- The Washington Times - Friday, December 24, 1999

''Peace on Earth. Goodwill toward men." Ahem, that is all very well for you to say. However, there are others at this "joyous" time of year who are not so peaceful. Nor are they secreting goodwill, if that is the way goodwill is manifest in this season of hustle and bustle.

We all have special charities and causes we attend to at this time to make the season joyous for all. It seems that practically every public institution has set up a charitable program for the poor. And there are those good souls who endeavor to assuage the sadness of the lonely and otherwise anguished at Christmastime. The term, Christmastime, has apparently become controversial. Yet it is the universal term for the period leading up to Dec. 25, and I do not use it invidiously. In fact I have great compassion for those Americans who find the term offensive.

Actually, it is the atheists and the agnostics for whom I have special solicitude at this time of year. As the Nativity scenes go up and the stars are placed atop trees and even public buildings, unbelievers compose my special charity. With all the pious hymns in the air and the religious emblems proliferating, they must be miserable. The good natured among them might be amused, but many are obviously irked. Certainly, the litigation brought against Nativity scenes and even against menorahs by the American Civil Liberties Union suggests anger and even intolerance.

How troubling can it be to be confronted by an occasional statue of Mary and Joseph and the Christ child surrounded by barnyard animals and three swarthy kings? Well, we know it troubles unbelievers. It is only a matter of time before the animal-rights activists get into the act and, who knows, perhaps even the occasional anti-monarchist among us. As the good cheer spreads, so do the lawsuits.

In the benevolent spirit of the season I urge that we extend an outpouring of goodwill to the atheists and agnostics. Imagine the disruption to their lives with all the bells ringing and the seasonal ornamentation. Think of how they must feel with their favorite radio stations broadcasting endless recordings of "Silent Night, Holy Night." By late December, even "Jingle Bells" must get on their nerves. After months of only hearing references to the Deity uttered in angry imprecations, suddenly it is the stuff of song and public declaration.

Imagine, there you are at the corner coffee shop in all your infidel splendor, drinking a cup of java and munching a Danish. Over the radio resounds Handel's "Unto you a child is born… . Wonderful… . Marvelous." You look up and some mischief-maker has strung a gold message of "Noel! Noel!" on the ceiling. In walks a child with a candy Christmas cane's colors staining his cheeks. There is a Salvation Army Santa Claus clanging his bell out front. No escape from the Christmas cheer is possible. Sure, the ACLU has been a big help with the Nativity scenes and the menorahs, but the essentially religious fragrance of the season cannot be extinguished.

What can we do to make Christmas more bearable for the sorely beset atheists and agnostics? Well, consider this. Christ was an individualist. He actually defended freedom and encouraged the great spread of freedom that originated in our civilization with the Greeks. The Jews kept the light of individual liberty burning, and Christ extended it. If it were not for Christ's proclamations of freedom and tolerance, our nation's unbelievers might all be chained in a dungeon or appearing before some cleric's theocratic court.

Many of Christ's more memorable parables are pleas for tolerance and justice. Note the Good Samaritan. Christ's Sermon on the Mount bespeaks the virtues of a humane society and opens the door for freedom of conscience. St. Paul in his exegesis of Christ's teachings and the fathers of the church after him elaborated on the Greeks' ideas of personal freedom and allowed for the notion of freedom of conscience. Surely, if the Nazarene were seated in the aforementioned coffee shop, he would take no pleasure in our atheist's discomfort. He might even turn the radio down.

Therefore, from Scripture our atheist and agnostic friends might look at Christ in a new light. Consider him a pal. I would not be so importunate as to ask them to accept Christ as God or even an aerobics instructor, but note that when properly applied his teachings have opened the way for free thinkers. Celebrate the birthday of the greatest libertarian of them all, my infidel friends. And let the Nativity scenes stand. Think freely.

R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is editor-in-chief of the American Spectator.

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