Friday, December 02, 2005

No Room for Baby Jesus in the Inn, No Room for Him in Our Culture

“I am myself a dissenter from all known religions, and I hope that every kind of religious belief will die out.”

Bertrand Russell

I just finished poring over some interesting poll numbers just published by Fox News. Some of the numbers are eye-popping. Seventy-seven percent, according to the poll, believe that America’s courts have gone too far in their attempt to drive religion out of the public sphere. And, fifty-nine percent believe that “Christianity is under attack.”

The findings cut across political lines. Eighty-nine percent of Republicans believe that the courts have gone too far, as do seventy-three percent of Democrats and sixty-nine percent of Independents.

If you have further interest, just click on this hyperlink to the PDF file with all the poll information.

The poll, I think, reflects a growing recognition of what has been going on for years now. The assault on religion, Christianity in particular, and the public celebratory customs attending to religious belief, is nothing new. For example, while Nancy and I were celebrating Christmas in New Jersey, the thought police were afoot, enforcing anti-religious codes:

“In the latest manifestation of what Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition calls “secular fundamentalism,” the South Orange/Maplewood, New Jersey School District has banned playing the instrumental music Christmas carols.”

“In the early 1990s, the district prohibited the singing of Christmas carols. However, in an embarrassing oversight, bands continued to play “Silent Night” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.”

“Such gross insensitivity and incipient theocracy shall cease forthwith, the district’s superintendent decreed. From now on, the 40-member Columbia High School brass ensemble will be restricted to uplifting numbers like "Frosty the Snowman," according to the Newark Star-Ledger.”

In another case, teachers and officials in a Portland Oregon school found an offending child and saved the city of Portland from the offense of religion:

“Last year, a kindergartener at a school near Portland, Oregon was told he couldn’t bring cards with a religious message to a school Christmas party. When a teacher noticed that little Justin Cortez’s cards contained the dreaded J-word (Jesus), she confiscated the offending items and forwarded them to the principal who sent them to the superintendent. Thus was the school’s secularist early-warning system activated.”

While a significant majority of Americans believe the courts and, by extension, legal authorities have gone too far in secularizing America, some groups, so called “civil libertarians” say that they and the courts only want to protect all our rights. In 1999, the ACLU, attempting to address the concerns of young students, posted a series of questions and answers outlining their positions in some detail. To the question “Is it constitutional to teach religion in the public schools?” the ACLU’s answer was an emphatic “No!” “Can my school have a prayer at graduation?” “No!” “Is student led prayer constitutional?” “No!” Toward the end of the litany the ACLU found some room in their collective hearts for celebrating religious holidays in public schools. To the question of whether or not such celebrations are okay, the ACLU responded, “It depends.”

I suspect that, after listening to all of this, could only safely assume that religion is dangerous, counter-productive, anti-social, or anti-American.

For those who still believed that religion was something they were being denied the right to practice in public, the ACLU offered their support:

“If a school official has told you that you can't pray at all during the school day, your right to exercise your religion is being violated. Contact your local ACLU for help.”

But, don’t count on it. I’ve gone that route with one of the ACLU’s sister organizations, Common Cause, over an issue much like those being answered by the ACLU. I found that I’d have been much better off if I’d believed in a god who sat around on the rings of Saturn, wearing a grapefruit on his head, eating toasted cream cheese sandwiches than believing in Jesus Christ.

How on earth did we get to this point? According to Joseph Knippenberg, Sandra Day O’Connor may be the culprit:

“Back in 1984, she wrote a concurring opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, a case dealing with a publicly-owned crèche in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Speaking then only for herself, she argued that the essence of the First Amendment is that it “prohibits government from making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person's standing in the political community.” If, for example, the government in effect acts in such a way as to promote or “endorse” religion, it “sends a message to non-adherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

That gobbledygook raised an interesting question. How could one possibly know that the display of a crèche at Christmas amounted to government endorsement, leading Christians to assume they are insiders and non-believers are outsiders? Justice O’Connor had a ready answer for:

“The meaning of a statement to its audience depends both on the intention of the speaker and on the “objective” meaning of the statement in the community. Some listeners need not rely solely on the words themselves in discerning the speaker's intent: they can judge the intent by, for example, examining the context of the statement or asking questions of the speaker. Other listeners do not have or will not seek access to such evidence of intent. They will rely instead on the words themselves; for them the message actually conveyed may be something not actually intended. If the audience is large, as it always is when government “speaks” by word or deed, some portion of the audience will inevitably receive a message determined by the “objective” content of the statement, and some portion will inevitably receive the intended message. Examination of both the subjective and the objective components of the message communicated by a government action is therefore necessary to determine whether the action carries a forbidden meaning.”

