Is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion?
It's an important question, and I would expect a significant exercise in slithering from you as you respond to it. It's not that you're not a pleasant fellow, or well-spoken, or kind and cordial. You are, in fact, all of those things, but you are also one of my favorite interlocutors on this subject because of the exact trip-wire embedded in the above question.
As the leader of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, you are a dogged advocate of the rule that education about religion in schools is ok, but celebration is not. At least I think you have laid out such a rule many times.
It is a rule that many who are both secularists and religionists agree with, until the issue is raised: What is celebrating? What is celebrating the Christian religious holiday, Christmas? Is a Christmas tree a religious celebration? Is Santa Claus? Is the word "Christmas"? Are the colors red and green? I'm not certain about the word and the colors, but I believe you would assert that the Christmas tree and the Santa Claus are in fact religious symbols, and they therefore must not be present in schools.
Let me remind everyone that these symbols have been declared secular, and thus entirely permissible, symbols of Christmas in places like schools and parks and public libraries where the issues of separation of church and state so often seem to arise.
You declare a higher standard by focusing not on what the symbol is but how it is used, and you have asserted to me in at least one broadcast debate that both the Christmas tree and Santa Claus in a public school would be a celebration of religion, and therefore impermissible.
You and your organization are not without influence. I have no idea of the actual numbers of school districts that still maintain a "Christmas break" on the school calendar, but it must be a rapidly shrinking number. In many schools, the Christmas break has morphed into the winter break, as if kids in school stay home to celebrate winter with their families.
The Supreme Court has ruled that a religious symbol may be used in a public space if there is a secular purpose. The National Association of Boards of Education, based in Washington, D.C., says the reason there is a Christmas break is the simple fact that there are so many Christians in this country who would be taking time off for Christmas that there would be very few students or teachers left in school. The secular purpose of having a Christmas break, and calling it that, is recognition of the practical reality that the majority of students and teachers would be absent.
Nonetheless, in school districts far and wide, Christmas break has been replaced by winter break. Why? Pressure from people like you. Threats of litigation from your former colleagues at the American Civil Liberties Union, the real muscle behind the anti-Christmas movement.
You will say there is no war on Christmas, but you know that isn't so. You and your fellow secularists haven't held news conferences on the Capitol steps demanding Congress abolish the federal holiday on December 25, called Christmas. That would tip off too many people what you're up to. Instead, you go to school boards, librarians, park supervisors, and city hall managers and tell them that the Supreme Court of the United States requires the removal of that Christmas tree.
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?
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.
On "Santa Claus," I did suggest on a radio show with you that if the "Santa" described in a chapter in your book allegedly (and I realize the facts are still in dispute) roamed the halls of a public elementary school asking children whether they knew the real genesis of the holiday (something he knew a lot about as the pastor of a local church in his non-Santa time), I thought parents were right to complain about this as a separation of church and state issue. Contrary to your suggestion, this does not mean that I think that every 21st-century Santa out with children on knee explaining how he might not be able to deliver on every wish (like the X-Box 360) is a promoter of religion.
Now, about this "war" on Christmas. I travel a great deal. I have been in about 10 states recently, including such diverse places as Las Vegas, Nevada, and Boise, Idaho, Los Angeles, California, and Akron, Ohio. Only those with expensive earplugs and multiple blindfolds would not know there are a lot of people celebrating something called "Christmas" and that it appears to have a fundamentally religious base with a serious encrustation of commercialism. The "war" you, the Religious Right, and your colleagues at the Fox News Channel are discussing daily is apparently a mighty flop if the evidence of celebration is the standard for success or failure.
Has any government employee ever gone a bit too far in stopping a legitimate constitutionally protected private expression of religion? I'm sure that we could all find a few. But a few isolated incidents in a nation of hundreds of thousands of public schools, municipal governments, and other governmental entities does not prove there is a campaign to abolish Christmas or to isolate its celebration to some modern-day catacombs. There is no cabal of "anti-Christmas" activists who visit some isolated island each summer, or even gather at "Starbucks," to plan how to upset people like yourself.
I must wrap up this first missive (actually to do some Christmas shopping if you must know), but in our follow-ups I'll try to set you straight on how the "myth of the Christmas war" spreads and why this false claim is actually harmful to our nation.
You are a very clever opponent, but I must insist on a straight answer to the basic question: Is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion?
I don't mean to be tiresome by repeating this question, but it is crucial, and here's why: Celebration of religion in school would be impermissible under the general rule you and I both subscribe to, which is simply that education about religion is ok and celebration of religion is not.
Most Christians do not recognize a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus, or the colors red and green or the word Christmas itself as religious symbols. And neither does the Supreme Court of the United States. So when you have school districts, public parks, libraries, and city halls declaring these secular symbols to be religious, there is a reasonable suspicion that they are doing so out of hostility to the religion related (distantly related) to these symbols, and that animosity or hostility is itself unconstitutional, as government is barred from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. What could be a greater inhibition on the practice of religion than to have a government official in a school or a park or a library or a city hall sending a message that a certain religion is not welcome because some people are offended by the presence of even secondary symbols of that religion?
