Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?

The forthcoming article “Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?” by Aurélia Bardon is summarized by the author below. 

There are many ways in which states symbolically recognize religion: some have an established church, others display religious symbols in public spaces (crucifixes on the wall in classrooms, Ten Commandments in courtrooms, crosses and crescents on national flags, etc), and most recognize some religious holidays as public holidays. Such forms of symbolic religious establishment exist even in the most secular states which strictly separate religion from politics.

This kind of religious establishment is purely symbolic and compatible with equal treatment and religious freedom. The display of a religious symbol in itself does not force anyone to do anything. It does not grant special rights to those who belong to the established religion, and it does not impose special burdens on those who do not. But does this mean that it is never problematic? I argue that it does not; in some cases, but not in all cases, symbolic religious establishment is problematic because it sends a message that those who do not belong to the established religion are second-class citizens. In other words, it sends a message of exclusion that is incompatible with the kind of equal respect that a liberal democratic state should express towards its citizens.

A three-step test can help us to identify such problematic cases. First, we should ask what the symbol is a reference to: is it clearly and unambiguously referring to something divisive? The crosses on the national flags of many European states, for instance, are usually not perceived as religious or divisive symbols: for this reason, they are not problematic. Second, is the symbol displayed in a framework that makes it politically relevant? When a symbol is displayed in a parliament, in a courtroom, or in a public school, it has a significant political dimension that makes it more problematic. Finally, what are the reasons used to justify the existence of the symbol? Some of the arguments introduced by policymakers are not good enough and fail to provide a sufficient justification for why a new symbol should be created or why an existing symbol should be maintained.

The test can be applied to the Bavarian Kreuzpflicht, which makes display of a cross in the entrance of public buildings mandatory. First, the cross refers unambiguously to something religious and divisive. Second, it is made politically relevant by being displayed in political spaces. Third, the reasons used to support the decision do not provide a sufficient justification. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that this particular symbol sends a problematic message of exclusion to non-Christians: the Kreuzpflicht is an example of an impermissible case of symbolic religious establishment.

About the Author: Aurélia Bardon is Junior Professor in Political Theory, Department of Politics and Public Administration at University of Konstanz. Her research “Christmas, Crescents, and Crosses: When Is Symbolic Religious Establishment Permissible?” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

%d bloggers like this: