property you do not own. Providence could have let him keep the cross up, but then they would have had to let anyone else adopt a spot (such as the KKK) and put up their own symbols. The City of Providence could not say "When a Christian adopts a spot, he gets to use that government land to promote his beliefs, but when other people adopt a spot, they can't do the same thing."

      You have the constitutional right to go out onto government property (opened for public use) with signs and symbols, but because you don't own this property, you must leave it looking the way it was when you got there.

  5. Yes you have every right to say that it offends you! Freedom of speech and expression of religion is for everyone!