In her essay on Salazar v. Buono, Winni Sullivan ponders why crosses present such a difficulty for the modern, secular nation-state, and she questions the degree to which religious myths and symbols have been supplanted by those of nationalism. “Has secularization failed?” she asks. Sullivan posits that religious symbols’ ability to connect the universal and the particular is at the root of their success. Yet the ambiguity of both the Mojave cross and the commentaries made by various judges in evaluating the case point to the layered religious and secular meanings of the symbol at that particular site and in U.S. society more generally. Perhaps a more expansive definition of civil religion can trace how the same symbol moves across “religious” and “secular” contexts, depending on the site, event, or time in which it is deployed. In Poland, for example, the cross is and is not religious, although it is always sacred. Indeed, this ambiguity, the ability to pivot in different directions, may help account for the cross’s social force.
Like the United States, Poland is a religious society, with 96 percent of the adult population declaring belief in God, and 70 percent attending religious services at least once a month. Unlike the United States, Poland is ethnically and denominationally homogenous—it is 96 percent ethnically Polish and 95 percent Catholic. This lack of religious pluralism has not diminished contention about the place of religion in the public sphere, an issue that has been hotly debated since the fall of communism and throughout the construction of a legitimate national state. Should Poland be “united under the sign of the cross,” as many on the Right have argued, or should the state embrace confessional neutrality? Should there be an invocatio Dei in the new Constitution? Should crosses be present in classrooms, state institutions, or other broadly conceived “public spaces”?
These questions became especially salient in the debates surrounding the controversial erection of hundreds of crosses just outside Auschwitz in 1998-99. Ultra-nationalist Poles chose the cross to mark Auschwitz as the place of Polish martyrdom—as opposed to the place of the Jewish Shoah—and as a strategy to defend an explicitly Catholic vision of Polishness, which had slowly but surely been eroding since 1989. Despite having garnered significant support from the four corners of Poland and beyond, the action backfired because most Poles no longer saw the cross as a sign of freedom and dissent from an atheist party-state and its totalitarian regime. For Liberal intellectuals from the Left and Center, the cross now stood for the rejection of the principles of the Rechtsstaat, in which particular allegiances are relegated to the private sphere. For liberal Catholics, the cross had become a sign of intolerance toward “Others,” used as a provocation contrary to the Christian meaning of the symbol. For many members of the clergy and Episcopate, the crosses at Auschwitz were a shameful expression of Polish nationalism and anti-Semitism. The Church hierarchy attempted to restrict the semantic orbit of the cross in order to regain discursive and ritual control of the symbol by emphatically promoting a “correct theology of the cross” in various venues.
That very summer, however, the Łódź court rendered a judgment on a related civil case filed a year before. A self-proclaimed atheist had sued the city for displaying a cross at city hall, arguing that it infringed on his private wellbeing. The suit was grounded on Article 25 of Law 2 of the 1997 Constitution of the Polish Republic, which concerns the religious and philosophical neutrality of public organs. Yet the lawsuit was rejected, the court having ruled that the cross, as a traditional symbol in Polish culture, had been objectified to the extent that it could not constitute a threat to any individual. The Court of Appeals maintained the regional court’s decision, arguing that in the Polish patriotic tradition, the cross expressed a specific set of moral and historical values:
Personal wellbeing cannot be understood […] without reference to the tradition, culture and historical experiences of the collectivity in which physical persons live and function. In addition to its religious meaning […], the symbol of the cross has been inscribed in the experiences and the social consciousness of the Polish Nation—as a symbol of death, pain, sacrifice, and as a way of honoring all those who fought for freedom and independence in the struggle for national liberation during the Partitions and during the war against invaders. The symbol of the cross has for centuries designated the graves of ancestors and the places of national memory. In non-religious collective behavior, [the] meaning of the cross as an expression of respect for, and unity with, the liberators of the Fatherland even has precedence [my emphasis] because other universal means to express respect have not been developed.
Moreover, according to the Court, the cross was expressly related to secular, state institutions:
In addition to its religious meaning, the symbol of the cross in Polish society expresses moral order, on which the idea of the state and society is based. Throughout history […] the cross has been, in the Polish tradition, linked with the legislative and judiciary powers. This fact does not in itself prevent dialogue among people representing different worldviews.
The symbol’s religious semantics were overshadowed in both courts’ decisions by its secular, “merely” cultural, and civic connotations. Yet, its secularity made it no less “sacred.”
Does this case—in which the cross was deemed tolerable because it had been sufficiently secularized, and thus was not evocative of religious sentiments—suggest a diminution of the public centrality of religion? Or, conversely, does it present a hypertrophy of religion, with the cross so omnivorous and all-encompassing as to devour the principles of the Rechtsstaat entirely? Perhaps the cross’s religious meaning, however occluded by its “merely cultural” connotations, is the champion left standing, not only at Auschwitz, but over the nation as a whole?
Sullivan asks whether the incapacity of national symbols to replace religious ones suggests the failure of civil religion and secularization. “Civil religion,” following the Durkheimian tradition, refers to the social sacralization of a given group’s symbols. In the modern era, according to this view, civic, or state symbols like the flag acquire religious significance and are worshiped by citizens as totems. The Polish case points to a different and somewhat overlooked process. Because of Poland’s peculiar political history, it was not political ideals, institutions, and symbols that were sacralized and that became the object of religious-like devotion (following the paradigmatic French revolutionary model), but religious symbols that were first secularized, and then resacralized as national. The cross in Poland is therefore a sacred secular symbol. It is sacred, not only because of its Christian semantics (or even in spite of them), but because since the nineteenth century it has traditionally represented Poland. Instead of religion yielding to nationalism or nationalism becoming a religion, here religion becomes nationalism.
In cases where national identity is experienced and expressed through religious channels, the estimation of religious decline or ascent in relation to nationalism is a quixotic mission. When the religious is secularized and then resacralized in national form, the relationship between national symbols and religious symbols is particularly difficult to tease apart, as much for social scientists as for judges. It may be precisely this ambiguity, or this ability to pivot in different directions, that constitutes the cross’s (and other analogous symbols’) source of “civil religious” power.
The national sacralization of religious symbols, however, is meaningful and garners consensual support only in specific contexts. Even in overwhelmingly Catholic Poland, it has been fiercely contested since the fall of communism and the establishment of an independent state. Such symbols could certainly be “secularized” again. “Secularization,” in the sense I am using the term here, would mean, however, returning to a more distinctly (or theologically orthodox) religious interpretation of Catholicism in Poland. The de-politicization of religion has indeed been the objective of many Catholic groups in the last two decades. Ironically, this would restore the “truly” sacred status of what has become, in their view, a merely national religion. After Catholicism’s long public career, many Polish Catholics now lobby for its privatization.