Emotionally Laden Decisions: What Would You Do?

This spot is devoted to decisions and decision theory, but that does not mean only considering dry theoretical issues. Theory is worthless unless you can apply the lessons of critical thinking to everyday life. To entice readers to make such applications, I intersperse the theoretical considerations with an occasional puzzle that illuminates some aspect of decision making. In some small way, these exercises might help you decide which computer to buy next or which social media to patronize. After all, the best computer for you might not be the one on sale that week. We all need tools to help make decisions.

Another way to encourage consideration of the decisions we make is to deliberately take on some emotionally charged issues. While some people get fired up over the choice between Windows, OS X, or Linux, you are more likely to get an argument over gun control, abortion, and the proper role of government. But consider an issue with a twist. Suppose a bad action happened in the past. You want to correct it. What do you do? Here is one that involves another topic guaranteed to generate heated discussion: religion. [In what follows, I take no stance on religious observance, but only address a narrow issue that involves decisions. If you want to flame effectively, attack me on the analysis.]

In 1954, which was a very different time with different values, a large (29-foot) Christian cross was erected as a war memorial on government property at Mt. Soledad in San Diego. For years, antagonistic groups have fought to have it removed or preserved. The defenders have resorted to a number of tactics, including an attempt to have the area around the cross put in private hands. But their main argument seems to be that this is meant to be a general war memorial and not a Christian symbol. Non-Christians should be proud to have it as a memorial. There is no attempt to favor one religion or another by its presence. The attackers have an easier task. They simply keep repeating that this is a Christian symbol and constitutes an unfair support of a particular faith on public land.

The main issue is pretty plain to me (in spite of learned lawyers arguing for years). The Christian cross was improperly put on public land in a manner that would not be permitted today. That seems so obvious that I would rather look at a more perplexing issue: What do we do now?

That is, what is best for our society now given that a wrong was done in the past? The cross should not have been erected on public land, but it was, and the act was done by well-meaning people. Hardline attackers say there is no statute of limitations. It does not matter that the cross has stood there for almost 60 years and it does not gain legitimacy by surviving. Tear it down. Hardline defenders reply that this proposition is nonsense, and that it is an important visual aspect of our community and, besides, it is not a religious symbol. (I often wanted to meet these people and ask when they became apostates who do not recognize the cross as a symbol of their religion, but that is another story.)

Should we open the area for the construction of other memorials for whoever wants to erect a monument? Crescents, Stars of David, Wiccan Stars, and the Wheel of the Eightfold Way might suddenly appear along with a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (If you do not know, look it up). Maybe we could modify the existing monument by knocking off the arms and leaving a vertical pillar (a serious proposal that got nowhere).

None of this is meant to represent what is actually happening. The Wikipedia reference to this controversy (linked above) will tell you that. I am simply trying to illustrate the possible solutions without being forced to accept either of the hardliner positions.

Emotionally Laden Decisions: What Would You Do?So now fast forward. Recently, some marines painfully hauled a handmade wooden cross up a hill on federal land (Camp Pendleton) and mounted it as a memorial to their fallen comrades in the current struggle. Now, let us agree these were likely patriotic, well-meaning marines who honestly wanted to honor their fallen comrades who were probably all Christians given the action they took. The same hill has no Wiccan Star, etc.

In the ensuing exchange of letters to the editors in our local newspaper, several Christians asked why the atheists are so hateful toward their cross. An atheist gave an interesting answer. He said that as a non-believer, he couldn’t care less about religious symbols, and what you do on your own hill is your business. He is not offended and not hateful because there is nothing behind the symbol for him to be hateful of. But the cross had been erected on public property, and to let it stay there would be to acknowledge that it is permissible. That would violate constitutional separation of church and state and offend him because it smacks of official recognition of one religion being more appropriate for a memorial than another. He does not hate the cross; he loves the constitution.

So here are a couple of emotionally charged situations selected to show that making decisions is not a dry, boring subject. I am not attacking the hilltop crosses here. If I lived in a country that was predominately another religion, the same issues would arise with other players. Putting a Star of David on top of a hill in Iran would be guaranteed to provoke interesting dinner conversation. And even though I am, by nature, an optimist, I truly believe that none of these issues will be solved in a rational manner trying to take into account the law and the need some people feel to express their religion for everyone to see. Spending some time on these difficult and emotional problems might help you develop the habit of making sound decisions on the simpler everyday issues, but let us be modest and not expect to solve the world’s problems.

