A new battle line has been drawn in the church/state debate over an unlikely source — “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
A spinoff from the beloved Peanuts comic, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first prime-time TV special based on the trials and travails of Charlie Brown. 50 percent of American television households tuned into the first broadcast in 1965. Today, the animated classic remains a staple of Christmastime entertainment on both TV and stage alike.
One such stage adaptation recently became the center of a church/state conflict in Arkansas. The Terry Elementary School in Little Rock had organized a voluntary field trip to see a matinee of the show at a local church this month. The Arkansas Society of Freethinkers caught wind of the trip and threatened to sue the school for violation of church/state separation.
The Freethinkers objected not only to the location of the field trip, but also to the play’s religious content. “A Charlie Brown Christmas” opens with Charlie Brown telling his friend Linus about his disillusionment with the Christmas season. As the story progresses, Charlie is increasingly upset with the consumerism and commercialization he sees all around him, from his dog Snoopy’s participation in a Christmas decoration contest to his sister’s request to Santa for lump sums of money. To comfort himself, he takes over the management of his school’s Nativity play, but even there he finds his classmates focused on the wrong aspects of the season.
He goes to find a Christmas tree to include in the play’s scenery, but when he brings back a very small one, all the children laugh at him. He asks himself whether he even knows what Christmas is all about, and Linus responds by quoting some verses from the Gospel of Luke about the birth of Christ. Charlie’s classmates are moved by Linus’ scriptural recital, and they follow Charlie home as he leaves with the tiny tree. The show closes with them singing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” around the tree. The story’s message, then, is that the true meaning of Christmas isn’t presents or decorations, but the birth of Christ, and the love and solidarity that event continues to inspire.
It was precisely this aspect of the Charlie Brown story that the Freethinkers objected to, arguing that a public school cannot take a field trip to a church to view a play with a religious message. Terry’s principal stood behind the outing, but Happy Caldwell, the pastor of the church hosting the play, decided to keep peace by canceling the show.
This particular conflict has been resolved, but it re-opens questions that will continue to play out in our culture. What are the standards by which we can tell if an event or work of art is too religious for public school field trips? Would it be wrong, for example, for a public high school to offer a voluntary field trip to an art exhibit focusing on the religious paintings of Michelangelo and Tintoretto?
In the meantime, it seems a shame that in a society drowning in consumerism, a play that offered a little perspective should fall prey to the culture wars.