Merry Christmas — Let’s Honor the Separation of Church and State

It happens every year, right on schedule. As the Thanksgiving leftovers get eaten and the remnants of Fall disappear, the Christmas rollout begins. With it come the ads for shopping bargains, the decorations, and the attendant questions about what is appropriate and legal in terms of public religious displays.

The conversations get louder as Bill O’Reilly weighs in, pontificating about the “War on Christmas.” This week, MSNBC had two guests on to discuss why merchants should have their employees say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” Their reasoning was based on the economic factor that most American shoppers were Christian, and therefore retailers should be targeting the Christian consumer.

Sen. Chris Buttars of Utah received media face-time for his legislative proposal urging stores to greet consumers with “Merry Christmas” in lieu of the nonspecific “Happy Holidays.” His motivation…he wants to “end the war on Christmas” as the United States is a “Christian Nation.” (The state of Utah isn’t as insular. They were the second state to elect a Jewish governor.)

A governmental action that quietly slipped by under the radar on December 11th, 2007, was the passage of House Resolution 847. Congressman Steve King of Iowa introduced the resolution that was titled, “Recognizing the Importance of Christmas and The Christian Faith.” Only nine members voted no. Ten voted present, which in essence is an abstention.

At the time, Paul Kurtz, Chair of the Council for Secular Humanism stated, “How does this bode for Americans who do not identify themselves as Christians, or as non-believers in God? At a time when candidates are tripping over each other to discuss and affirm their ‘personal faith,’ is the separation of Church and State in America under serious threat?”

This year’s news included the story about Gov. Christine Gregoire, who was at the center of a brouhaha when she allowed a sign described as an “atheist’s placard” to be displayed in tandem with a crèche at the Legislative Building in Olympia, Washington.

For every group such as The Freedom From Religion Foundation, there are alternative organizations. The National Clergy Council and The Christian Defense Coalition are co-sponsoring “The Nativity Project,” which has been encouraging people to “secure permits and permission to place [religious] displays on public property.” The National Clergy Council defines its mission as being “to introduce classical Christian moral instruction into the conversation and debate surrounding public policy.” For a primer in the litigation surrounding these issues, including the Establishment Clause, check out Dahlia Lithwick’s Slate article of 2001, “Crèche Test Dummies.”

In a related vein is the issue of the participation of religious figures in the Obama inauguration. (During a press conference with members of the foreign press corps dating back to January 2005, reporters had asked about the role of clergy in “the inauguration ceremonies.”) Moving to open the tent and welcome in different points of view, Obama has invited Pastor Rick Warren to give the Invocation. Obama, who had to work hard during the campaign to dispel rumors that he was a Muslim — to the extent of sharing with the voting public that he “prayed to Jesus every night” — has also tapped Rev. Joseph E. Lowry to deliver the Benediction. In response to critics on his choice of Warren, Obama has stated that the long-time civil rights activist, Lowry, will create a balance.

But where is everybody else that is part of the religious mosaic of America? Where is the Catholic priest, the Jewish rabbi, the Muslim imam? Where will the Buddhist, Greek Orthodox, or Hindu observers see themselves, not to mention the agnostic, atheist, or secular humanist. Shouldn’t they all be up on stage as a group presence? If that seems too unwieldy, not to mention far-fetched, maybe there should be no religious invocation or benediction at all. It’s hard not to wonder why we look at other countries’ connections to religion as fanatical or misplaced theocracy, but don’t see any aspects of it in our own culture.

Perhaps putting Christ back into Christmas would be more truly fulfilled by extending compassion and understanding to those we feel are the most different from us and our way of thinking. Too bad Gandhi isn’t alive. He would have been perfect to deliver “comments” at the inauguration. A man with a strong faith in God, he said, “God has no religion.”

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