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.