The dark side of the lights

Suzanne Fields

12/9/2004 12:00:00 AM - Suzanne Fields

Washington is ablaze with lights, and thousands of them twinkle on the Ellipse, an oval plot designed by Pierre L'Enfant 200 years ago as the back yard of the White House. When President Thomas Jefferson, mindful of the nation's egalitarian origins, heard L'Enfant's plan he said no, it was land that belonged to the people. He designated that it be used as a park for everybody.

Visitors to Washington can now see on the Ellipse the gorgeous national Christmas tree, which was permanently planted in 1978 and is decorated with tiny lights as the season demands. Not far away stands a 32-foot tall Hanukkah Menorah, which was lighted at sundown on Tuesday, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday known as the "Festival of Lights." Hanukkah celebrates the victory of a band of Jews, led by Judah Maccabee, over the Syrians in 165 B.C. that enabled the Jews to re-enter their temple in Jerusalem. The lamp in the temple known as the "everlasting light" had only enough oil for one night's fire, but miraculously burned for eight days, allowing time for more oil to arrive.

These popular icons of religious decoration - the tree and the menorah - are as much a part of the American culture as of the culture of Christians and Jews, brightening the dark winter nights with festive illumination. The lights lift the spirit and testify to the ways Americans live together, honoring different religious heritages brought to these shores by our ancestors.

They remind us that the animating spirit of the Judeo-Christian origins of our democratic government is alive and well despite attempts by those who quail at the very mention of God to eliminate all mention of faith in the public square.

One silly example of the misunderstanding of what separation of church and state means is at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, Calif., near San Francisco. Several parents complained when Steven J. Williams, a fifth-grade teacher who is an evangelical Christian, introduced President Bush's call for a national day of prayer as an example of a presidential proclamation. They complained again when the teacher led a discussion about the constitutional controversy over the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.

The school principal worried that the teacher, in citing public documents containing such words as "endowed by their Creator" and "divine Providence," was proselytizing for his Christian faith. She required that he submit the proclamations and citations for screening before he introduced them to his class. Then certain documents were barred from his classroom.

The offending papers were excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, the "Rights of the Colonists" by Samuel Adams, the "Frame of Government of Pennsylvania by William Penn, the prayer journal of George Washington and an article about currency and coins marked with the phrase "In God We Trust." If she thought this was "proselytizing," the principal has a poor understanding of both religious faith and the history of her country.

A lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund, a conservative Christian group based in Arizona, who filed a federal lawsuit on the teacher's behalf, describes the principal's attitude as typical of those who have an "allergic reaction" to any mention of God in the schools. That sounds about right to me.

"When it comes to these types of things," says Jordan Lorence, the lawyer, "the cultural norm seems to be that you are allowed to be hypersensitive to any mention of God in a public setting, no matter what the context is. Anyone who disagrees is just an ignorant rube from a hayseed red state."

There are lots of ignorant rubes in Washington and across the country, from states both red and blue, at this time of the year. You can see the proclamations of faith on their front lawns, in their windows and inside their houses as well as the public parks that belong to all of us. But some of us are growing increasingly intolerant in the name of "tolerance," denying children an understanding of the historical underpinnings of faith and the way it made America a beacon of religious liberty.

Aviva Kempner, a documentary filmmaker, is showing excerpts from her film about "The Goldbergs," a popular radio and television program 70 years ago about a Jewish immigrant family. In one of the film clips, Molly Goldberg, the Jewish matriarch, tells a neighbor about what "a smart man" her father was - he caught the boat to America. He crossed the seas for the same reasons the Pilgrims did, she says proudly, "to worship freely."

That's why we set lights ablaze everywhere this season. It's a shame when we turn them out in the classrooms in the name of ignorance.