Friday, April 24, 2009

Obama Had "IHS" Covered at Georgetown: Jesus Monogram or a Christian Battle Slogan?

Georgetown's Gaston Hall before Obama's speech.

Until a print article this morning in the Houston Chronicle’s weekly Belief section, I had no idea that a mini-controversy of sorts has lingered over the Obama administration asking Jesuit-run Georgetown University to cover up the “IHS” emblem atop a memorial marker at the back of the Gaston Hall stage when the president spoke there on April 14th.

The administration did not want it or other religious symbols visible on camera when the president gave his speech on “five pillars that will grow our economy.” Acceding to the White House request, the university placed an inconspicuous brown cover over the letters within the existing brown-stained wood triangle.

I say mini-controversy because while the condemnations of Obama and Georgetown are quite loud, the attention they are getting is restricted almost entirely to a few religious-right groups and their bloggers. Google searches under key words like Georgetown, IHS, cross and crucifix find few other articles or commentaries taking the matter seriously.

For myself, debate about the president of the United States giving a televised policy speech with an emblem over his shoulder that appears mostly on Catholic crucifixes is a non-starter: I can imagine no circumstance in which it would be appropriate.

As the chief office-holder elected by all of us and sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States, including the well settled separation of church and state, the president should never give the appearance of favoring any specific religion. Once it was determined that the Georgetown venue had a built-in Catholic symbol behind the speaker’s podium, it was right for the Obama administration to request the covering and right for the Georgetown administration to agree.

What surprised me more than the controversy, however, was the claim—which the Chronicle attributed to its Pentecostal Perspective blog—that “the Obama team asked Georgetown to cover up the IHS symbol, a monogram of Jesus’s name."

As a person who graduated from a Catholic grammar school, a Catholic high school and a Jesuit college, with a masters from a Jesuit school of theology and a doctorate from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union (which included the Jesuit, Franciscan and Dominican theology schools, along with Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist and Unitarian), I do not recall hearing at any point in the last sixty years that IHS was any kind of monogram of the name of Jesus.

What I do recall hearing, repeatedly, was that IHS was in fact an acronym for “in hoc signo vinces” (Latin for “in this sign you shall conquer”) which Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, had emblazoned on the cross that led him into battle. Constantine became Caesar in 306 and defeated other tetrarchs to become sole emperor in 324.

So my reaction to right-wing Christians charging that Obama had made Georgetown cover up a monogram of Jesus was that they were wrong, and ignorant, and surely someone must have told them so. Furthermore, if Obama specifically requested the covering a specific slogan from Constantine’s battle cross—emblematic of Christians trying to impose their religion on others in several centuries and in 1541 adopted as the Jesuit’s own shield to emphasize their calling to conquer the Reformers and other nonbelievers—was that not all the more reason to keep it off-camera for his speech?

Yet after several hours of Google searches, I found no one who seriously disputed the monogram charge. Indeed, the Pentecostal Perpsective blog also links to a YouTube posting of a Fox News analysis saying that “Georgetown officials covered a monogram symbolizing the name of Jesus” and that Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, accused Georgetown of cowardice for its refusal to stand on principle.

After more research, I’ve had to conclude that my experience with the acronym IHS is not as comprehensive as I thought it was—but that it still has better historical grounding than the monogram interpretation.

The view that the president had a Jesus monogram covered up can be argued from two conspicuous links: a Catholic Encyclopedia entry on The Holy Name of Jesus and a Wikipedia answer to “What does IHS on Christian cross mean?” Their take traces IHS to spellings of Jesus or titles about Jesus in Greek and Latin. They make a good case for saying that sometimes IHS has been such a monogram. But the key word is "sometimes."

The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Constantine’s military standard makes it clear that it included two sets of letters prominently displayed in Greek: one set was the first two letters of the Greek title christos (XP or chi and rho) a direct reference to Jesus; the other set bore the Greek words touto nika, “conquer by this (sign),” which was rendered in Latin “in hoc signo vinces” and abbreviated with the acronym IHS.

The Wikipedia article on the Latin phrase says that Constantine had a vision of the XP in the sky just before the Battle of Milivian Bridge in the year 312. According to a contemporary historian, Constantine also had a separate vision of the cross with the caption “conquer by this (sign).” Evidently it was Constantine’s understanding that the cross, the XP and the conquest slogan all belonged together.

It may well be that Constantine's physical positioning of the chi-rho monogram with the IHS slogan eventually turned the slogan into a monogram on occasion. But I would argue that by stamping the cross with IHS as the source of his military success, Constantine made IHS irretrievably a symbol of Christian conquest, whatever else Christians may have done with it in centuries since.

So fundamentalist Christians can, if they must, take umbrage at a Catholic university agreeing to hide a monogram of Jesus. But they are not speaking the complete truth about IHS. If they are being candid about the historic origin and use of IHS, they must also be grateful that the president of all U.S. citizens—adherents of a panoply of religions and of no religion at all—behaved very appropriately in keeping what in fact was a symbol of Christian supremacy and belligerence out of his economic policy address.


