The Christmas Tree in the Place
Notre Dame--just because it is in front
of the Cathedral doesn't make it a
symbol of Christian faith
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret will repay you. (Matt 6:5-6)
It is like those people who in a communion line need to drop to their knees just to show the world that they take Jesus more seriously than the rest of us luke-warm believers who follow the established procedure and remain standing to receive. Nevertheless, even though I think the public displays of piety are indicative of a psycho-spiritual immaturity I want to defend Tim Tebow’s choice to publicly demonstrate his faith. Rabbi Joshua Hammerman recently attacked Tebow’s public religiosity making the ridiculous claim that it can lead to “insane things, like burning mosques, bashing gays and indiscriminately banishing immigrants.” Rabbi Hammerman retracted his statement and his column was pulled from the internet but the point had been made. There are a lot of people in our society that want to see religion banished from the “public square.” And this brings us back into the conversation about the crèche on the Courthouse lawn in Leesburg VA. By the way,lil’ ol’ country town Leesburg isn’t the only place having this dispute. Big ol’ California Gay Town Santa Monica is embroiled in it as well, but we will save that for future entries.
In looking at our Founding Fathers and the “Christian Nation” issue we need to differentiate between the “Public Square” and “The State,” or as we should call it for clarity—government. A County Courthouse lawn is not only public space, it is government space. A Courthouse lawn represents, symbolizes, like the Courthouse itself, the institution of government. The same can be said for a State Capitol (or the U.S. Capitol), government office buildings, the public lawns and chambers of official residences, embassies or other space where government functions. This can be differentiated from publically owned (but governmentally administered) spaces such as streets or public parks. Government space, I think, should be free of religious (or anti-religion) symbols. Public space, on the other hand, should be open to the public with equal access to all. I don’t think that a crèche or a Menorah or an atheist slogan belongs in government space but I also think it is wrong to bar Muslims or atheists or Buddhists from erecting displays where Christians or Jews are so permitted to place their symbols. There are those in our society who want religion to be restricted to the private sphere. They would maintain that there should be no public displays of any religious symbols. That is a restriction upon religious freedom. While there are some religious groups who themselves see religion as a private matter—Quakers, for example—and while there are religions such as Judaism whose rites are traditionally practiced in the privacy of home and synagogue, there are other religions, Christianity being one, whose rites are meant to be public and to attempt to restrict their practice to behind closed doors is to inhibit their religious freedoms. So Tim—I think you need to give Matthew 6:5-7 some thought, but if you want to showboat your religious faith I will defend your right to do so.
And before we move on from the subject of religious displays, there is need for one more clarification and that is between religious symbols and societal symbols. A crèche is a religious symbol, a “Christmas Tree” has nothing to do with Christian faith. “Christmas” is actually an amalgamation of two celebrations. There is a Christian holyday. A wreath with four candles, a crèche, a star, wisemen on camels, shepherds, Silent Night, a Saintly Bishop Nicholas, or a good king Wenceslaus—all these symbolize the Christian feast. There is also what anthropologists might call a “solstice celebration.” The days are getting longer; the spell of winter is broken. Christmas trees, candy canes, a fat man in a red suit with presents, strings of lights—these are about the solstice celebration. Now not everybody chooses to celebrate the solstice. That is a choice they make. They have no right to begrudge others having a glass of eggnog (or even getting snockered) while toasting the earth’s change of tilt. But celebrating or not celebrating the solstice is not the same as celebrating or not celebrating the birth of Jesus. There are plenty of people who don’t regard Jesus as anything more than pious fiction but who are into celebrating the solstice. Personally, I would like to find a way about celebrating the birth of Jesus without having to get trapped in the solstice thing. But don’t denigrate my religious faith by saying that a light-covered tree or an overweight elf represents my religious convictions. I don’t need to see the baby Jesus at the Mall but don’t scream because there is a Christmas Tree in the town square.