James Madison once observed that mankind is inclined to disagreement, and even “the most fanciful and frivolous distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions.” Take the perennial conflict over public observances of the Christmas holiday, which pit radical secularists against Christians and those who support religious liberty. According to a recent Rasmussen survey, 68 percent of Americans prefer to hear someone wish them a “Merry Christmas.” Yet a war on Christmas still rages, as what Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter once called the “culture of disbelief” seeks to snuff out public expressions of faith in God.
Like modern-day Grinches seeking to steal Christmas, bureaucrats and judges regularly step in to silence even the most benign holiday celebrations. In Arkansas, a local school district initially deemed a community theater group’s production of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” an inappropriate play for students to be exposed to on a voluntary field trip. In California, a seniors apartment complex banned the display of a Christmas tree in its building despite a public outcry from the tenants. Also in the Golden State, the city of Santa Monica cancelled a decades-old tradition of allowing nativity scenes to be displayed in December after it was hijacked by atheists who put up protest displays. Atheists in Illinois, upset over the traditional display of a cross during the Christmas season, have successfully squelched the custom this year. Threatened with expensive lawsuits, a school in Hawaii has canceled its annual Christmas charity concert.
In every case, otherwise benign Christmas traditions have been banned because of the pleadings of a few who claimed they were offended, as if the Constitution guarantees that no citizen will ever experience offense. In truth, by enshrining freedom of speech (including speech of a religious context) in the First Amendment, the founders guaranteed we would be offended regularly by the publicly expressed views of others. It’s called liberty.
Worried that the mere public display of a Christmas tree or students hearing Linus tell Charlie Brown the Christmas story would violate the Establishment Clause, detractors claim any public religious observance is unconstitutional. I support the disestablishment of religion and the separation of church and state, which originally was a Baptist idea to protect the church from the state, not the other way around. Properly understood, it should not prohibit a public Nativity display or require that a Christmas tree be rebranded in Orwellian fashion as a “holiday” tree.
Christmas is under assault despite its being celebrated and honored by the overwhelming majority of the American people. It has reached comical proportions, including the diluting of Christmas observance by lumping it in with other holidays under the rubric of “winter festivals” or the embracing of fictional holidays such as Festivus. A Nativity scene in Florida recently saw the addition of a Festivus pole among the wisemen and sheep. It’s no wonder we haven’t been able to find peace in the season. This made-for-TV “holiday,” literally about nothing and seriously embraced by no one, is seen as having an equal role in the winter season and being deserving of recognition, while Christmas, among the most sacred holidays celebrated by more than 2 billion Christians worldwide, is increasingly frowned upon and ridiculed.
As Christians and Americans, we must continue to defend our right to express our religious beliefs, not to the exclusion of others, but as an expression of the central meaning that faith has given to our own lives. Christmas, after all, isn’t ultimately about fir trees, Charlie Brown and Santa Claus. It is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, the Lord and Messiah. His birth, life and public ministry are historic facts, with as many eyewitnesses and verifiable historical chronicles as Plato or Aristotle. No wonder 76 percent of Americans think the season should be more about Jesus than about elves or a jolly old man in a red suit.
Let this be a reminder that even when we find ourselves as Americans at odds over what right we may have to express our faith in the public square, Jesus came to bring great joy and good news to people everywhere. So this year, wish someone a Merry Christmas.
Ralph Reed is chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition.