WASHINGTON -- 'Tis the season for creche display controversies and public school decoration debates and First Amendment argumentation, when all the ideologues get a little extra outrage or victimization in their stockings. The holiday is observed across the nation with injunctions and festive debates on cable television. Little children wait in line at the mall to have their picture taken with Bill O'Reilly or the Rev. Barry Lynn. (That last part, to my knowledge, is not true, but it should be.)
This year's celebration is all the more poignant in the light of a fallen reality television star who manufactures duck calls and culture war imbroglios. Some liberals, it turns out, can act with the zeal of theocrats. And some Christians, it seems, hold a faith that more closely resembles the prejudices of Southern, rural culture than the teachings of Christ. (See the contrast -- the vast, cosmic contrast -- between the patriarch of "Duck Dynasty" and the current Bishop of Rome.)
These debates persist because there are often no easy or final answers. They are conducted on a slippery slope. Some forms of speech are rightly stigmatized. But tolerance is the virtue of permitting room for speech we think is wrong. Some public expressions of religion are inconsistent with pluralism. But true pluralism is a welcoming attitude toward all faiths, not the imposition of a rigid secularization -- itself the victory of one, dogmatic faith.
Ultimately all of these disputes resolve into an argument about power: Who has the ability to define and enforce the boundaries of the acceptable? In America, thank God, this is generally a legal and social disagreement. In other places, advocates evangelize with the gun or gallows.
Particularly in this season, what is most conspicuous about these disputes is their disconnection from the actual content of Christmas, which involves an alternative definition of power.
It is easy to downplay or domesticate the Christmas story. The whole thing smacks of squalor and desperation rather than romance -- the teen mother, the last-choice accommodations, the company of livestock. Whether or not the birth was accompanied by angel choirs, it was certainly attended by buzzing flies.