Sunday, November 19, 2006

Happy non-denominational winter solstice event

Last week there was a funny segment on The Daily Show where Jon Stewart pokes fun at the whole "war on Christmas" thing. I think his satire here is spot-on; the whole "war on Christmas" (obviously a sub-battle of the whole "war on religion") is a farce by people who confuse defensive pushback with offensive attacks.

Let me start small with the Christmas angle. There was a big debate last year certainly (and in other years) about various stores trying to "banish" Christmas by having their employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." Many people felt that this was political correctness run amock, or else saw larger anti-religion overtones in this, and thus felt not only offended by the use of the term "happy holidays" but also that the minority was again ("again" is a funny word to use here, since it presupposes prior legitimate examples) running roughshod over a majority.

But I think this point of view is erroneous for several reasons:
  • I have yet to hear a tale of someone taking offense or filing a lawsuit or a formal complaint or whatever because somebody else wished them Merry Christmas. (Heck, I'm Jewish and I have no problem with it, and I wish people Merry Christmas myself at this time of year.). Yet many people were proposing boycotts of stores for using Happy Holidays. This makes the notion of the minority oppressing the majority tenuous at best.
  • The stores that said Happy Holidays inevitably were filled with red and green inside; there was absolutely no evidence of Christmas being ignored or banished. (And I might argue that that such materialism alone, not the greeting used by the employee, is a far bigger and truer "banishment" of Christmas.) Best Buy this year provides a recent example of this.
  • If you are a shopkeeper know that many of your customers are Jewish or Muslim or whatever, why wouldn't you want to be as welcoming and inclusive as possible?
  • It's a free country, last I looked. Nobody is forcing anybody to say Happy Holidays, so why can't they choose to say what they want?

And at the same time, lots of folks say Merry Christmas. That's fine too. (Other than the fact that Christmas is a holiday that seems to last for a month and a half of the year. But I digress.) While we're on the subject: it's a Christmas tree, not a holiday bush or any other euphamism. The tradition of decorating a tree this time of year is essentially exclusive to Christmas, no harm in calling it that.

So how or why the Happy Holidays/Merry Christmas debate ever became an issue escapes me; it seems to me that it's only an issue, frankly, if you're a religious Christian who can't bear the acknowledgment that there are quite a few non-Christians in the country. Fortunately, most Christians know and behave better.

But there's the larger issue of the "war on religion" that I hear about a lot from my conservative friends who decry the lack of school prayer, or the display of religious symbols in public, or attempts to remove "under God" from the pledge of allegience.

This is an issue where perspective is everything, I think. Take organized prayer in school, as the most glaring example. From the perspective of a religious person, banning organized prayer may seem like outright hostility (rather than neutrality) towards religion. But to a non-religious person - or someone from other religions - such prayer clearly crosses the line to imposition of religion, or at the least a demand that government somehow endorse a religion in particular or religion in general. Yet the defensive pushback to that imposition is viewed as an offensive attack on religion.

School prayer may be the most effective tool in highlighting this, but I think all of the other "hostility to religion" issues fall into the same basic model.

As a side note, the whole notion of not displaying religion in public I think also reflects a subtle but critical distinction in meanings of the word public. "Public" displays by private individuals or groups has always been and (fortunately) continues to be perfectly acceptible. But "Public" can also mean "owned or operated by the public", i.e., government, and this is where neutrality towards religion must be enforced.

I believe in the first amendment. And I have no problem acknowledging that the founding fathers were all Christians, some of strong faith. But that doesn't change the fact that the country that they founded was quite deliberately set up to be a secular government in which religious people could thrive; the first amendment makes that abundently clear to me. And it's worked quite well to keep government out of anything religious.

Religion belongs in the home and in the heart, not in the government. For a perfect example of why, just look at almost any country in the Muslim world that has embraced Islam as a basis for its government. I say that not to slam Islam, but most off the governments that explicitly embrace religion are Islamic and collectively these governments and societies provide ample evidence that government and religion are not a compelling mix.

I have absolutely no problem with PDR (Public Displays of Religion). I have absolutely no problem with religious people of any faith practicing, embracing their religion, or letting it guide them. I have no problem with politicians being guided by their faith - quite the contrary, I think that's quite healthy. But there is a huge difference between being guided by faith and demanding that your government get out of the way of your practice of it, and demanding that government embrace your religion.

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