Not about the value and beauty of this holiday season, with all its many secular and sacred traditions, but about the political hub-bub that has come to festoon these weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.
I generally share Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee’s sentiment about Fox News’ annual festival of hand-wringing and chest-thumping. “Your show, Fox News, you’re too angry,” he told a shouting, red-faced Bill O’Reilly.
Dan Alexander, publisher of Denton Publications in Elizabethtown, is far more reasoned, thoughtful and temperate in his latest essay on the whole matter.
But he clearly endorses the idea that faith is “under so much fire today. But it’s clear the non-believers and atheists have chosen to draw a line in the sand.”
Yes and no. From the story Alexander tells in his column — which I urge you to read here — and from the narratives that inevitably accompany these debates, the issue isn’t really Christmas.
The issue is Christmas in government settings. Public schools, courtrooms, city parks. These are the places where non-Christians, atheists and civil liberties groups are, in fact, trying to draw lines in the sand.
More about that in a moment, but first some context.
Bill O’Reilly and Dan Alexander are — in their very different tones — absolutely right about one thing. America is changing. Dramatically. The age when we were all various stripes and brands of Christian is over.
These days, we are a truly motley bunch, espousing a thousand different faiths and non-faiths. People describing themselves as “non-religous” make up the fastest growing “faith” category in America.
Which means that new questions will inevitably be raised when, say, a public school in Arkansas organizes a class trip to a nearby church to see a play about Christmas — which is, after all, a holiday that celebrates the sacred birth of a deity.
Now it’s important to note that there have been times and places in the world where Christmas has actually been banned. Churches have been forcibly closed, bombed, or burned. There are countries right now where Christians face real persecution.
I have never met an American who would stand for that kind of behavior in this country. The idea of an actual war on free individuals practicing their faith on their own property and their own places of worship is unacceptable.
We have nothing like that now, that I’m aware of. Which leaves us with a pretty narrow, but still complex, important and hopefully civil debate.
Should the beautiful, wonderful trappings of this sacred holiday be presented on government property? How should school kids experience the Christmas season in classrooms and assemblies?
What part of the holiday is a valued American cultural tradition, and when might the activities of government employees be construed as the kind of proselytizing or evangelizing that might make non-Christians uncomfortable?
As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that thorny questions of this type aren’t entirely novel to our evolving society.
In the 1840s, New York state was rocked by protests and debates between Christians over what type of Bible should be read in classrooms — with Protestants and Roman Catholics pitted against one-another.
In those days, it was Bishop John Hughes who wanted to keep public schools from using the Protestant King James Bible when teaching religion to Irish Catholic immigrants.
“If the public schools could have been constituted on a principle which would have secured a perfect neutrality of influence on the subject of religion, then we should have no reason to complain,” Bishop Hughes argued.
“But this has not been done, and we respectfully submit that it is impossible.”
Bishop Hughes wasn’t “waging war on the Bible,” as many Protestants claimed. He just didn’t want taxpayer-funded public schools teaching a brand of faith to kids from his church that he was uncomfortable with.
This is the narrow, but still important conversation that continues today — and will likely continue as long as we are a free and evolving people.
Not a war over Christmas, but legitimate questions over how and when the trappings, symbols and messages of one particular faith should be taken up by government entities.