Once you cut through all that you’ll find that the bottom line is that we need a judge in the audience, in some form or fashion, to make the determination for us. The net effect of it all is that, while the vast majority of us try to act out our religious faith in public, try to pray in schools or at graduations, display nativity scenes, sing Christmas carols with the word “Jesus” in them, the ACLU sues, and Sandra Day O’Connor gets to decide against religion.

We’ve come a long way since Justice O’Connor’s 1984 gobbledygook. Judges are now in firm control:

“Not surprisingly, this turns out to be a subjective process, yielding results that differ with each judge’s personal assessment of what the overall governmental message means. Are there secular images associated with the religious images? Are they comparable in size? Is their placement as prominent? Is the relevant site the immediate scene of the display or a larger geographic area? Are we talking about a small portion of a park, the whole park, or, for example, the entire downtown business district? Should we regard proximity to a public building as happenstance or design, endorsement or accommodation? As Justice Kennedy once noted in dissent, judges seem to be reduced to “using little more than intuition and a tape measure.”

All of this anti-religious parsing has brought us to where we are now. Everyone’s walking on eggs. There’s a fear that any religious words, religious sentiments, religious practice will bring an onslaught of lawsuits and judicial pronouncements. Yesterday, for example, Jonah Goldberg noted:

“Just this week, the Capitol performed its own minor Christmas miracle of transubstantiation. At the beginning of the week, House Speaker Denny Hastert unveiled a “holiday tree.” But a few days later, after some entirely predictable bah humbugs, he rechristened it a Christmas tree. (Similarly, when the city of Boston tried to unveil its official “holiday tree,” the premier of Nova Scotia, which had provided it as a gift, called it a nifty trick because “when it left Nova Scotia, it was a Christmas tree.”)”

“These miracles aren't exactly up there with keeping lamp oil burning for eight days, never mind rising from the dead, but they're pretty good for government work.”

I’d be willing to bet it won’t be long till Dennis Hastert is the target of an ACLU lawsuit.

It’s all pretty damned silly, if you ask me. We’re now obliged to heed the dictates of lawyers who, like medieval philosophers trying to determine how many angels can sit on the head of a pin or whether or not God can make something so big he can’t lift it, are trying so hard to be judiciously fair that only the rights of a narrow minority and the powerful are being served.

In all the years I was an atheist I never once felt that religious practice or celebrating religious holidays gave Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Confucians, or Hindus any special political privileges. I never felt I needed the ACLU or the Supreme Court to defend my right to disbelieve. I did it all without their help. I never once felt pressured in those days to believe. In fact, seeing religion practiced only re-enforced my belief system. It took an act of grace, an act of revelation, far beyond the power of the state to change my heart and mind. I suppose that might offend some, but better now, I believe, to have truth revealed to me by Jesus than to have “it” crammed down my throat by the ACLU and Sandra Day O’Connor.

In 1993, Dr. Stephen Carter wrote “The Culture of Disbelief.” There, on page six, are some words I believe the ACLU, anti-religious antagonists, and Sandra Day O’Connor would do well to read:

“One sees a trend in our political and legal cultures toward treating religious beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant, a trend supported by a rhetoric that implies that there is something wrong with religious devotion. More and more, our culture seems to take the position that believing deeply in the tenets of one’s faith represents a kind of mystical irrationality, something thoughtful, public-spirited American citizens would do better to avoid. If you must worship your God, the lesson runs, at least have the courtesy to disbelieve in the power of prayer; if you must observe your Sabbath, have the good sense to understand that it is just like any other day off from work.”

I doubt they will. I suspect that our culture will, for the foreseeable future, be in the grip of judicial tyranny masquerading as justice. If it keeps moving in the same direction it may not be long before we’ll all have to genuflect as we pass ACLU lawyers or Supreme Court justices on the street. We’ll have a new religion, with a signature prayer, the one originally penned by Ernest Hemingway:

“Our nada, who art in nada, nada be they name thy kingdom nada thy will be nada in nada as it is in nada. Give us this nada our daily nada and nada us our nada as we nada our nadas and nada us not into nada but deliver us from nada; pues nada. Hail nothing full of nothing, nothing is with thee.”

The only thing left after that will be the creation of a new god, one made in the image of its creators. Grapefruits and cream cheese, anyone?


Gone Away said...

Good article, Phil, as ever. I find it interesting that even in democracies it seems there are some matters too high for the people to decide. Thus in Britain there will never be allowed a public vote on whether the death penalty should be re-instated or whether Britain should remain a member of the European Community. It is far too well known that the great majority would disagree with the politicians in their attitudes in these matters.

