Gaski: ‘On Church, State, Christmas and Liberals’

December 15, 2014

For the use of the membership only.

by John F. Gaski, Ph.D.

Once again, as is becoming a tedious ritual at this time of year, our country’s legal and political institutions are wrestling with the “separation of church and state” — or at least one highly visible aspect of it. This particular struggle even has a name: “the war on Christmas.” In the spirit of the season, I have some questions for those who believe that such subversive displays as public Nativity scenes and Christmas trees, or even the Christmas holiday itself, constitute an intolerable commingling of church and state.

The birth of Christ is celebrated as a national holiday, a federal holiday, just as the births of George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr. So why is the public representation of one national honoree, Jesus Christ, more objectionable than publicly displayed images of others, such as Washington and King? Why can’t such Christmas displays be interpreted, justified and accepted in terms of their established secular aspect, which is the commemoration of a significant historical event and figure, rather than anxiously construed as an official endorsement of a specific religion? Is the federal celebration of Protestant minister Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday also to be considered a governmental endorsement of the particular religious organizations he represented (including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference)?

Recognition of the civil orientation of the Christmas holiday, and a bit of wisdom and toleration, would obviate the need for bizarre legal remedies now undertaken, such as those based on the ratio of religious icons to the number of non-religious icons such as snowmen, elves and reindeer in a public display. Yes, the courts have actually mandated such formulae.

For some, however, that does not go far enough. Numerous public schools now prohibit even Frosty the Snowman decorations and candy canes because they are “Christmas symbols” and therefore somehow construable as relating to religion. A transparent motive for many schools is the justifiable fear that the American Civil Liberties Union or the Freedom From Religion Foundation will levy a lawsuit against them.

One recent ridiculous attempt at repression in public schools and municipalities has been to forbid any reference to the very word Christmas. Schools now have “winter breaks,” during which students can sing “holiday carols” and shop at “winter sales events” at stores in which employees who utter the phrase Merry Christmas are subject to discipline, even up to termination. There seems to be no limit to these tortured attempts to avoid the C-word: One TV talk-show host closed out a recent episode with the salutation, “Happy holidays of your choice.”

Again, the quest for “balance” has at times turned to the bizarre. In December 2008, the Freedom From Religion Foundation secured permission to post an atheist plaque next to the Nativity scene at the Washington State capital that read, “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Keep in mind that this was an officially sanctioned plaque next to a display commemorating a legal, federal and state holiday. Imagine the outcry if some outfit dared to flaunt an anti-civil-rights plaque next to a display commemorating Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.

Ever sensitive to the anti-Christmas trend, craven local governments in Philadelphia and Tulsa have gone so far as to ban use of the phrase Christmas tree. In 2012, Lincoln Chafee, the governor of Rhode Island, made a public fool of himself when he expressed his belief that the “establishment clause” in the Constitution makes it illegal for government employees to utter the words “Christmas tree” (he insisted on calling it a “holiday tree”). Memo to Chafee: Christmas is a legal, federal and state holiday. Oh, and the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees our right to freedom of speech.

Even the federal government, for a while, took to calling the national Christmas tree “the people’s tree.” And in a new twist, dramatizing their incoherence, some jurisdictions in the Northeast and south Florida do allow, and in fact promote, Jewish and Islamic religious symbols — while the prohibition against Christmas symbols is retained and enforced.

How far have we as a nation fallen? Scarcely more than a generation ago there was a nationwide movement to “put Christ back in Christmas.” Today, such a sentiment would be inscrutable to those Americans who have only experienced the mania to get Christ out of Christmas. At the risk of being tautological, it must be emphasized that as long as Christmas remains a legislated federal holiday its elements should be legal.

Naturally, the question becomes one of whether a national holiday to memorialize the birth of the founder of one of the world’s major religions is constitutionally permissible in the first place. The fact that those who are pathologically preoccupied with extending the “separation doctrine” toward maximum intolerance of religion are not crusading aggressively for the decommissioning of Christmas as a legal holiday might reveal the depth of their hypocrisy. The day such advocates recommend the cessation of any and all forms of government handouts in relation to Christmas — and a paid national holiday certainly qualifies as one — will, indeed, be the day that Hell freezes over. But you do know that day is coming, don’t you?

The logical conclusion to this extreme, if erratic, anti-religion movement is abolition of the federal Christmas holiday itself, or at least renaming it and banning all public use of its traditional nomenclature.

Once Christmas is abolished, Thanksgiving will be the next target, given that holiday’s explicitly religious origin and concept. Recall that the Easter Bunny has already been targeted by liberals in Minnesota. No joke. In 2006, St. Paul’s human-rights director, Tyrone Terrill, ordered a toy rabbit, pastel-colored eggs and a sign that read “Happy Easter” removed from the lobby of the city-council offices because he feared that those colorful, innocuous representations of spring might be “offensive to non-Christians.”

What inevitably lies ahead is a secularist iconoclasm that removes all Christianity-tinged symbols from government venues. Images of the Ten Commandments, Moses and General Washington at prayer will have to be eradicated from the National Archives, the Library of Congress, the Supreme Court building and the Capitol. The congressional chaplain will have to go, as well as “In God We Trust” from currency and coinage, and “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.

This is indeed a vast endeavor. To leave no stone unturned, the Political Correctness Police ultimately will have to require that all the crosses be removed from Arlington National Cemetery and other military burial grounds. (The previously cited inconsistency suggests that they may experience dissonance while digging out the monuments featuring the Star of David.)

This lunatic fringe would do well to ponder a thought-experiment: Suppose some religious cult decides to worship George Washington. (It’s not as farfetched at it might seem: The rotunda of the U.S. Capitol building, after all, is home to a fresco titled “The Apotheosis of Washington,” which depicts our first president as a celestial figure seated in glory in Heaven.) In such a case, would federal, state and municipal displays of Washington’s likeness then be unconstitutional? Would all official public references to our first president have to be suppressed? Yes, if one wishes to be consistent. Alternatively, the politically correct resolution might then be to balance Washingtonian imagery with the proper proportion of nationally recognized secular iconography such as flags, eagles or dollar signs.

Continuing with this speculative scenario, a natural counterargument might be that public reverence for, and symbolism of, an apotheosized Washington would remain philosophically tolerable because his civil contribution and status preceded his (hypothetical) attainment of the status of “holy man” (as indeed many Americans saw him upon his death). But then suppose it is discovered that Mormon patriarchs Joseph Smith and Brigham Young had been employed by the federal government prior to their religious work. (Young actually was a public official later in life.) Consistency would dictate the legality of publicly sanctioned displays of Mormon icons, but not those of any other religious body, thereby establishing a quasi-official state religion as an ironic artifact of attempting to separate church and state.

Or is this whole exasperating exercise just one more manifestation of how the liberal mentality, so typically self-contradictory, is driving this country crazy by inciting irrational, perverse and downright silly public policies? The perversion, in this case, is to transmogrify the separation doctrine beyond its original meaning of non-support for any particular religious denomination. The aforementioned conceptual convolution exemplifies a familiar result of liberal policymaking, along with necessary efforts to disentangle its unintended consequences (per the doctrine of the same name) — that is, cleaning up after liberalism’s mess. Such has been this nation’s unfortunate task for decades, as it has now become in the realm of religion.

Merry Christmas to all.

John F. Gaski, an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is an associate professor at the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame. A longtime but former registered Democrat, he is the author of Frugal Cool: How to Get Rich — Without Making Very Much Money (Corby Books, 2009). His essay is reprinted with permission from the December 2014 issue of the New Oxford Review.

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