Way, way out in the middle of nowhere the other night, somebody stumbled.
He probably doesn't know it yet. In fact, he's likely feeling pretty clever about the whole thing. He got away with the Mojave Cross, a religious symbol set up on a remote outcropping in the desert nearly 80 years ago as a memorial to those who died fighting in World War I.
It's the same cross that, a few years back, a man decided he took offense at – every time he drove all the way out there to see it – and so he demanded it be removed from public land. That's what America's all about, after all: making everyone bend to your preferences. Taking away others' religious liberty, wherever it intrudes on your comfort zone.
The man ultimately enlisted the ACLU to press his demands, and those demands, of course, eventually led to a lawsuit, which has been glacially working its way through the legal system. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that the cross could stay put, leaving the legal details for lower courts to work out. That process has been underway.
The cross, meanwhile, has been covered for years by a plywood box – anything to assuage the park employee's delicate sensibilities. Apparently, a big pole with a box on it is much less distracting in that sparse, desert setting than a quiet religious symbol.
But now, a thief has accomplished what the courts and a host of ACLU attorneys could not – they've gotten that cross out of the way. Cut it right off of the rocks it was bolted to and spirited it away in the night.
Thing is, the cross is gone … but God is not.
And you have to believe that's the point that is driving that thief, whoever he is, and all the lawyers and that singularly sensitive park employee crazy. For in truth, they don't really object to the two metal pipes fused together … they object to what those crossed pieces of metal represent.
If you don't believe that, just ask yourself this: what if, instead of a cross, someone had set up a symbol of another religion – one other Americans find controversial or antagonistic?
As it happens, I don't practice those religions … but neither would I invest tens of thousands of dollars of my own and the people's money to have any of their symbols forcibly removed or to compel their faith's adherents to bow to me and my demands.
Why not? Because, while these things might be on display for all to see, they ultimately have meaning primarily for those who put them up in the first place. And I yield to the First Amendment-protected right of these, my fellow citizens, to express their faith, to communicate their belief, to "speak" their piece.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has said repeatedly through the years, the First Amendment was written to protect – not outlaw – religious expression. Indeed, as the high court said in a ruling just last month: "The goal of avoiding governmental endorsement does not require eradication of all religious symbols in the public realm...(and) the Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society."
And yet … if the war memorial hadn't been shaped like a cross, it would probably still be out there amid the crags and the cacti.
Which brings us back to that curious thing about those who would cut down crosses, cover them in boxes, and sue to have them removed from even the remotest of public places. They don't really take exception to religious expression, so much as real offense at what a cross represents. And that's especially interesting, because what the cross traditionally represents – a godly Life, a sacrificial Death, selfless love, redeeming faith – are noble things.
Why is it so absolutely vital to so many that the symbol of these ideals be removed from our public life? Why is it so crucial that people who don't believe are never reminded of the One they don't believe in? Just how fragile is their atheism that it demands not just elimination of any trace of belief, but the dismantling of our most essential freedoms of faith and self-expression?
The Apostle Paul warned the early Christians that the cross of Jesus Christ would be a "stumbling block" and an "offense" to many. And so it is. In courtrooms and classrooms, in broadcast studios and newspaper columns and along lonely, half-forgotten roads deep in the desert, those determined to be offended are tripping all over themselves in their increasingly blind determination to make an invisible God go away.
Stumbling, they've lost all sense of balance. Stumbling, they're headed for a fall.