[This article is from americanthinker.com of November 19, 2005.]
As the Christmas season nears, we can anticipate a flurry of news stories about townships here and cities there, all of which are trying their darndest to avoid the idea of Christmas. Some will substitute entirely nondenominational â€œwinter celebrations;â€� others will invoke Native American or Pagan spirits; others will do an ecumenical melange of celebrations by dressing Santa in a yarmalkah and Kwanza colors; and still others will take the joking way out, and do a Seinfeldian â€œFestivus.â€�
Each community, whatever option it chooses, will think itâ€™s properly complying with its First Amendment obligations. And each community, I believe, will be violating both the letter and spirit of the First Amendmentâ€™s freedoms of religion and speech.
The First Amendment is not complex. Its entire view on the nexus between religion and government appears in two short clauses:
â€œCongress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.â€�
Thatâ€™s it. (And of course, the Fourteenth Amendment extends this clauseâ€™s reach to State governments.)
It doesnâ€™t take a Ph.D in grammar or history to understand these simple words. The language, on its face, patently means that a branch of the government (federal or local) may not create a state religion. After all, when the Founders wrote this amendment, they were a â€œmereâ€� 150 years away from Henry VIIIâ€™s decision to create his own church â€“ with himself as leader â€“ and impose its primacy on all English subjects, whether they wanted it or not. Those who didnâ€™t want it suffered greatly (or emigrated to America).
Because Church and State were inextricably intertwined, disbelief was punished in the same way as treason: with death. Even when the death penalty become a thing of the past for therological infractions, dissenters, Catholics, Jews, Hindus, etc., continued to labor under profound social and legal disabilities.
Revolutionary Americans still labored under these same handicaps and, indeed, in Article VI explicitly ended the pernicious habit of requiring Church of England Sacraments â€“ or any professions of faith â€“ as a precondition for government employment.
The Founding Fathers therefore knew first hand, and through their own history, that religion, while an important social control, can, if co-opted by government, further tyranny. Itâ€™s scarcely surprising, therefore, that the Bill of Rights seeks to curtail the two religious sins the Founders knew a government can commit: our American governments cannot create a religion, and they cannot discriminate against any religion.
Significantly, these two government ukases are paired, in the same amendment with one of the greatest freedoms a government has ever granted its citizens:
â€œCongress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.â€�
I donâ€™t mention this clause here because Iâ€™m trying to tie civic Christmas celebrations in with free speech issues. I mention it because the Founders believed American citizens â€“ free citizens â€“ to be capable of a certain mental toughness that would enable them to articulate their own belief systems and, if need be, defend themselves verbally against systems with which they disagreed. Americans are not to be coddled in the land of ideas.
And yet that is precisely what is happening now with the Leftâ€™s relentless attack on banal civic celebrations of a generic American Christmas that has been, for decades, bleached of any religious sensibility.
Thus, I believe that the current attack on this American Christmas reflects the Leftâ€™s undemocratic impulse to suppress information with which it disagrees (the information in this case being about the existence of religion). The same impulse appears in the Leftâ€™s repeated attempts to prevent military recruiters from entering onto high school and college campuses, despite the fact that those schools rely heavily on federal funding. In the Left world view, studentsâ€™delicate sensibilities simply cannot withstand the wiles of a snazzily dressed Marine recruiter. Of course, the Left could be right, and our current generation, nourished on a steady diet of MTV and rap, really may not have the mental capacity to create or hold onto any deeply held beliefs. I, however, am not willing to accept that premise as true.
The inchoate, unspoken fear, then, that lurks behind the Leftâ€™s relentless attacks on Christmas is that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to see a department store Santa in a city parade or a cheesy creche under a tree by a courthouse, and is then going to rush off screaming to join the nearest church. This extreme fear may be unsurprising, of course, when you have the ACLU and (sadly) the ADL [Anti-Defamation League] busy painting America as the Christian equivalent of Saudi Arabia â€“ the same Saudi Arabia that makes it illegal to practice any religion but Islam , that recently sentenced a teacher to 40 months in prison and 750 lashings for praising Judiasm and the Bible, and that let school girls burn to death rather than risk having their faces appear on the street.
In a true democracy, there is a fine line between a majority that respects its minority sensibilities, and one that allows them to dictate terms to the majority.I wouldnâ€™t want to live in a truly â€œChristianizedâ€� society that would parallel Saudiâ€™s Muslim society: one where everyone must think and act and believe in the same way, and where those who canâ€™t or donâ€™t share those beliefs are mercilessly punished. But fearing a Saudi style theocracy doesnâ€™t mean we have to go the other way and allow the small number of active atheists to remove religion or, as with Santa, icons loosely based on religion, entirely from our world.
By the way, I know of what I speak, since Iâ€™m Jewish, and grew up during the 1960s and 1970s. In those days, there was nothing wrong with Christmas celebrations and Christmas carols at public schools. At school, I happily memorized the words to "Silent Night," "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," and "The Little Drummer Boy" without ever feeling insulted, coerced, slighted, humiliated, or punished. Indeed, the contrary was true â€“ I felt privileged that my Christian neighbors shared their holiday with me while leaving me to practice my own holiday in freedom and peace.
Bookworm is a lawyer and the proprietor of the blog Bookworm Room.