Mojave Cross: More Heat Than Light

Sunrise Rock without the cross, as God intended | Chris Clarke photo

A court settlement between a former park ranger and the Department of the Interior has cleared the way for Sunrise Rock, a prominent landmark in the Mojave National Preserve, to be handed over to a private owner who will reinstall a Latin cross atop the rock as a war memorial. The decision will allow the National Park Service to trade an acre of land around Sunrise Rock to a local VFW chapter, which will reinstall the cross. The Park Service will also fence off the area, post signs warning visitors that the plot is private property, and affix a plaque to the rock explaining that the cross is a memorial to veteans of World War One.

The settlement signals the end of a major management headache for the Park Service, which has been forced to deal with the unexpectedly heated issue. But the settlement also hands a symbolic victory to opponents of the Preserve's existence, and will lead to further development of one of California's natural treasures.

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This is an issue I take personally: over the years I have spent probably several cumulative months camping within 300 yards of Sunrise Rock. You want a weird experience to start your day? Try opening the paper and reading that the Supreme Court is arguing about your favorite campsite. Or that the nationwide network of reactionary fundamentalist Christians has adopted one of your favorite places in the world as their own personal Martyrdom Of The Week. And now that the matter seems to be groaning slowly to a resolution, now that the Fox News trucks are long gone and the attention of an attention-deficient nation has turned elsewhere, what's left is the prospect of more fences and more trampling in a place only just starting to recover from a century of fencing and trampling.

The cross, at the summit of the only paved road crossing Cima Dome in the Preserve, was originally installed in 1934 by WWI medic John Riley Bembrey, whose camp a few miles away on Cima Dome is itself a bit of a historic landmark. That cross became weatherbeaten over the years, and before Bembrey died in 1984 he asked his friends Henry and Mari Sandoz of Yucca Valley to maintain it after he was gone. They did so, replacing the cross several times with the most recent iteration being a six-foot metal pipe version in 1998.

At that time Frank Buono was assistant superintendent of the Mojave National Preserve. Buono, a veteran and devout Catholic, was offended by the replacement cross, installed four years after the establishment of the Preserve. He filed suit in 2001 against the Interior Department claiming that letting the cross remain would violate the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, by suggesting a government endorsement of Christianity. A federal district court agreed. Barred by a hasty act of Congress from using federal funds to remove the cross, the Park Service covered it with a temporary plywood box in 2002. (Supporters of the cross removed the box on a few occasions, at one point spray-painting a cross on the plywood.)

The Mojave Cross enboxed | Photo: Kevin Zimmerman/Flickr/Creative Commons License

In 2003, Congress voted to give the land to the local VFW chapter -- the idea being that if the cross wasn't on public land, the government wouldn't be violating the establishment clause by letting it remain. The Federal Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the lower court's decision a year later, and then the district court held that the Congress' land swap idea was a transparent and ineffective evasion of the government's obligations under the Constitution. In 2010, the Supreme Court disagreed, voting 5-4 that the cross could stay, sending the issue of the land swap back down the judicial chain of command for further review.

A week and a half after SCOTUS' ruling, the 1998 cross was stolen by someone claiming to be a veteran opposed to religious symbols on public land. Despite a thoughtful, well-argued letter sent to a local paper by someone claiming to have taken the cross, the theft inflamed the Christian Right across the country. For the next few weeks, the theft of the Mojave Cross was touted as the latest example of the increasing oppression of Christians in the United States.

The egregious inaccuracies in the national reporting were painful to behold. The cross was described as being anywhere from 4 to 8 feet in height, set on a plain or a low pile of rocks atop a craggy peak. It was actually on a tall pile of rocks atop a softly rounded dome. It was described as being remote from any routes of travel despite being twenty feet from a relatively well-traveled road. Supporters said that no one but the VFW ever saw the cross, when it was seen by a significant percentage of visitors to the Preserve. One claim had it that the site was chosen due to the rocks' resembling a WWI doughboy in repose, which notion is completely ridiculous: aside from not resembling a human figure in the slightest, the site is a tall rock at the high point of a major desert road, and was clearly chosen for its prominence

Supporters also claimed that the cross was explicitly a war memorial, despite the fact that in 15 years of hanging around the site I have seen not a single thing there to indicate that some church didn't put it up in order to win souls. I have seen boxes of fundamentalist literature left at the base of the rocks onto which the cross was bolted, but I've never seen a single piece of literature there mentioning war, or soldiers, or Europe. For years the VFW has held yearly Easter Sunday sunrise services at Sunrise Rock, hardly evidence of a basically secular memorial.

A number of veterans not necessarily aligned with the Christian Right were upset by the theft of the cross, claiming the act was a sign of disrespect for veterans. It's easy to understand their offense. Nonetheless, there remain a significant number of veterans who feel excluded from the honor of a Christian symbol, or who may be Christian but nonetheless prefer more inclusive symbolism in their veterans' memorials. Frank Buono, the veteran who filed the lawsuit in the first place, has said his offense at seeing the cross used as a putatively secular symbol stems from his Catholicism. The cross is one of the most sacred symbols of his religion, and he says he finds it an affront to his beliefs to see its special meaning eroded; a bit of "watering down the brand" of the Roman Catholic church, to use a secular metaphor.

In any event, despite claims that the cross was a simple, inclusive war memorial, the theft certainly provoked claims of anti-Christian hatred, with fundamentalists straying from the "secular memorial" talking point rather broadly.

I'm not opposed to a war memorial on the site. Veterans of World War One did indeed turn to the desert for solace and healing after that horrific conflict, and their presence is part of the history of the desert. As someone who has myself turned to that part of the desert for emotional healing and solace in difficult times, I appreciate the importance of that part of the Preserve's history. The memorial plaque included in the settlement is a fine idea.

But let's not kid ourselves. The cross is an entirely Christian emblem, the symbolic representation of the core mystery of the Christian faith. It can never adequately represent and honor veterans who are -- or were -- Jewish, Muslim, atheist, Buddhist, or who adhere to any of the other myriad beliefs or world views not included within the world of Christianity. The argument that it can be an inclusive symbol is the kind of argument you hear from people in a position of power. You're not going to find too many non-Christian people claiming they feel represented by a cross, just as you're not going to find too many women who feel completely included in the category "men" despite people using that word as the default term for humans for millennia.

The cross is staying because the Christian Right won a round. They had the network of activists, and the core of supporters in Congress and on the Supreme Court, to force us to accept that ludicrous, self-contradictory argument: that the cross was not a Christian symbol but that rejecting it would be disrespectful to Christians.

That secular cross will be going back up, the VFW will continue its secular Easter services at which they secularly celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and across the country ultraconservative Christian activists are already celebrating their completely nonreligious victory over the heathens. The acre of land at Sunrise Rock conveyed to the VFW will be surrounded by a low fence. According to Congress, that fence marking an invisible property line will be sufficient separation of church and state. The settlement stipulates that the fence will have plenty of places where a person might get through it with no difficulty.

Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Director of Desert Biodiversity, he writes from Palm Springs regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues on KCET weekly. Read his recent posts here.

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