The Constitution and Christmas

Last Sunday the wife’s Sunday school class on making Christmas less stressful and more meaningful went really well. At least for the first fifty minutes. During the last ten it devolved into a gripe session about public school and state government political correctness. Then on Monday a grad student of mine sent me an email conveying the same things. Here’s an excerpt. “At the top of the Senate, there arose such a clatter to eliminate Jesus, in all public matter. And we spoke not a word, as they took away our faith. Forbidden to speak of salvation and grace. The true Gift of Christmas was exchanged and discarded. The reason for the season , stopped before it started.”

At the end of the Sunday school class I sat in silence because I knew there was nothing I could say in a few minutes that would change anyone’s mind. Good thing probably because the teach may not have appreciated my stirring the pot. But that pot needs to be stirred.

Here’s what my conservative evangelical Christian friends would have me believe. The “founding fathers” were Christians and we are a Christian nation, a shining city upon a hill. As a result, public schools and other public places should allow the public expression of Christian faith whatever the form: the posting of the Ten Commandments, group prayer, the singing of Christian songs at Christmas, or the display of nativities or crosses. For the majority, Christianity is our common heritage, the national default if you will. People of other faiths should go ahead and celebrate in whatever ways they want in private, but as a distinct minority, they shouldn’t expect public schools and public places to accommodate their preferences.

In contrast, I believe the following.

1) We are a religiously pluralistic nation made up of many Christians mixed together with Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, atheists, and on and on.

2) Our greatest strength is our Constitution which protects minority rights against majority rule and creates a level playing field with respect to citizens’ diverse religious beliefs. Mutual respect undergirds that neutrality and enables us to peacefully co-exist.

3) Selflessness is a central tenet of Christianity; as a result, Christians should take some time to think about what it would be like if public schools and places were primarily Jewish, Islamic, Buddhist, or anti-religious. The alternative is for Christians to forgo selflessness, devalue Christianity, and continue to insist on a “majority wins” approach to governing public places.

4) The “wall of separation between church and state” principle is misunderstood by Christians who instinctively view it as problematic. Christianity can be taught in public schools as long as it’s done in a comparative, non-evangelical way. Many Christians conflate religious neutrality and anti-religiousness.

5) One Sunday schooler took a swipe at Kwanza and “other minor religious celebrations.” Christians who complain about religious neutrality in public schools and public spaces are struggling to come to grips with the fact that demographics have changed in the United States and they resent that they have to change any aspect of how they grew up experiencing Christmas. It’s difficult to exaggerate the deep symbolic meaning Christmas-oriented language and music in public schools from yesteryear has on many middle-aged and elderly Christians.

6) It’s utterly and completely ludicrous for Christians to suggest anyone is “forbidden to speak of salvation and grace”. It compromises their credibility as thinking people. How much of an adult Christian’s life is spent in public schools and spaces, five percent? Ninety-five percent of the time there’s absolute freedom to speak of one’s religious beliefs and convictions in whatever way one chooses. The “forbidden” argument couldn’t be more disingenuous and it makes a mockery of believers of different faiths who are truly persecuted by their governments.

7) The historical Jesus lived in a religiously diverse world. Instead of complaining that the first century world in which he lived wasn’t explicitly Christian enough, he focused on spreading his message through example, and in essence, competing on a level playing field. Christians today should do the same.

4 thoughts on “The Constitution and Christmas

  1. I think there are plenty of your fellow Christians that feel the same way. Unfortunately, it is the ones that are intolerant and extremeist in their evangelicism(sp?) that get the spotlight. They are the loudest, and consequently get the most attention.

    Thanks for this post. Posts and discussion like these give the majority of the people of your faith the credit they deserve.

  2. I agree. Being married to a public school administrator, I get to listen in on versions of this same conversation every year. Being in Olympia, I also get to watch the annual “holiday display” drama unfold in the capitol rotunda. As the pastor of a local congregation, I have no expectation that government institutions will promote the religious teachings of my church. That’s our job. I’m a big believer in the First Ammendment: no religious establishment and no prohibition against free exercise. It’s really a simple concept but absolutely essential in a religiously pluralistic world. It’s essentially a “free market” in religion and in this area, I take my cues from Milton Friedmann and Adam Smith rather than the Emperor Constantine.

  3. Hey Ron, you’ve got a pretty radical perspective on this topic and I’m with you all the way. It irks me when people try to make the case that we are a “Christian nation.” My faith just doesn’t allow me to go there. I do believe my faith is to be appropriately expressed in the public arena but I’m not going to push the point by wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. Living as a witness to God’s love in Jesus Christ requires much more of me. It has to be a matter of choice. It’s not something that can be pushed on others and the “Christian nation” perspective always strikes me as pushy.

    I think it means that I’m going to have quit complaining so that I can live out my faith in the everyday world. And if that makes someone ask me about it, you can be sure I’ll be glad to tell them.

  4. I like your post. I do, however, believe that Christmas Day should not be a national holiday. This would have the actual effect of making it more meaningful for those who DO believe. Christians would have to take off work to celebrate, just as members of these “minor” religions do. By making it a religious holiday and not a secular one, we Christians could reclaim the holiday. Why is Christmas an official holiday and we must refer to the time surrounding it as Winter Break in the public schools?

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