Christmas is celebrated, observed, or participated in by 96% of the country, according to various recent polls. Only 84% self-identifies as Christian. So one would conclude that a sizeable number of non-Christians still observe or participate in Christmas. Of the 84% of the county who self-identify as Christian, only about half go to church every week or month, and for the other half Christmas might be the only time of the year they observe even a tangential holiday of their religion. Together these groups make a very formidable opponent, and it is curious the secularists of this country would want both the Christian religionists and the Christian secularists joining together to oppose them in a fight over the festivities of the Christmas season.
Of course, politicians are reclaiming the "Christmas" tree from the "holiday" trap. Their constituents have noticed what is going on, and they think the "inclusiveness" of "holiday" has morphed into excluding Christian symbols and words. It's a big majority, and the majority would like to have their holiday without having an organization founded by a guy who thinks the ACLU wusses out on Christianity telling them they have to stifle themselves. I am, of course, referring to you and your organization, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Sure there is a War on Christmas. It is an insurgency, and the insurgents will not win, but it is a war nonetheless. The problem is people like you, Barry. That's because you and your group are so rigid about what you see as unconstitutional mix of church and state, that you regard any mix as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court is not in agreement, and I wish you would take the court's leadership, if for no other reason that by doing so you will help quell some of the outrageous and dangerous amateur constitutional lawyering that is going on in places like school board offices and city halls.
But Barry... I don't blame your personally. You continue to be a nice person, a gentleman, and a fine interlocutor on this subject.
And Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Bountiful Kwanzaa, Magnificent Eid, a great Diwali, and don't forget to rub Buddha's belly.
For good luck.
I fear you are missing the forest for the "Christmas trees!"
You insist that I revisit the question "Is a Christmas tree a celebration of religion?" I gave you one fine answer: "maybe," but I can see you need another one. Here it is: "It depends who you ask."
As I noted in my last letter (I'm writing to you more often than to Santa), courts don't consider "lighted evergreens" to be religious symbols as such. Personally, I have always tried, as a Christian, to decouple our family gift-giving from the religious significance of the season (rejecting the "wise men gave gifts to the baby Jesus, so we will give you toys" analogy). But, obviously, if a city-sponsored tree lighting is accompanied by a priest's blessing (as recently occurred on Long Island), he would seem to be making that ceremony "religious." Indeed, some of those commenting on our little exchange here also attribute some Christian religious message to those trees.
But, John, the big issue is not about trees. I have never sued to have one taken down and shredded into pine mulch. However, I am still trying to figure out why you think a public school or a city council is being "hostile" to Christianity if it does call a tree something else-the awkwardly named "holiday tree" or the "tree of lights." What possible injury is caused by using a word other than "Christmas"?
Do you believe that Christianity, survivor of genuine persecution from the days of the Roman Empire to today's Communist China, is going to fall apart over some perceived snub by the mayor of some town in New Jersey? You must be kidding.
On the other hand, just a few days ago on your syndicated radio show (how's that for a plug?) you told me how upset you were that schools were generally labeling the school break in December a "winter holiday" instead of a "Christmas" hiatus. This too seemed to lead you to conclude that little Susie would be deprived of some religious experience when she had to bring home the school calendar on the first day of class and saw no reference to "Christmas." If you are correct that 96 percent of Americans somehow recognize Christmas, the last decade of school calendars that used the term "winter break" must not have broken up the spirit of the season.
Now, let's get back to the forest. The forest of America contains 2,000 different faiths and 20 million freethinkers, a rich biodiversity of theological and philosophical viewpoints. Unfortunately, a relatively small band of members of the Christian faith seem insistent on being officially, and always, on the top of the hill. We might call them "Christian Holiday Triumphalists." They are not about to ever let another faith even come close to getting the acknowledgment their faith receives. If it is December, this is the time to celebrate "Christmas," not anything else. They know that they are in the majority, and whoever dares to mess with them will feel their wrath.
Some of them are more good-humored about it than others. A fellow called me on "The Michael Medved Show" and asked me if I didn't realize that every time someone says "Happy Holidays" an elf dies. On the less pleasant side, an e-mailer wrote me: "I hope you die soon. Merry Christmas."
This "we-must-win" attitude is not harmless. It runs counter to one of the great traditions of America and indeed one of its constitutional foundations: Governments don't promote one religion over others or religion over non-religion. It is strictly neutral, not hostile to anyone. One of the most disturbing implications in your last post was that public events might somehow convince the half of self-described Christians who don't go to church regularly to show up for Christmas. Whatever else politicians do, one thing they must not do is encourage (or discourage) church attendance.
Just a couple of quick corrections: I did not start Americans United (it was first directed by a fine Republican law school dean back in l948), nor have I ever suggested that the ACLU "wussed" out on any legitimate religious liberty issue.
Fa la la la la,
I have delayed my reply, trying to calm down after one of your subordinates called me a "liar" on my Fox News Channel television program, "The Big Story," today. He is Rob Boston, whom you suggested as a replacement when your schedule would not allow you to accept a booking to appear on my television program, "The Big Story," on the Fox News Channel.