Here in America it seems that the same principle holds true. I suppose that I should not be surprised that it is always Christianity that is the religion attacked; after all, this quite clearly predicted by its founder. What I do find surprising is that no-one ever points out that atheism is as much a faith as any other belief. Since its adherents make much of their belief (that I disagree with) that it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of God, their chosen stance as atheists must be an act of faith. Where then are the lawsuits regarding the display of secular (or atheistic) emblems in public places?

The deliberate misreading and misinterpretation of the US determination to keep church and state separate has led to the mindless folly of such groups as the ACLU. Let the people decide.

James Fletcher Baxter said...

"The evidence is simply overwhelming that prayer functions
at a distance to change physical processes in a variety of
organisms, from bacteria to humans. These data....are so
impressive that I have come to regard them as among the
best-kept secrets in medical science."

author Larry Dossey, MD

Test: Pray for unBelievers...MERRY CHRISTMAS!

dog1net said...

Excellent essay with much to consider. I had forgotten about Hemingway's revision of the Lord's Prayer. How apropos in light of the ACLU’s onslaught on Christmas.

Jay said...

Christmas has been transformed into an orgy of consumer spending and you're upset about this?


Craig R. Harmon said...

What makes you think Jesus wants a place in our culture? I think he's satisfied if he has a place in your heart.

I seriously doubt whether he cares whether the Ten Commandments are displayed outside or inside a court room. I think He's much more concerned with whether the defendant hears Him knocking at the door of his heart.

I doubt that Jesus cares whether students stand and say "under God" in a public school. I think He's more concerned that they stand and sing anthems to Him in Church on Sunday and play fairly with their schoolmates during the rest of the week, study hard their lessons, don't cheat on tests, lead chaste lives, respect their elders, say no to drugs, etc.

Do you seriously think that Jesus thinks it an attack upon him if a store clerk says, "Happy holidays!" rather than "Merry Christmas!" to their clientelle? I mean, why should store management risk pissing off non-Christian shoppers? Isn't Christmas a holiday that's covered under the generic "Happy holidays"? Why the offence? We're in the majority. It's not like "Happy holidays" is going to change Christians into pagans. Relax, people. The Church will survive this attack of secularism. Purhaps if we Christians depended more upon the verbal spread of the Gospel and the behavioral acts of good works to spread peace on earth and good will among men and depended less upon Christmas displays on public property and greetings in shopping centers, we wouldn't be so distressed by the ACLU.

Just a thought.

Phil Dillon, Prairie Apologist said...


It isn't Jesus I'm concerned with.

I have no problem saying Happy Holidays, but I'd also like the opportunity to say Merry Christmas.

I didn't cheat on tests on school, I also played fairly.

I didn't make any attempt to defend the words "under God," so I don't know how you managed to read that into your little litany.

Also, I can assure you that I do at least as much as "high minded" folk like yourself to spread the gospel.

I suspect I might feel a bit differently about it all if there were a lot more mean spirited Christians like you in the culture.

Craig R. Harmon said...

I'm not sure what I've said that makes you think me mean spirited, or why you think that you can't say "Merry Christmas", unless you are a store clerk. In that case, I think your employer might very well be concerned that "Merry Christmas" might offend non-Christmas. In that case he or she might be within her or his rights to insist on "Happy holidays". If you insist on "Merry Christmas", you are free to seek employment where the employer is more like-minded with you. If you aren't a store clerk, you are, I assure you, free to say "Merry Christmas" to your heart's content. Not even the ACLU will sue you. Personal expressions are protected first/fourteenth amendment speech.

I never suggested that you cheated on tests. Sorry if you thought that I did. I didn't. At least, I certainly never meant for you or anyone else to read me in that way. I merely was suggesting that I believe that Jesus is more concerned that students generally, not you particularly, do or do not do those things. Whether they be asked to stand up and say the pledge is, I suggest, a matter or indifference to Him.

I'm sure you do as much as any Christian, in word and deed, to advance the cause of the Gospel. Not knowing you from Adam, I wasn't trying to suggest otherwise. I was speaking generally. I was suggesting that it is silly to think of store managers insisting on "Happy Holidays", the ACLU insisting upon the removal of the Ten Commandments from inside or outside of Court rooms or court houses or religious displays on public property as 'attacks' upon Christianity that are likely to do harm to our religion. I suggest this for the reasons that I mentioned above. I stand by them although, again, I apologize for the personal offence that you have taken. Those offences were not meant.

Jerry Hanel said...


Very well stated. My wife is from Nova Scotia and found your post about that very interesting. She has met the Premeir of Nova Scotai, and mentioned that it sounded very much like him to be sharp-witted against the idiocy that "we Americans" (herself included) have adopted in these times to "not offend".

Very well stated, and keep up the good work.