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  • Anonymous

    Great article, and these are questions that are ALWAYS appropriate to ask. My hope is that conversation would be respectful & that we are ALL challenged to actually THINK rather than simply spout the party or religious line. I will do what I can to respect what has been written & NOT proselytize.

    I will admit that I am a Christian. I will also admit that I believe the Bible is written by people who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Does that make you uncomfortable? I’ll admit it makes ME uncomfortable. I’ll go even farther: I’m not happy at all with things that have been said & done in the name of Religion & Christianity. We deserve a LOT of criticism that is handed to us.

    As I have seen the laws regarding the separation of church & state, it seems to me that it was more about protecting the church from the state than it was protecting the state from the church. Let me make this a more general comment for this generation. The separation of church and state is about protecting the freedom EVERYONE has to believe or not believe as they desire. It is about protecting us from being FORCED to believe something mandated by the government. This includes Unitarianism & Atheism which both seem to be popular at the moment.

    I did not grow up as a Christian. I actually grew up in a cult. I was not allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem. I was not allowed to be part of ANY of the holidays or birthdays…not even Mothers’ Day. So I KNOW what it is like to grow up being “different” and having things happen around me in which I was not able to participate. There was one time I was asked by a teacher to remain silent while my classmates would recite the Pledge instead of rummaging through my lunch box. (I was hungry!) I think it was appropriate for the teacher to ask me that. Even though I didn’t believe the same as the others, I had respect for them, and they had respect for me…for the most part. I NEVER felt like the other classmates had to stop what they were doing in order for my rights to be respected.

    It just seems different today. At what point did protecting our rights of religious freedom mean that no one ever had to even LOOK at a religious symbol? Oh, and make no mistake. The Cross IS a religious symbol. Anyone trying to say different is trying to get away with something & cheapens the meaning of that symbol.

    I guess my point is that if a Cross has been erected on public land, the problem happens when others are not given the same right.

    “Should we open the area for the construction of other memorials for whoever wants to erect a monument? Crescents, Stars of David, Wiccan Stars, and the Wheel of the Eightfold Way might suddenly appear along with a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

    We live in a free country, so the answer is YES! If your belief system is so weak that it disintegrates at the sight of the symbol of another belief system, maybe it’s time to make a heart-check.

    I could be wrong. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. However, it seems that in our current “heightened enlightenment & intelligence,” we have cast aside things too easily, and in doing so, we are losing our humanity. It’s OK if you disagree with me, but I would rather live in a society where we do see these religious symbols (and are NOT forced to worship them) and where the sentiment of “Women & Children First” are still the norm. I do not want to live in a society where all symbols of religion have been cleansed from our sight and where large men & captains are shoving & “tripping” their way to lifeboats as a cruise-liner runs aground. (Like it or not, it’s a package deal, folks.)

    • Sdeforest

      Wonderful comment.  The piece was written with some trepidation.  I was not trying to pick a fight, just explore the rationale for various decisions.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you so much! If it makes you feel better, I was pretty nervous writing my response, too. =)

    • http://ryanhayes.net Ryan Hayes

      Yea, I think the original meaning behind it was that Christ died on the cross in place of us.  So the cross at a war memorial symbolizes a verteran who died in our place, defending our country.  Most Christians when they hear someone wants to take it down don’t just think they’re taking away a Christian symbol, but taking away a symbol that means that these people died in our place, and it’s hard finding another symbol that really has the same meaning behind it.

      • Anonymous

        Ryan, you nailed it. When we look at these things we have to have consistency with our rationale & beliefs. To suddenly say that the Cross is NOT a Christian symbol simply for the sake of circumventing laws is simply not playing fair. It IS a Symbol with great meaning. If it had no meaning, it would not have been placed there. We have to act with integrity and say, “This is a Christian Symbol on public land. If we feel we have the right to place it there, what does that mean for other symbols on the public land?”

