What Does the Red Cross Mean?

Protective Symbol for Secular Medical and Relief Workers

Red Cross truck

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Is the red cross used as a symbol of the American Red Cross and International Red Cross a Christian symbol and are these organizations Christian in character? These organizations were founded as secular, humanitarian organizations, separate from governments and churches. Crosses have been used as symbols outside of Christianity. Or, as in this case, it is a couple of steps removed from its original Christian symbolism.

Today, a red cross is a protective symbol used for medical and humanitarian relief workers in war zones and at the sites of natural disasters. It is also widely used to designate first aid and medical supplies, apart from its use by the International Red Cross and other organizations.

The Secular Birth of the Red Cross

Media Matters reported in 2006 that the American Red Cross website said the symbol of a red cross on a white background was the reverse of the Swiss flag, a country known for its neutrality and also the home of the founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant. It was identified as a protective emblem to be used in conflict areas, showing neutrality and a humanitarian mission for their relief personnel and equipment.

The white cross on the Swiss flag originated in the 1200s as “a symbol of the Christian faith,” according to the Swiss Embassy in the United States. However, the Red Cross was founded as a secular, non-denominational organization, and they make no mention of Christianity as a reason for adopting the symbol.

The founder of the Red Cross, Henry Dunant, was a Swiss entrepreneur who was raised in the Calvinist faith in Geneva, Switzerland. He was deeply affected by the sight of 40,000 wounded and dying soldiers on the battlefield in Solferino, Italy, in 1859, where he was seeking an audience with Napolean III for business interests. He helped organize locals to help the wounded and dying soldiers.

This led to a book and then the first International Conference and the Geneva Convention in 1864. The red cross symbol and name was adopted for this humanitarian organization that would offer aid to all.

The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton, who lobbied the U.S. government to ratify the Geneva Convention. As with the international organization, it does not have a church affiliation.

The Red Crescent

The Red Crescent was used instead during the Russo-Turkish War from 1876-78. The Ottoman Empire, a Muslim nation, objected to the use of a red cross, which they associated with the symbols of the medieval crusaders. It was made an official emblem under the Geneva Conventions in 1929.

Ironic Arguments

Media pundit Bill O'Reilly provoked the Media Matters exploration when he used the Red Cross as an example of a Christian symbol to oppose removing the large Christian cross from Mt. Soledad in San Diego. O’Reilly isn’t the only person who thinks that the red cross is a Christian cross. If a vehicle is displaying a red cross rather than a red crescent, it might be targeted as a Christian vehicle in the wrong place in a war zone. Thus, Christians like Bill O’Reilly who are trying to defend Christianity are making the same mistakes as non-Christian terrorists who would like to attack Christianity.

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Cline, Austin. "What Does the Red Cross Mean?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/what-does-the-red-cross-mean-3975204. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). What Does the Red Cross Mean? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/what-does-the-red-cross-mean-3975204 Cline, Austin. "What Does the Red Cross Mean?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/what-does-the-red-cross-mean-3975204 (accessed June 10, 2023).