Holy Spectacle: It's That Time of Year Again

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Dec 24, 2007 12:01 AM
Holy Spectacle: It's That Time of Year Again

Ah, tradition! What would we do without it? It just wouldn't be the season without a squabble over religious displays on public property. By now it's as much a part of Christmas as holly and mistletoe, if not nearly so nice.

Forget that business about the still small voice. Religion in this blessed land, at least when it become entangled with law, inspires not silent devotion but loud contention. So it was only a matter of time before somebody objected to the nativity scene on the grounds of the state Capitol here in Little Rock.

This time the objection came from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, bless its heart. It's headquartered in (of course) Madison, Wis., which is the capital not only of that lovely if chilly state but of liberal - excuse me, progressive - thought in those cool climes.

This lawyer letter from Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of aforesaid foundation, came complete with the usual season's greeting in these confrontations, to wit, a not very veiled threat. If the State of Arkansas doesn't respond to her demand that it take Christ out of its official Christmas, or at least evict the Holy Family from the Capitol grounds, she said her group "would have to take further action."

The message was clear: Mary, Joseph, the baby, even the donkey and the wise men bearing gifts, plus a shepherd, a couple of sheep and the inevitable camel they all must go. After all these years, indeed centuries, there's still no room for them at the inn, at least if the Freedom From Religion Foundation has its cold-hearted way.

The nativity scene, says the foundation, "sends an unlawful message of endorsement of Christianity." Such language is par for the ill-tempered course. Why must the protesters in this all-too-familiar Christmas pageant pronounce upon the law as if they were judges? Couldn't they just write a polite letter? Or would it come too close to a religious act to show some grace?

Manners tend to sway us in these latitudes; threats don't. Indeed, they usually only harden us in our original course, which is what seems to have happened in this case. A spokesman for the Arkansas secretary of state's office promptly rose to the defense of the nativity scene with some equal but opposite legalese: "It's displayed on the periphery of the Capitol grounds. It's not in the Capitol building. It's just a part of the decorations celebrating all aspects of the holiday season." So relax, folks. It's OK. The Holy Family is just another decoration.

Interesting. Not necessarily convincing, but interesting. If I were handing down the judgment in this case, and thank goodness I'm not, the best argument against this Nativity scene's meeting current constitutional requirements would be its location on the periphery of the Capitol grounds - rather than smack dab in the middle of all the red-and-green jollity inside the Capitol building itself. For isn't the essence of the holy that it is set apart - and not just another part of the secular hubbub?

Arkansas once had a secretary of state who, defending a similar display on the Capitol grounds, explained that the state wasn't celebrating the birth of Christ; it was only celebrating Christmas. It's a cultural thing, see? Not a religious one. Ergo, it's constitutional. Desacralize the sacred and it's no longer a constitutional problem. (It's a much bigger one, namely a profanation of the holy, but secular law need not - and should not - concern itself with matters on that level.)

What an uholy spectacle. This is what happens when officials must satisfy the basic rule that the courts in their wisdom have laid down in such disputes: Religious displays on public property are constitutional only so long as they're not too religious, that is, so long as they are not a sincere expression of belief in a distinctive religious faith. Only if the symbol of one faith can be offset by symbols of others, or sufficiently profaned by the addition of secular symbols, may it be constitutionally kosher.

This is how we get those official extravaganzas every year in which a manger scene is squeezed in between Santa, elves, reindeer, candy canes, snowmen, and maybe an American flag or even a Razorback or two. Just add enough other stuff to the holy, and the holy isn't holy any more, and so may be displayed on public property. To sum up: The less tasteful, the more legal. Hence the public is treated to those mix-and-match Christmas exhibitions that cover every holiday at the winter solstice from Chanukah to Kwanzaa.

This kind of show can be expected whenever the always-aggrandizing State lays its hands on the holy for its own (educational, cultural, political and/or historical) purposes.

At such times, what Edward Gibbon said in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" seems to apply with at least equal force to the American republic, what's left of it in this mass democracy: "The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrates, as equally useful."

There's got to be a better way to respect both church and state. This hand-carved nativity scene at the Arkansas state Capitol is a labor of love, not of the state. It's put up every year by private citizens, not by state employees. So why not take the extra step and find a place for it on private property within viewing distance of the Capitol? Why not go by the spirit rather than just the letter of the law?

Going the extra mile, or a just few feet, to separate church and state might not be necessary legally, but it would be a way to further peace on earth and good will toward men - including those who irk us. Isn't that another inseparable part of the Christmas message, that He came not so much for the sake of the lovable but, most of all, for those who aren't? And don't we all stand in need of grace? Why not show some?