        These kind of lies & using Christianity only in the moments it is convenient is one of the greatest reasons there is so much hostility towards Christianity. Yeah, tell those Marines at Camp Pendleton it is not a Christian symbol & see how they react.

  • Anonymous

    Great article, and these are questions that are ALWAYS appropriate to ask. My hope is that conversation would be respectful & that we are ALL challenged to actually THINK rather than simply spout the party or religious line. I will do what I can to respect what has been written & NOT proselytize.

    I will admit that I am a Christian. I will also admit that I believe the Bible is written by people who were inspired by the Holy Spirit. Does that make you uncomfortable? I’ll admit it makes ME uncomfortable. I’ll go even farther: I’m not happy at all with things that have been said & done in the name of Religion & Christianity. We deserve a LOT of criticism that is handed to us.

    As I have seen the laws regarding the separation of church & state, it seems to me that it was more about protecting the church from the state than it was protecting the state from the church. Let me make this a more general comment for this generation. The separation of church and state is about protecting the freedom EVERYONE has to believe or not believe as they desire. It is about protecting us from being FORCED to believe something mandated by the government. This includes Unitarianism & Atheism which both seem to be popular at the moment.

    I did not grow up as a Christian. I actually grew up in a cult. I was not allowed to say the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the National Anthem. I was not allowed to be part of ANY of the holidays or birthdays…not even Mothers’ Day. So I KNOW what it is like to grow up being “different” and having things happen around me in which I was not able to participate. There was one time I was asked by a teacher to remain silent while my classmates would recite the Pledge instead of rummaging through my lunch box. (I was hungry!) I think it was appropriate for the teacher to ask me that. Even though I didn’t believe the same as the others, I had respect for them, and they had respect for me…for the most part. I NEVER felt like the other classmates had to stop what they were doing in order for my rights to be respected.

    It just seems different today. At what point did protecting our rights of religious freedom mean that no one ever had to even LOOK at a religious symbol? Oh, and make no mistake. The Cross IS a religious symbol. Anyone trying to say different is trying to get away with something & cheapens the meaning of that symbol.

    I guess my point is that if a Cross has been erected on public land, the problem happens when others are not given the same right.

    “Should we open the area for the construction of other memorials for whoever wants to erect a monument? Crescents, Stars of David, Wiccan Stars, and the Wheel of the Eightfold Way might suddenly appear along with a statue of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

    We live in a free country, so the answer is YES! If your belief system is so weak that it disintegrates at the sight of the symbol of another belief system, maybe it’s time to make a heart-check.

    I could be wrong. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. However, it seems that in our current “heightened enlightenment & intelligence,” we have cast aside things too easily, and in doing so, we are losing our humanity. It’s OK if you disagree with me, but I would rather live in a society where we do see these religious symbols (and are NOT forced to worship them) and where the sentiment of “Women & Children First” are still the norm. I do not want to live in a society where all symbols of religion have been cleansed from our sight and where large men & captains are shoving & “tripping” their way to lifeboats as a cruise-liner runs aground. (Like it or not, it’s a package deal, folks.)

  • Ben

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is not to be found anywhere in the Constitution. It is simply a metaphor and originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists on
    January 1, 1802. That letter stated, in part, that (there should be) a “wall of separation between the church and the state” and was meant to assuage the fears of those Baptists. Jefferson told them that
    this wall had been erected to protect them and to keep the state out of the church’s business, not to keep the church out of
    the state’s business.

    The Constitution does state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
    of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Both the free exercise
    clause and the establishment clause place restrictions on the government
    concerning laws they pass or interfering with religion. No restrictions are
    placed on religions except perhaps that a religious denomination cannot become
    the state religion.
    The use of the metaphor “separation of church and state” in place of the actual words of the Constitution allows the true meaning of the words in the
    Constitution to be effectively changed to the implied meaning of the metaphor
    and the effect of the “free exercise” clause to be obviated.

    IMHO.

    • Sdeforest

      Do you object to the phrase, “separation of church and state”?  Remember that the first 6 presidents were not Christians by many standards–although some would argue with that.  The main point of the piece was to provoke thought and therefore better understanding and hopefully tolerance.

      I am writing this from a motel room prior to boarding a cruise ship (no tipping).

