Friday, December 17, 2004

Playing the Grinch

UPDATE: 12/18/04 @ 2:30 PM
It's that time of year again...the magical season where I have to explain, for the millionith time, why I don't believe that religious messages (Christian or otherwise) belong in official (IE, governmental) events.

Conservative torchbearer Charles Krauthammer takes up the mantlepiece, writing in the Washington Post on how those evil, secularist liberals want to utterly banish Christmas and kill off the holiday spirit. Krauthammer's column is a pecuilar mix of self-congratulatory moralism mixed with a few blatant falsehoods ("Judaism's seven holidays"?), with the occassional fact sprinkled in to get it past the editorial board (Chanukah really is, as Krauthammer asserts, a pretty unimportant holiday). The crux of Krauthammer's argument (such as it is), is that the only explaination for minority skittishness at Christmas messages is that they have insufficient faith and are afraid the slightest whiff of an opposing message will destroy their spiritual roots.

This may have some truth to it, to be fair. But what Krauthammer misses is that it's equally true of the Christian masses who seem to think that unless Macy's has "Merry Christmas" shouted at it's customers from every angle, the Christian faith will wither away and die. Who's being more unreasonable here? At least the minority religions have historical reason to fear that government sponsered religion will provide cover for religious oppression. By contrast, the disestablishment of Church and State would have very little, if any, negative impact on the majority religion (and might aid it, see the struggles of organized religion in Europe and Iran, where it still enjoys state sponsorship).

Indeed, I oppose governmental support of my religious views (I'm Jewish and I believe in God) because I find them both offensive and demeaning. Religion is something deeply personal, and nothing is more personal than the way one expresses one’s beliefs in the public forum (if they choose to at all). Putting religion in a one-size fits all package commoditizes religion, destroying the very thing that makes it sacred. The court recognized as much in Engel v. Vitale, when Justice Hugo Black wrote "A union of government and religion tends to destroy government and to degrade religion. The establishment clause thus stands as an expression of the principle on the part of the founders that religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate." My belief in God is demeaned when it exists not as a genuine expression of my own personal belief, but rather as a byproduct of a government mandate.

This doesn't mean that every religious mention has to be expunged from government. Christmas carols can be included as part of a winter concert, if they are chosen for their musical beauty (I'm a big fan of "Hark Go the Bells" personally) rather than their religious message. This is the same reason I had no problem studying The Bible in English class: We were studying it as a literary document, not to gain deep insights into our spiritual core. The problem comes in having religion involved in the public sphere for no other reason than espousing a religious message. That is what people such as myself seek to avoid, both because the risks it poses to religious minorities (risks that might be overstated by church-state militants but certainly are understated by Krauthammer) and because it is demeaning to religious persons such as myself.

Meanwhile over at The New Republic, Michelle Cottle has a much more intelligent article on the same subject. Cottle first provides an excellent set of examples that prove that the Christmas restorationists are hardly as innocent and tolerant as Krauthammer makes them out to be:
This year, the traditionalists are reportedly even more exercised than usual, in part because they see W.'s reelection as a mandate to put Christianity--and with it, Christmas--back at center stage. The California-based Committee to Save Merry Christmas, for instance, has called for a boycott of Federated Department Stores (which ironically include Macy's, the chain whose role in the classic "Miracle on 34th Street" made it the retail embodiment of the holiday for millions of Americans) in response to the company's replacement of "Merry Christmas" signs with vaguer messages of "Season's Greetings" and "Happy Holidays." The organization points boldly to November 2 as proof that such "political correctness is offending millions of Americans."

Similarly, a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, recently took out a full-page newspaper ad calling for Christians to shop only at stores whose holiday displays include the words "Merry Christmas." (The minister explained the move as part of a "revival" in which "right-minded people" are challenging the nation's "downward spiral to the left.") And down in Louisiana, a group in Terrebonne Parish is not only petitioning to have "Merry Christmas" added to the holiday display outside the main government building but is also selling in-your-face yard signs that read: "We believe in God. Merry Christmas."

This ain't "Miracle on 34th Street" anymore, folks. Meanwhile, Cottle neatly debunks the logical underpinnings of the activist's actions:
It's tough to hear about such antics and not immediately think: What a bunch of nutters. For starters, the notion that anyone who doesn't celebrate Christmas is a godless leftist makes these folks look like total idiots desperately in need of a beginner's guide to Judaism and Islam. And why do traditionalists so often feel the need to ram their beliefs down everyone's throat? Christmas conservationists are free to fill their homes with gaudily garbed trees (my household typically has two) and sing "Silent Night" on the street corner until their voices fail. But why waste so much energy on a point of semantics? I mean, at this stage, you'd think serious Jesus fans would want to distance themselves from the tinsel-strewn retail vulgarity that Christmas has become.

Yet at the same time, Cottle understands where they are coming from. It's disturbing--and upsetting--to many people to see a holiday that has such deep and profound spiritual meaning dissolve into an orgy of crass commercialism and consumer capitalism. Restoring the religious message to Christmas is seen as one way to combat that trend.

Believe it or not, I sympathize with those sentiments (though I'll admit confusion on how putting up "Merry Christmas" in your local department store helps fight this). However, I think that the solution comes in restoring Christmas (and the other religious holidays) back to their place in the private sphere, where people can control the message and instill it with the religious and spiritual message it deserves. Just because Christmas has spiralled out of the control of the church is not a warrant to impose Christian theology on the rest of the population.

UPDATE: Surprising no one, Powerline disagrees.

1 comment:

N.S.T said...

You miss the much more important revelation of the article: Krauthammer's a Red Sox fan.