Your Mr. Boston said he had researched my book and found the incidents I reported were lies. That is itself a lie, or if not quite a lie, then a willful ignorance on the part of your substitute guest that comes close enough to lying.
For the record, every story in my book, "The War On Christmas," was vigorously researched and double-, even triple-checked. If there is any mistake of fact, it is only because some parties, like the Plano School District, would not take the time to speak to me, to answer my questions. I spoke to every person quoted in the book, quoted them accurately, checked the facts and obtained the documents.
Yet Rob Boston of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, comes on my show, calls me a liar, and then admits-reveals-he has not read the book, is not familiar with what I reported, and has no facts to back up his charges against me.
And this is what the debate on the war on Christmas has become: rhetorical thuggery. And you, Barry, are complicit by sending out your goons to fill in for you in what would otherwise have been a civilized debate.
I see what you have said in your last reply to me. All that stuff about Christian triumphalism is fine cocktail-party discussion, but it has nothing to do with the law. You seem to be saying that if a Christmas tree is a religious symbol to anyone (the "offended observer" again) then it has to go. Says who? Not the Supreme Court of the United States.
My point in all of this is that we are a nation of laws, and the law protects secular symbols of the Christmas holiday. Christmas trees are protected. They don't have to be called holiday trees in public places. Santa is protected. He doesn't have to be banished from public places. Why are they protected? Because the nation's highest court has found them to be secular symbols.
So why is it your organization, and others, continue to insist these are religious symbols? Is it because you want to go beyond the law or because you are lawless?
In your personal case, Barry, owing to our civil discussions, I would say it is because you want to go beyond the law. That is a fine position to take, but no one is required to take it with you.
My guess is that you don't like losing this argument. That is why you sent out someone willing to lie to take your place in a debate.
When that happens, I must say I am done with the discussion. It is time for me to declare victory and go home to celebrate a very Merry Christmas. I hope you have one as well. As for your Mr. Boston, that is another matter entirely.
I regret that our final exchange must focus on parsing the contents of your recent shoutfest (more difficult that doing biblical exegesis) rather than continue our previously meaningful discussion about this topic.
Since you raised the issue, let me clarify some facts: I was taping a few segments for ESPN's "Frankly Speaking" while your show was on, something scheduled three weeks earlier. I do not "hide" from anyone. I did not "send" Rob Boston to your show. I do not decide what guests you have on your show; your producer booked him rather than, say, asking me to come on one of the next two evenings if you wanted to talk to me personally. It was not like your claimed "war" was going to reach a truce on Wednesday at midnight!
As you know, Americans United had issued a brief report on 10 phony claims being made this year by a variety of individuals and groups; we did not issue a report on your book. You in fact know that some of the claims made by individuals on the very network you work for are false. I believe as a network anchor you have a professional and ethical responsibility to correct even people in your "family," including any crazy aunts in the basement (as Ross Perot used to say).
I have watched the tape several times. Mr. Boston does not even mention your book until late in the segment. He says that claims by the Alliance Defense Fund are "lies" and that certain claims made by your colleague Bill O'Reilly are wrong.
Your big meltdown came in discussing a series of incidents that may or may not have occurred in Plano, Texas, mainly involving the colors red and green. As you wrote in your previous comments to me, school officials there would not talk to you. Rob and I choose to believe the positions we have heard from Plano officials. Frankly, once your shouting began on that segment, neither I nor anyone else watching the program could even figure out what you thought Rob was misrepresenting. You yelled that you never alleged green and red clothing was banned, but then followed it with a claim that Plano told students not to bring "red and green stuff and parents to the party." Did you mean parents couldn't be red or green (so few of us come in those colors) or that they couldn't wear red and green?
You claimed that Mr. Boston called you a "liar," but you baited him into confirming the characterization. I have been a talk show co-host with the best in the business, including Oliver North and Pat Buchanan. If you basically ask a guest to call you a liar, don't be surprised if he does. That's in the "Talk-Show Hosting 101 Manual."
You even had a guest on the show supporting your position who wanted to weigh in on your side about Plano and you humiliated him at least three times by screaming at him to "pipe down"(twice) and to "stop" (once). And since we are on the topic of etiquette, you probably should not have had your producer call Mr. Boston later in the evening during your radio show and then get on the phone and proceed to tell him that you hope you never encounter him in a bar. Threats made by talk-show hosts about bar fights with their guests merely contribute to the already-pervasive public opinion that talk-show hosts rank only barely above clowns in the entertainment hierarchy.
But back to the main issue: My points in prior messages are not "cocktail party" arguments. They are real-world ones. I have come to the conclusion over the past few years that it is the Fox News Channel that does not live in the real world, or even report on it.
You know, in all our exchanges, I have no idea what if any religious beliefs you have. But I suspect I will not offend them if I conclude with a "Merry Christmas." And don't worry about your gifts; Santa watches CNN and didn't even see your show on Wednesday.
Yours in peace for the season (and its many holidays),