      • Ben

        I do not object to the phrase “separation of church and state”. I was merely pointing out for the benefit of others that it was never and is not now a part of our Constitution and should not be considered law. But there _is_ a specific Constitutional restriction that “Congress shall make no law…”.

        If a drunk driver slams into my front porch and kills himself, I have a right to prohibit the grieving next of kin from erecting a memorial cross on my property because I am not Congress. If they want to move the cross to the public street or public hillside in front of my house, the entity that has control over the street or hillside should have the exact same right to say what happens on _their_ property. Even if they say the cross can stay.

        I don’t think that’s a question of tolerance. I think it’s more a question of when does one group’s wants or desires infringe on another group’s “don’t do that here.” And it’s not something that can be decided by a non-existent Constitutional “separation of church and state” clause. That’s why this debate has been gong on for years.

        Sure wish I was going on a cruise right about now. I’ve got the post-holiday doldrums. Hope you have a great time.

      • Ben

        I do not object to the phrase “separation of church and state”. I was merely pointing out for the benefit of others that it was never and is not now a part of our Constitution and should not be considered law. But there _is_ a specific Constitutional restriction that “Congress shall make no law…”.

        If a drunk driver slams into my front porch and kills himself, I have a right to prohibit the grieving next of kin from erecting a memorial cross on my property because I am not Congress. If they want to move the cross to the public street or public hillside in front of my house, the entity that has control over the street or hillside should have the exact same right to say what happens on _their_ property. Even if they say the cross can stay.

        I don’t think that’s a question of tolerance. I think it’s more a question of when does one group’s wants or desires infringe on another group’s “don’t do that here.” And it’s not something that can be decided by a non-existent Constitutional “separation of church and state” clause. That’s why this debate has been gong on for years.

        Sure wish I was going on a cruise right about now. I’ve got the post-holiday doldrums. Hope you have a great time.

      • Anonymous

        Actually, I’ve read excerpts from Washington’s Journal, and it is clear that he was a Christian who worshiped Christ as his Lord & Savior. For those of us who are Christ-Followers, his devotions are POWERFUL.

        I haven’t read the journals of any of the journals of Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, or Quincy Adams, so I don’t have any solid arguments for their beliefs.

        There will be time to chat about this at more length later. I’m not going to ask you to do any fact-checking, because you have a cruise to enjoy. =) Godspeed.

  • Ben

    The phrase “separation of church and state” is not to be found anywhere in the Constitution. It is simply a metaphor and originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists on
    January 1, 1802. That letter stated, in part, that (there should be) a “wall of separation between the church and the state” and was meant to assuage the fears of those Baptists. Jefferson told them that
    this wall had been erected to protect them and to keep the state out of the church’s business, not to keep the church out of
    the state’s business.

    The Constitution does state, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
    of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Both the free exercise
    clause and the establishment clause place restrictions on the government
    concerning laws they pass or interfering with religion. No restrictions are
    placed on religions except perhaps that a religious denomination cannot become
    the state religion.
    The use of the metaphor “separation of church and state” in place of the actual words of the Constitution allows the true meaning of the words in the
    Constitution to be effectively changed to the implied meaning of the metaphor
    and the effect of the “free exercise” clause to be obviated.

    IMHO.

  • Anonymous

    I would be a very unhappy American if I found out that tax dollars from my hard earned wages are going towards the construction and maintenance of a such a structure.

    • Sdeforest

      And praying in closets

  • Diana

    Hum.. I think of the cross as a symbol of a tortuous death and sacrifice. Not necessarily by Christ.  There were also thousands + of people hung on crosses who sacrificed their lives by stealing food for their families and other offences whom had no ties to Christian beliefs. I’d like to know when crosses became an “Official Symbol” for Christianity. Anyone who has been to the front lines know all about life sacrifices and if that is something they want, a cross to symbolize that sacrifice, then I think they should be able to use it. I also think it is silly to remove a memorial that is already in exsistance. Especially if government money was used to erect it. It’s like we’re trying to erase our past. How can we learn from the past if people keep tearing it down or erasing it. But that is just my opinion…..

    • Sdeforest

      I have to check, but I think the cross became a Christian symbol in the fourth century.  Before that, a fish was used.