In Washington a few years ago, the city was decorated with party animals. In this political town, the animals were elephants and donkeys. Artists, schoolchildren and almost everyone with a talented paintbrush decorated the animals with motifs of their choice: national monuments and heroes, flowers and fauna, or simply swirls of abstract color.
We had donated a sculpture in the front yard to a museum and wanted something to fill the empty space, so when the animals were put up for auction we bid on an elephant. The one we liked was silver with hundreds of nails embedded in its hide, like whiskers, reminiscent of an African custom where guests leave a hammered nail in front of the house they visit as a sign that they were there. We named our elephant Spike.
Today, Spike is decorated with tiny white light bulbs heralding the holiday season. Strollers often stop to photograph it, and some of them think it's a Republican symbol. Others see it as "nailing" the Republican Party. But the reason we bought an elephant instead of a donkey has nothing to do with politics. Dr. Freud would understand that sometimes an elephant is just an elephant.
I was thinking about the meaning of symbols this holiday season when controversy exploded over Mike Huckabee's Christmas commercial, with its "floating cross." While many insisted that the symbol was merely an illusion created by crossed lines of a bookshelf, others said the meaning of the cross was in the eye of the beholder. But nothing is ever coincidental in a candidate's campaign commercial. Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal writes that it insulted her intelligence: "He thinks I'm dim. He thinks I will associate my savior with his candidacy. Bleh." For many who aren't Christians, it played as pandering to a constituency and manipulating a religious symbol. Many voters in Iowa are evangelical Christians, the caucuses are only days away and the commercial is regarded as the most memorable so far.
My problem with Mike Huckabees advertising himself as a "Christian leader," making the cross glow as backdrop, is that he's making the religious issue divisive toward all those who are not Christians. It's a division that will linger after the holiday season. The Huckabee rhetoric is especially offensive to Jews, playing to the mentality expressed by Ann Coulter, who describes Jews as needing "to be perfected by becoming Christian." When asked whether "it would be better if we were all Christian," she answered "yes." This is the message of the Gospel -- that everyone must be perfected through Christ's sacrifice on the cross -- but it's a message for the church, not a political campaign. A campaign is not a revival meeting.