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Columns

Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae: American Legion v. American Humanist Association

The Free Exercise Thereof

By Aidan R. Scully, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

According to the Supreme Court, a 32-foot tall Latin cross on public land maintained with public money does not violate the Establishment Clause.

The monument to American veterans of World War I looms over Bladensburg, Maryland, and it had been looming over the town for roughly 90 years when the American Humanist Association charged that maintaining such an explicitly religious symbol was unconstitutional. It should come as no surprise to readers of this column, or watchers of the current Court in general, that the 7-2 majority in American Legion v. American Humanist Association ruled funding the monument was acceptable because of its “historical significance.”

Especially on matters of religion, the current Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause — that it does not apply to publicly-funded expressions of Christianity because they are more “historical” than religious — is nothing new. Fourteen years prior, a different Court handed down a similar decision in Van Orden v. Perry, ruling 5-4 that a monument to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Texas State Capitol was also constitutional because of their “undeniable historical meaning.”

Reading the texts of these cases makes it painfully clear what perspective the majority justices are approaching the decision from: that government-supported Christianity is not an establishment of religion because Christianity is itself synonymous with America. As a secular American, this is a perspective I cannot reconcile with my identity. The Ten Commandments are not simply “consistent with a religious doctrine,” as the Court claimed in Van Orden; they are the religious doctrine. I do not believe there can ever be a “passive monument” that elevates one religion above others; that to me is an inherently active claim asserting the veracity and legitimacy of one religion at the expense of those who do not follow it.

These legal decisions are not drivers of public opinion. Rather, they are the logical legal extremes of a culture which views Christianity as the backdrop against which all other worldviews are compared.

To illustrate this explicitly, I want to take this story a bit closer to home.

When Greg Epstein, Harvard’s humanist chaplain, was unanimously elected president of the Harvard Chaplains, the backlash was swift and unflinching. One commentator argued that the loss of theological purpose meant Harvard had an “absence of justification,” no reason to exist if not to bring humans closer to God. Another criticized the “complete and abject surrender” of Epstein’s religious colleagues in selecting him. And as another so eloquently put it, electing Epstein “only heaps further scorn on Harvard’s wokeness.”

This collection of jeremiads about the state of the university often had one common theme — how Harvard has fallen into secularism from its religious founding. A favorite talking point was that the current University motto, “Veritas” followed “Veritas Christo et Ecclesiae,” or “Truth for Christ and Church.”

In my mind, that secularization those commentators derided was something to celebrate. If “Veritas” is our mission, then it is a mission anyone may take part in, from the most devout Christian seeking “Truth for Christ and Church” to the most strident atheist seeking truth solely for the betterment of humanity. And that vision is quickly becoming a reality; in my class, the Class of 2025, the largest religious identity is “agnostic,” and the second is “atheist,” together constituting 41.3 percent of current sophomores.

But as an atheist student, it can often seem like that Christian grounding for that mission has never really left. As a first-year living in Weld Hall, I would pass Memorial Church on every walk to Annenberg, often hearing the bells chiming out in all their sectarian glory. The names of University and College administrators can often be found on the lists of speakers for morning prayers placed outside the Church every week. While Christians have the opportunity to hear a multi-denominational Protestant worship every morning, markedly less resplendent prayer spaces for Muslim and Hindu students sit just a few steps away in the basement of Canaday Hall.

This is not to say that Memorial Church is a negative presence on campus; on the contrary, I have only had positive experiences with the institution, including with humanist and interfaith groups who have been welcomed into their spaces.

But there are clear differences between who gets to welcome others into a space, and who has to be welcomed in. Between who gets a glamorous house of worship and who gets a basement. Between who has a space for themselves, and who has to set aside their religious trauma and negative associations with religion and reclaim a space just to make it a spiritual home.

Whether dominated by a giant cross in Bladensburg or a monument in Austin or a church in Cambridge, the burden of physical privilege almost always falls with Christianity. This is only natural; we cannot help but inherit a predominantly Christian physical landscape from our forebears. But living in a pluralistic society means actively meeting each religious group on their own terms. If we do not meaningfully interrogate how our spaces have historically privileged one religious tradition, then we open the door to more decisions like Van Orden and American Legion which claim that America is synonymous with that one religion.

Harvard is no longer a Christian institution. But being a pluralistic institution means doing more than just dropping “Christo et Ecclesiae” from the motto, and being a pluralistic country means doing more than using “historical significance” as a legal justification. Only once we acknowledge who our physical society privileges, and who it excludes, can non-Christians truly be equal participants in our national identity.

Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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