Unsought Christmas Combat

December 16, 2010

It’s that time of year again. Time for letters to the editor, shouting matches at city council meetings, and even an occasional lawsuit. Religiously themed displays or other religious events on public property are again serving as flashpoints for controversy. For example, in Franklin County, Indiana, there have been protests over a nativity scene located near the county courthouse, and in Loudon County, Virginia, some Christians are angry over having to share space on the courthouse grounds with some atheist messages they find offensive . (Loudon County has created an “equal access” seasonal display site.)

The Religious Right claims there is a war on Christmas. This is a transparently false allegation designed to fire up the faithful. It is the religious who are causing the conflict. There need not be any confrontation over Christmas if Christian groups would simply respect the separation of church and state and stop seeking government endorsement of their religious beliefs. There is ample space for nativity scenes on church property or the private property of believers.

Christian groups will whine that nativity scenes are part of the tradition of Christmas and having religious displays on public property merely reflects our national heritage. Such claims are historically inaccurate. In the early years of our country, many Protestant groups did not even celebrate Christmas, regarding it as a “Popish” holiday. In fact, Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870. Nativity scenes on public property are largely a phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century.

I have some religious friends who have asked why nonbelievers have these annual battles. Isn’t it a waste of time? Doesn’t it make nonbelievers seem strident and angry? Well, I can’t speak for all nonbelievers, but my sense is that most of us would prefer to spend our time doing something other than protesting violations of the Establishment Clause. But we’re not the ones seeking a fight. The disputes are forced on us. Oh, sure, we can ignore the nativity scenes, just like we can ignore Ten Commandments monuments or monumental crosses on public property. Or the mandatory recital of the Pledge. Or distribution of the Bible in public schools. Or the dozens of other ways in which religious groups continually try to secure government resources to support their beliefs. But it’s our country too and we will no longer tolerate being treated as second-class citizens.

Happy Holidays!