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Transatlantic Blog

Erasing the cross: Public vs. private sector

The European discount grocery chain Lidl stirred controversy by removing the cross from its products’ labels, so as not to give offense. Eagle-eyed consumers noticed that Eirdanous, its Greek food line, featured a picture of a blue-domed Greek Orthodox Church by the sea – but unlike every other such church, its cupola was not topped by a cross. The company Photoshopped the symbol of Christ’s victory over death and Hell off of the Anastasi (in Greek, literally, “resurrection”) Church in Santorini.

Perhaps to its surprise, the move created a massive backlash against the grocery giant, which generated $102 billion in sales in the last fiscal year. The company responded that it “respects diversity” and “avoid[s] the use of religious symbols on our packaging to maintain neutrality in all religions.” However, Gregorios, the Greek Orthodox archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, called the decision “immoral,” adding, “I hope that many others will protest against this silly decision.” Many consumers have taken to Lidl’s Facebook page to do just that.

Among the critics, Prague’s Catholic archbishop, Cardinal Dominik Duka, has proven most prescient. “So far, ‘only’ falsification of photos occurs, but there are the fears that soon real crosses may be removed,” he wrote in a letter to the Greek ambassador to the Czech Republic. (The same letter showed his appreciation of Greek culture and cognizance of its place in the West, stating, “Our European civilization is created by a number of roots, with Greek democracy and philosophy being one of the most important ones.”) Contemporary events show how right he is.

The cross and the Berlin Palace

At the same time, a public debate roils Germany over plans to rebuild the historic Berlin Palace, known as the Stadtschloss. The fifteenth-century landmark was ordered destroyed by the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in 1950 after receiving extensive damage during World War II. Authorities rebuilt it for the first time in the 1970s. After having served as the East German parliamentary building, the asbestos-laden structure was demolished in 2009.

The city’s plans to rebuild the structure a second time to house the Humboldt Forum, a cultural institution modeled after the British Museum. Those designs have caused a nationwide row.

Berlin Castle, 1920s.
The Berlin Castle in the 1920s. (Photo: Public domain.)

The reason? The original structure was topped with a golden cross, which some Germans do not want restored.

Critics say a Christian symbol would be inappropriate on a building intended to showcase the artifacts of multiple world cultures. The city’s atheists proposed replacing the cross with a microscope, the emblem of science’s triumph over religion.

But replacing history with the prevailing zeitgeist has had painful consequences in the past, as when the cross atop Wartburg Castle was briefly replaced…with a swastika. The coalition to preserve historic memory has united unlikely partners. “The cross belongs on the cupola, because the building has a historical context and that’s related to Christianity,” said Aiman Mazyek, who chairs the Central Council of Muslims in Germany.

Even more than philosophy and democracy, Western civilization is inconceivable apart from Christianity.

Its defenders say that Christian influence is inseparable from the German spirit. Culture Ministry Monika Grütters, a conservative, told Die Welt, “Our culture of openness, freedom, and sympathy with others has its roots in our Christian ideas of humanity.” The Christian spirit led the early church to preserve ancient treasures, including pagan literature, often repurposing or reimagining them in the process.

As a Christian, it pains me to see the cross of Jesus Christ subjected to the same debate in Europe as the Confederate flag and statues of Klansmen in this country. Unlike those symbols, the cross has built, rather than destroyed, civilizations. The Catholic historian Christopher Dawson described how the restless spirit of Christianity leavened and vivified every facet of Western culture. “In the West the spiritual power has not been immobilized in a sacred social order like the Confucian state in China and the Indian caste system,” he wrote. “It has acquired social freedom and autonomy, and consequently its activity has not been confined to the religious sphere but has had far-reaching effects on every aspect of social and intellectual life.” Even more than philosophy and democracy, Western civilization is inconceivable apart from Christianity.

How the market solves social tensions

Of these two cultural flashpoints, the Lidl brouhaha is more likely to resolve peacefully for one reason: As a marketing issue, it places power in the hands of the consumer. Czech Agriculture Minister Marian Jurecka summarized the solution by saying the people can decide for themselves “whether to support the campaign … [by] shopping there this week,” or abstaining from shopping at Lidl.

The image of the cross was unlikely to offend Greeks. A Pew poll released in February found that of all European nations, in Greece alone did a majority agree that being Christian is a “very important” part of national identity. (The percentage is 32 percent in America.) Another poll found that more than 10-times as many people were offended by Lidl’s campaign as supported it. By Friday, some of the company’s employees seemed to get the message. Lidl’s Czech Republic spokeswoman Zuzana Holá said, “We apologize for this incident, and you may be sure that we shall learn from this mistake.”

Any campaign appealing for consumers’ dollars must cater to their sensibilities. If Lidl does not respond, Christians can patronize another brand. The market gives the buyer ultimate power to align consumption with his or her values.

The fate of the Berlin Palace, on the other hand, remains clouded. As a political decision, it will be made largely outside the purview of the public. Its future will be hostage to bureaucratic regulations, the influence of politically powerful coalitions, and the whims of central planners. The public role heightens conflict, as only one group can prevail.

If the West is wise, it will commit the greatest number of decisions possible to consumers, especially fractious culture wars over symbolic interpretation. Each person can then decide whether he finds the cross of Christ inviting or exclusionary. Social tensions will ebb, and individual utility will increase. And the holy cross will continue to be a sign of contradiction in the world.

(Photo credit of Anastasi Church: George M. Groutas. CC BY 2.0.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. 

Rev. Johnson was a panelist at the 2016 CPAC. His writings have appeared in The (UK) GuardianHuman EventsThe Stream, Real Clear Policy, Aleteia.org, Conservative ReviewThe Daily Caller, and have been cited by National Review, CBS News, and Fox News.