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!


#1 tonyf (Guest) on Friday December 17, 2010 at 8:08pm

I always feel sorry for you English-speakers at christmas time. The “Happy Holidays” I think looks silly (altough as not a native speaker of English I should maybe not have an opinion on that) but also and more to the point, is (almost?) as bad from a principal view as “Merry Christmas”. Holiday = holy day, clearly religious? In Sweden (and e.g. Denmark, Norway, Finland, Estonia) we use the non-christian word Yule (Swedish: jul, Estonian: jõulud). The word Christmas exists in Swedish in the litteral form Christ’s mass (Swedish: kristimäss) but has never been used as a name for the “holiday” itself. And although we have to fight also here against christains trying to use the “holiday” for their own propaganda, it is not at all as connected to christianity as I get the impression is the case in the English-speaking world. As for Yule maybe that word is not a good alternative in the English-speaking world, bad pagan and neopagan connotations? (Not a rethorical question, I would be interested to here comments from native English-speakers. Here (Sweden and neighbours) Yule is simply a more or less neutral word, although of course it has pagan origin historically—and christians trying hard to christian it.)

Ron: I like your take on the issue in the video discussion with Tom Flynn! Though I do know that the cultural (and linguistic) situation is more complicated in your country, I think Flynn “gives” much to much to the religious (both christians and pagans/neopagans). We should not give it to them! We do know that the sun is comming back also if we do not celebrate, but we need this celebration as a compensation for the darkness right now (gets dark at approximately 3 A.M. in Stockholm now). No nativity scenes at official places, but the “christmas” tree belongs to us all!

#2 uzza (Guest) on Saturday December 18, 2010 at 11:03am

Interesting thoughts on words/names. that’s speaking as a native english speaker and a linguist to boot, but I can’t hazard a guess on “yule”.  It’s not what English speakers would think, it’s how fanatical christians think, and that seems to be a horse of a different color.

#3 tonyf (Guest) on Saturday December 18, 2010 at 5:42pm

ERRATA: dark at approximately 3 P.M.
, not A.M.

#4 VRob357 on Monday December 20, 2010 at 10:23am

Loved this article. It’s very important to uphold and promote respect for the establishment clause so that all Americans enjoy their holiday season. Happy Holiday’s Ronald.

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