Karen H. said...

Here is the correct information on the emblem, "IHS": is an acronym of the Latin for "Iesus Hominum Salvator" which translates as "Jesus, Saviour of man". The Letters "IHS" were used for teaching by St. Bernadine of Siena, Apostle of Italy, whose feast day we celebrate today, May 21st. St. Bernadine (Read more at ).

Saint Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, is represented in Christian Art by the monogram of the Jesuit order, I. H. S. (an acronym of the Latin: Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Saviour of man). Yes, the Jesuit order uses this symbol to represent the name of Jesus. During the Middle Ages, the Name of Jesus was written: IHESUS. The monogram, or emblem, IHS contains the first and last letter of the Holy Name of Jesus.

One could say that "IHS" stands for what they want to say it stands for- "in his shadow", "in her sandwich", "into his side", etc.

Mr. Obama and /or his staff did not want the name of Jesus Christ on the wall behind him when he spoke at the Jesuit university of Georgetown, because "IHS" means "Jesus, Savior of man".

"IHS" does not mean what is written in your article. If you go back in history and investigate when, where and by whom this symbol was used, you will find the TRUTH!

BTW this is the same TRUTH that we were taught in Catholic schools in Florida. I do not understand how or why this information was not taught to you. May God bless you!

Gerald T Floyd said...

I appreciate the comment, and what you were taught in Catholic schools in Florida.

My posting did acknowledge that IHS has been interpreted along the lines you suggest.

But the TRUTH is that construing IHS as a monogram for Jesus or a title of Jesus is not the only position taken in the church historically--and for the reasons I articulated, certainly not the earliest one or the dominant one.

Lisa said...

The Greek (not Latin) abbreviation "IHS" stands for "Jesus Christ." IHS is the Christogram for the Greek spelling of Jesus (ΙΗΣ- iota-eta-sigma; short for ΙΗΣΟΥΣ)

While 'In hoc signo vinces' (IHS) is the Latin translation of the Greek phrase "ἐν τούτῳ νίκα", meaning "by this, be victorious!", it wasn't the symbol used by Constantine I on the famed flag of victory. The Chi-Rho (XP) was the symbol used. The Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P) are the first two letters in the name Christ (Greek: Χριστός).

Therefore - it was under another name for Jesus that Constantine won his battle.

However, Constantine did adopt the Greek phrase, "εν τούτῳ νίκα" as a 'motto' after he had a vision of the CHI-RHO in the sky just before the Battle of Milvian Bridge against Maxentius on 28 October, 312.

Eusebius said Constantine was marching with his army when he saw a cross of light above the sun with the words "εν τούτῳ νίκα." Later, he had a dream where Christ explained to him that he should use the XP sign against his enemies. Eusebius then describes the Labarum, the military standard used by Constantine in his later wars against Licinius, showing the Chi-Rho sign.

The 'In hoc signo vinces' phrase was later on a coat of arms used by Jan III Sobieski, the coat of arms of the Irish dynasty of O'Donnell of Tyrconnell, the House of Vassallo, the city of Birkirkara, town of Bayamòn, and on Pall Mall cigarettes. It is also the motto of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George.

However, 'In hoc signo vinces’ was not the original meaning or use of IHS. The use of IHS predates Constantine, which is why he recognized it as a Christian symbol. This symbol for Jesus Christ was implied in the Epistle of Barnabas ix.. He alludes to both Jesus (IH) and the cross (T). It is true that the symbol doesn't appear on many monuments prior to Constantine, but why would it? Christianity wasn't a state religion yet - and, in fact, was under heavy persecution. They found more subtle ways to refer to Jesus – such as the fish symbol. However, the monogram IHS, standing for Jesus, has been found in the catacomb of Priscilla and in the atrium of Capella Gr-ca.

Constantine, the man with the money and power in the 4th century, and with zeal to honor the instructions and victory given him by God, did emblaze his slogan on many monuments. But that doesn't eradicate its original use.
Since the end of the Middle Ages, IHS as a Monogram for Jesus has been wide-spread. Saint Bernardin of Sienna, in effort to honor the name of Jesus, displayed a tablet containing IHS written in gold and surrounded by the rays of sun.

The Jesuits later adopted it as I.H.S. (containing periods, or full stops). In this context, it is a Latin acronym standing for 'Iesus Hominum Salvator' – “Jesus, Saviour of man.” Saint Ignatius Loyola is represented in Religious Art by the monogram of the Jesuit order, I. H. S.

So in these later periods "IHS" has stood for the first three letters of "Jesus" in Greek (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ) and in Latinized Greek (IHSOVS) - AND "in hoc signo" from the legend of Constantine. It has stood for both, and both with equal validity, which is not unusual for an acronym. But in the context of an altar of worship, not battle, it has been understood to stand for the name of Jesus Christ.