Recently the European Court of Human Rights decided to allow the display of crucifixes in public school classrooms (Lautsi and Others v. Italy, March 18). As Justin Reynolds noted here a few days ago, this decision applies not only to Italy, where a lower court previously reached the opposite verdict, but to all 47 member nations. In a New York Times piece, Stanley Fish outlines the reasoning of the court and analyzes the implications of its decision. First, the court argues that the crucifix has become more than a religious symbol—it is also a cultural symbol. But they go much further than this, as Fish explains:
On top of declaring that the crucifix is not, or is not exclusively, a Christian symbol, it explains, in the course of rehearsing the holding of the Administrative Court, that Christianity is not really a religion (this is the bizarre argument), if by religion is meant a set of doctrinal tenets that the religionist is required to believe in and hearken to. To be sure, the majority acknowledges, that is the way religion is usually understood: “The logical mechanism of exclusion of the believer is inherent in any religious conviction.” But not in Christianity, said to be the “sole exception” because at the heart of it is the idea of charity, glossed as “respect for one’s fellow human beings.”
Of course, this is one way to interpret Christianity and its symbols, and some Christians do see Christianity in this way (more than Fish acknowledges, in fact). But it is certainly not the only form that Christianity takes, nor is it likely the most common one in most of the places where Christians are found, including in Europe and the United States. Fish goes on to say:
The general availability of symbols to interpretation says nothing about the interpretation a particular symbol is likely to receive in a particular situation. The question is not what can a crucifix possibly mean in all the settings the world might offer, but what does it in mean in this setting, hanging on the wall of every classroom with a state imprimatur? What is a non-Christian student likely to think — “Aha, a symbol of pluralism and universal acceptance” or “I get it; this is a Catholic space and I’m here on sufferance?”
There is something in this decision to trouble both secular and religious people. The court has allowed what many would consider a religious symbol in public school classrooms, arguably privileging one religious tradition over others. But it has also offered a somewhat peculiar definition of both Christianity specifically and religion in general, by equating “non-religious” Christianity with charity and designating all “religions” as centrally about something else.
For more, see here.