Amy Levin: When the American Atheists group filed a lawsuit to oppose a 17-foot cross-shaped beam discovered in 9/11 wreckage to be placed in the World Trade Center Museum, I experienced a major flashback. The newborn controversy over the so-called World Trade Center Cross spewed an outburst of dialogue over religious equality and the politics of memorializing quite familiar to popular media outlets and those who read them. According to ABC News, the American Atheists claim that “inclusion of the cross-shaped steel beams promotes Christianity over all other religions on public property and diminishes the civil rights of non-Christians.” However, backed by the sentiments of Christian rescue workers, the memorial foundation identified the cross as a “symbol of spiritual comfort for the thousands of recovery workers who toiled at Ground Zero,” as well as an “authentic physical reminder” that “tell[s] the story of 9/11 in a way nothing else can.”
Offensive religion versus hopeful progress. Any of this ring a bell? Not even a year ago the establishment of Park51, an interfaith Islamic community center (what many distorted as the “Ground Zero Mosque”) ignited a highly mediatized political upheaval over the same issues being fought over the cross: equality, sacredness, and remembrance. While this comparison is useful, albeit heuristic, there are some fundamental differences (actually, many) between these two events, with the most striking being the location. While Park51 does not touch any of the land on which the twin towers stood, the WTC cross is housed within the 9/11 memorial. But what does make them interestingly comparable, is that they both bring out religious responses to a somewhat irreligious tragedy. And where tragedy comes, religion follows.
So what are we really arguing about? Shouldn’t we embrace a symbol of hope for Christian rescue workers in the same manner that we (eventually) embraced Park51? Or is there something else at stake when we embrace religious pluralism? One thought is that while the 9/11 memorial will include religious symbols besides the cross, this doesn’t solve the problem for some atheists. While the dynamics of religious pluralism will continue to perplex communities, in the case of these holy traumas, it seems that the question bleeds beyond the issue of religious freedom, and into the mental and physical spaces of memory and violence.