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Friday, May 21, 2010

The Cultural Cross

With the attention on Salazar v. Buono (a case that didn't resolve much of anything), Americans sometimes miss where the real action is on cross-related issues.  That's Italy, and the decision of the European Court of Human Rights last year in Lautsi v. Italia.  A parent whose children attend public school complained that the school ought to take down the crucifixes hanging in public school rooms, as they violated the principle of secularism and her freedom of belief and religion.  Her complaint was dismissed by an administrative tribunal and made its way (for technical reasons) to the ECtHR.  Ultimately, that court concluded that the practice violated Article 2 of the Convention.

Less interesting to me is this result than the arguments of the Italian government and the Italian reaction to the decision.  The state claimed that the presence of the crucifixes was "natural" because the cross is "the flag of the Catholic Church," which is the only Church explicitly named in the Italian Constitution of 1948 (articles 7 and 8), and the cross is therefore a symbol of the Italian state.  The administrative court similarly held that the cross is a symbol of Italian history and culture, and therefore of Italian identity.  The legal obligation to display the cross in public schools dates back to a period before the unification of Italy, and at various points in Italy's history, Catholicism has been affirmed as the official state religion (e.g., Lateran Pacts).  To this, the court said: "[These] are the heritage of a religious conception of the state that now clashes with its need to be secular and that ignores the rights protected by the Convention."  

Italian reaction to the decision was overwhelmingly negative.  Of course the Vatican was opposed, but so were a broad coalition of folks from a variety of political perspectives -- from right-wingers to leaders of the anti-Berlusconi opposition Democratic party: "An ancient tradition like the crucifix cannot be offensive to anyone."  Socialists joined with rightist groups to affirm principles of subsidiarity in direct reaction to the ruling.  "No one, and certainly not an ideological European Court," railed Italy's education minister, "will succeed in erasing our identity."  From a report by Il Corriere Della Sera: "At the political level, perplexity about the decision was widespread and bipartisan."

One might think the reaction rather bizzare.  After all, it's no secret that Italy, like most countries in Western Europe, is essentially non-religious now.  Believing Christians are very hard to find.  So why this reaction, rather than one of non-plussed acceptance?  I believe that it is exactly because Italian religious believers are few and far between that the reaction against the ruling was so powerful.

It is because the cross has taken on overriding cultural, rather than religious, significance for many Italians that the ruling is being resisted so uniformly.  As religious allegiance has waned, cultural and political allegiance has waxed -- that's what they've got left to unify them, and it is what they take to be threatened by the faceless, un-Italian European Court.  It's only because very few Italians really believe in Christianity (and because this is well known to everyone) that these broad coalitions of non-believers of various ideological stripes were possible.  Imbuing the cross with political and cultural meaning, and downgrading its religious meaning, enabled these groups to present a unified front in repudiating the decision.  

Seen in this light, the Italian reaction to the cross decision is of a piece with the French ban of the burqa.  Indeed, Mara Bizzotto, a parliamentarian for Italy's "Northern League," asked exactly why the European Court had banned the cross while failing to ban "veils, burqas, and niqabs."  That's of course what Belgium and France are likely to do -- again, a cultural reaction (a state offensive) that is using religion as a way to get a bit of leverage on its own wounded sense of national and cultural identity.  In Italy, we are witnessing a state defensive action in the cross case in the service of the self-same cultural re-affirmation.

Whether these are positive or negative developments from a political point of view is a complicated question that I am not qualified to answer (and not one I really am keen to discuss).  But what these situations demonstrate for me is that simplistic, categorical statements that contested symbols are "primarily" religious or that they are only "secondarily" cultural (or vice versa) may well miss the underlying ambiguities and particular manners in which the symbol is really being used, even when we are dealing with a symbol as seemingly unambiguously religious as the cross.  

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on May 21, 2010 at 03:08 PM | Permalink


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An interesting and plausible argument. One wonders, though, if Mara Bizzotto is that dumb or if she's just being dishonest. With Northern League types it's hard to know and one often expects both.

Posted by: Matt | May 21, 2010 3:34:48 PM

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