The spirit of Scrooge is alive and well

A marketplace of religious traditions and ideas is far better than a cold reality devoid of cheer altogether.

Six weeks ago, while the majority of University students were frantically preparing for final exams, finalizing holiday travel arrangements and hurriedly finishing last-minute Christmas shopping, the spirit of Ebenezer Scrooge was hard at work across the country.

Local governments, school boards and legions of the politically correct set out to eradicate bloodcurdling Christmas carols from public schools, dismantle menacing manger scenes from public squares, pull Christmas floats from public parades and prohibit any public mention of the most horrifyingly offensive holiday on the calendar, Christmas.

A few specific and particularly absurd examples are illustrative. Recently in New Jersey, the South Orange-Maplewood School District saw fit to ban all religious music from its annual “holiday” concert. Only secular songs such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Winter Wonderland” were allowed by the board.

Similarly, the Woodland School District, in Illinois, ordered its bus company to ban playing any and all Christmas music on its school buses. Only after an outcry from the community did the school board change its policy. Still further, Denver’s Parade of Lights flatly prohibited all religious groups from entering floats in its annual parade. The private sponsors fittingly denied entry to a Christian group while admitting the Two Spirits Indian group, which considers homosexuality holy.

The absurdity goes on. The mayor of Somerville, Mass., recently issued an official apology after a city news release accidentally used the “C” word to refer to Somerville’s annual “holiday” party. Still more extreme, Pasco County, Fla., officials saw fit to ban all Christmas trees from their public buildings. Finally, at perhaps the most absurd end of the spectrum, Target decided to throw the Salvation Army bell ringers (and their millions of charitable dollars) off their front stoop this year.

The rationale for the censorship and privatization of Christmas is typically two-fold. Government entities commonly cite the First Amendment and “separation of church and state” as a bar to any entanglement with Christianity. In contrast, private entities, largely unconstrained by the First Amendment, hang their stance on a fear of offending those of a minority belief. Both arguments are weak and deserve to be challenged.

For starters, and as discussed in my earlier column (“Religion and politics inseparable,” Oct. 28), the First Amendment’s establishment clause does not mandate a strict separation between church and state and in no way requires states, cities or school districts to completely whitewash all religion from their curriculums, programming or displays.

Any notion that Christmas displays, the singing of religious Christmas carols or mere use of the word “Christmas” in a school calendar constitute an “establishment of religion” is laughable. The First Amendment was meant to proscribe only the federal formation of an ecclesiastical authority, the national institution of denominational creeds and/or the payment of federal taxes for the benefit of a particular denomination.

The founding history abounds with examples in which the first Congress, made up of the very individuals who drafted the establishment clause, ordered Bibles with taxpayer dollars, funded chaplains, held prayer over their meetings and used government buildings for worship services. The singing of “Holy Night” at a school concert or use of a Christmas tree in a city display pales in comparison with historical practices approved by the framers of the First Amendment.

While legal arguments are commonly cited, the more legitimate argument made by the secular zealots is normative. The common assertion is that state and city governments, school boards, businesses and individuals should operate and communicate so as to prevent offending minorities. This is a fine moral principle in the abstract. There are many situations in which it is better not to offend someone than to offend that particular person or group.

The problem is the politically correct principle is currently used to subvert all others. The highest end of public action or discussion is no longer a vibrant and free exchange of ideas, but rather the maintenance of feelings which are supposedly irrevocably damaged upon the sight of a Christmas tree. The thought of a Jew, Muslim or atheist walking past a nativity scene in the city square is so unbearable that society’s solution is now remove the displays altogether.

In doing so, society minimizes the profitable marketplace of ideas that has long characterized this country.

Minority “offense” might simply be a necessary trade-off of a free and open forum. We must begin to ask ourselves whether it is truly more desirable to have a gray public life devoid of religious tradition and discussion, with the possibility of minority offense, or a colorful free exchange of multiple religious ideas, the necessary corollary being that members of minority faiths might need to come to grips with the very fact they are in the minority.

Religious pluralism and the freedom to publicly exchange religious ideas is a national virtue that makes the United States great. It’d be a shame if a small minority were able to hold that virtue hostage.

Bryan Freeman welcomes comments at [email protected]