Christmas Controversy and Holiday Tantrums

(Updated 31 Dec 07) 

As government officers and followers of Christ, military Christians have a uniquely personal interaction with the sometimes controversial relationship between church and state.  Even something as simple as saying “Merry Christmas” (see earlier post) can require consideration unthinkable in the civilian world.  For each situation, Christians should stand by their beliefs; however, they need not do so polemically.  For an interesting case study, consider some of the recent controversies (and responses) over Christmas displays:

Towns across the country have chosen to place nativity scenes, Christmas trees, and Menorahs on government property.  When lawsuits and other attempts to remove them have failed, opposing groups have “joined” what they could not “beat”–they’ve put up their own displays.  (It is worth noting that while the Constitution does not mandate “multi-faith holiday displays,” the courts have been least averse to conglomerated exhibits.)

In one town in Wisconsin [with thanks to the Religion Clause], a Wiccan pentagram surrounded by a wreath has been put up next to the nativity scene.  (It may be a sad irony that were the “pentacle” to be placed above the manger, it would be indistinguishable from the star of Bethlehem.)  The response to the addition?  From the person who advocated the nativity:

That’s pretty…I’m glad there’s something else up there.

A few years ago in New York state, an atheist put up the following sign near the town’s Menorah and nativity:

American Atheists Wish You a Very Merry Winter Solstice.

(Apparently, the atheist was attempting to make a non-religious statement to counter the tide of religion in the town, so it is ironic that he chose the winter solstice–one of the most widely religously celebrated events around the world.)  The local reverend’s response:

We’re Episcopalians; we’re very laid-back about stuff like that.

A “Pyramid of Freedom” was recently erected near a manger scene in Wisconsin by members of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which called the nativity

a violation of the very founding of this country.

The sponsor of the nativity “welcomed the group’s effort to express itself, as he did.”

My philosophy is the three C’s — don’t criticize, condemn or complain.  It’s about sharing fellowship.  If it’s all in a positive frame, so be it.

Also in Wisconsin, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has placed its annual contribution to the capitol’s “holiday display.”  Their sign reads:

There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but a myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

The back of the sign reads: State/Church: Keep Them Separate.  In a final irony, the organization that seeks to be “free from religion” responded to the theft of its sign by adding a phrase from the King James Bible: Thou shalt not steal.  (Perhaps they think religion is good for something after all.)  The response from State Rep. Marlin Schneider, who is also proposing that the “holiday” tree be renamed the “Christmas” tree:

It’s a free country, and [the FFRF] can put up whatever they want.  They have a right under the Constitution.

With respect to Christmas displays, Christians have occasionally resorted to lawsuits to prevent the restriction of free exercise.  However, once they secured that Constitutional right, most Christian law firms and advocacy groups have not sought to prevent others from taking advantage of that right.  As noted above, their response has been “let them come.”  They welcomed the additions of other groups as proof of Americans’ Consitutionally guaranteed freedoms.  Accusations by some groups that Christians are using Christmas to obtain a government endorsement of Christianity appear to be unfounded.  Rather, Christians have fought to prevent the restriction of religious celebration, even by groups other than themselves.

Undoubtedly, some individual Christians may express offense at a Wiccan pentagram near a plastic nativity scene, but a loving and gentle response–and using the opportunity to talk about God’s Gift to mankind–will do far more to further the cause of Christianity than an arrogant tantrum.  One prominent organization that is rarely friendly toward Christianity virtually reveled in relating a story of an innocent store greeter saying “Happy Holidays” and being verbally accosted with an acerbic “No, Merry Christmas!” from a probable Christian shopper.  Perceptions of Christians being confrontational, rude, or uncaring, whether true of the whole or not, do not contribute to the cause of Christianity.  While the motivations of other groups may not always be pure, a non-adversarial response silences the critics more quickly.

Speaking of tantrums, the quid pro quo of “holiday” displays brings to mind an interesting analogy.

At childrens’ birthday parties, it is often difficult to explain to very young children why they don’t get presents.  Most often, they’re told that it is a “special day” for the other child.  Some can’t (or refuse to) understand, and demand that they, too, receive personal attention.  Some parents give in and give them a small gift to quell the riot; others refuse rather than diminish the special occasion for the birthday child.  Youth and immaturity make one child demand the attention that is due the other.

It would be easy to point fingers at the Freedom From Religion Foundation–which doesn’t have a “holiday” in the Christmas season–in its child-like desires to detract from the “special” occasions of Christmas and Hannukah.  One could even argue that groups that demand that their displays be integrated near or with another faith’s are guilty of the same fault.  Still, the analogy applies to any group, including Christians, that demands an undeserved “place at the table.”

The Constitution allows, without moral judgment, Americans to have religious freedom.  In an ideal world, each faith (or non-faith) would be allowed their celebrations free of harassment from the others.  Since we live in this world, though, we will continue to have our mixed displays of nativities, Menorahs, pentacles, reindeer, snowmen, atheist signs, festivus poles (really), solstice announcements…

Military Christians should celebrate their religious freedom, and they should remember that other groups benefit from that freedom as well.  They should never compromise their moral beliefs, but they should respond to challenges to their faith with understanding, gentleness, and love.

A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.
– Proverbs 15:1

One comment

  • RE: It is worth noting that while the Constitution does not mandate “multi-faith holiday displays,” the courts have been least averse to conglomerated exhibits.

    The courts are averse to RELIGIOUS displays, whether the display is inclusive of many religions or not. The courts have ruled that a holiday display that is basically secular in nature (holiday tree, candy cane, santa, gifts, etc.) may contain a relgious element (nativity) IF the overwhelming effect is secular.

    The whole idea of setting up a “battle of the faiths” by encouraging a multitude of conflicting religious displays unnecessarliy entangles government in religion, and pits one faith against the other, leading to anamosity and petty vanalism. NOT a good way to enjoy the holidays.