As Americans celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religious faiths this time of the year, I am reminded of what a blessing it is to be an American and to be free to practice my faith. To preserve that freedom, Renewing American Leadership (ReAL) and Citizens United jointly filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in the Salazar v. Buono case where the American Civil Liberties Union is arguing on behalf of former Parks Service employee Frank Buono to remove the World War I Memorial Cross in the Mojave National Preserve. My long-time spokesperson and Founding Director of ReAL, Rick Tyler, recently visited the cross and sent me an email about it. Here is an excerpt of his report:
Since I was going to be in Santa Barbara to give a talk, I thought it might be my best opportunity — even though the distances were daunting — to see the Mojave Desert Cross for myself and get some pictures.
I arrived at LAX at 10:30 a.m. local time, although Las Vegas was actually closer (90 miles). I couldn’t make the flights work, so I would have to drive the four-hour, 230 mile distance. By 11:00 a.m., I was on the way. I had to make time because I need to be there before the sun set at around 5:00 p.m.
As I closed the time and distance to the desert, I was filled with the kind of anticipation unique to a genuine adventure. The more I drove, the greater the expectation grew.
The Mojave Cross Was First Erected in 1934
The Mojave Desert Cross, as it has become known, was first erected as a simple wooden cross in 1934 by the Death Valley Chapter of the VFW to commemorate the men and women who died fighting for freedom in World War I. For six decades, a wooden cross of one kind or another stood until in the late 1990s, when it was replaced with a more permanent metal one that is now obscured with plywood by court order. The land upon which the cross has stood for over 75 years only became federal land in 1994 as part of the Mojave National Preserve. Efforts to transfer the small parcel of land where the cross is located to private ownership failed on the grounds that it would violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
I’d seen photos of the cross both before and after it was covered up by plywood. But what would it be like to actually be there and see it? I knew approximately where it stood, but I was becoming increasingly anxious if I could find it in time.
Interstate 15 is the major road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and it is well-traveled but after Barstow, the towns grow smaller and smaller until they all but disappear. After nearly four hours, my GPS alerted me that the exit I needed to take was coming up.
The Sun Was Setting as I Turned Into the Mojave National Preserve
The sun was beginning to sink in the Western sky as I turned right from the ramp onto Cima Road which leads to the North entrance to the Mojave National Preserve. The monotony of the highway was replaced by a two-lane road lined with Joshua trees headed south into the desert.
Now feeling more melancholy than excited, I began to think about the name given to these odd trees. Joshua is the name from which the English name Jesus comes. In Hebrew, Yah’Shuah, it literally means “God Saves.” Yah from YHWH, pronounced Yehowah for “God” and shuah which translates to “salvation.” Christ was crucified on a hewn tree in the form of a cross. It is altogether fitting that the “saving” cross I was in search of was in the middle of the single largest Joshua tree forest.
Why Does a Cross In the Desert Bother the ACLU?
More than 2,000 years later, I had to wonder, why is this cross in the middle of millions of acres of natural wilderness such a threat to our civil liberties that it is currently at the center of a Supreme Court battle? And if it is a threat, what form of religious expression will survive this decision?
I’d traveled about seven miles south of Route 15, when I slowed down to search the landscape. It should be on the left in the next mile or so. The sadness I felt was replaced by triumph. I wanted to see this modest cross that over the last four hours had become heroic in my mind. It was the manifestation of all those who had come before us to fight for freedom which was why it was put there in the first place.
And there it was. I pulled the car over onto the gravel shoulder. Within a hundred yards of the pavement — atop a small outcrop of rock known as Sunrise Rock, no more than 20 feet high — stood the eight-foot cross odiously covered in plywood.
On Sunrise Rock Stands a Cross Odiously Covered in Plywood
I could see the white painted metal coming out of the rock before it disappeared under the wood covering. It was absurd.
The Constitution seems plain enough, it simply says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” How does a cross that has been there for 75 years (and 50 years prior to the land upon which it is located became federal land) literally in the middle of the desert constitute the establishment of a religion? The answer of course is, it doesn’t.
I took a number of photographs from a variety of angles. Then, just when I had enough shots to be sure I had what I wanted, the sun disappeared over the horizon. That’s when I noticed directly behind the cross rising up over the hills to the east was a full moon. What a gift! I had not expected it. So I stayed another hour to wait for what this lesser light would offer my camera. I’m attaching some photos.
I Felt Powerless, As If Unable to Help Someone in Distress
By the time I left two hours passed. Within that time, only four vehicles passed by. It was both a peaceful and lonely place.
While I was there, I was overwhelmed with the powerless feeling of not being able to help someone in distress, someone within reach. My urge was to rescue the cross by freeing it from its miserable state. Many who have shared the same feeling did just that, only to have the Park Service cover it over again.
My prayer is that the court will protect this cross by applying the wisdom of the Founding Fathers to this case which attempts to twist the principles of our founding in favor of a worldview not shared by the majority of Americans. By doing so, the court will preserve religious liberty which is the foundation of freedom.
Thinking back now about when I was leaving the cross to the night sky above the desert, how true is John’s verse? “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”—John 1:5 (KJV)
Callista and I join Rick in wishing you and your family a safe, blessed and merry Christmas.