Beliefnet

We all know about the debate over the nativity scene and the cross. We have seen people on your side demand the removal of crosses from the city seal of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Will you go after the actual name of the town next?

But resistance to Supreme Court-approved secular symbols indicates something more than a desire to keep church and state walled off from each other. It indicates hostility to the religion if even the most distant secular symbols of one of its holidays must be banished. Please tell me: Why do you and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State have animosity to religion, specifically Christianity?

Barry Lynn: Are Conifers Christian?
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  • Dear John:

    I would never "slither" away from a question from someone who has characterized me as "pleasant," "well spoken," "kind," and "cordial." So, is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion? The answer is unequivocal: maybe.

    I hope we can agree on a few matters. Nothing in the Christian Bible invests any religious significance to pine trees. Although some maintain that Martin Luther actually decorated an evergreen as a religious act, the historical evidence is so flimsy that the tale is almost certainly apocryphal. The early Puritans right here in America did not celebrate Christmas as any kind of holiday: with or without trees.

    This year, however, certain Christian clergy have tried to answer your question for all of us by saying "yes." They have concluded that those lighted conifers are not just generically "religious" but affirmatively "Christian." How do we know this? As one example, woe unto the politician who does not characterize a needled tree in a public space as "Christmas" foliage, daring to consider it merely a "holiday" plant. When a Boston, Massachusetts bureaucrat (now rumored to be drinking eggnog in Siberian exile) put out a press release noting the then immanent lighting of a "holiday tree" in Boston Common, the Reverend Jerry Falwell issued a stern rebuke and the threat of sending some segment of his claimed 1550 "Christian" lawyers who have volunteered to "save Christmas" into town. Before any of us learned what they were supposed to do (find some "activist judge" to require a name change back to a "Christmas" tree no doubt), the Mayor of Boston corrected his staff and announced that there would be no alteration of nomenclature while he was governing Boston.

    So, John, apparently there are plenty of people on your side of the ideological divide who have imbued the severed but well-lit pines with "religious" significance. I remain unpersuaded. As you properly point out, so are the few courts that have commented at all on the controversy. Clever as your initial question is, it is not the heart of the issue.

    What is most important is that so many government officials have come to understand over the past decade that December is a calendar period where people of many faith traditions, including paganism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity, celebrate events of some level of significance (although not necessarily of identical value). This means that they want to be respectful of non-Christian faiths and try to be inclusive, not exclusive, when embarking on any "public" celebration of the season. Some governments go further and essentially have private parties put up whatever religious icons, symbols, or displays they choose on government land (sometimes referred to as a "limited public forums"), picking no favorites among religion or between religion and non-religion. This is certainly not "political correctness" gone amuck; it is a decent regard for the varieties of expression and belief in America, a downright positive value in the world in which most folks live.

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