T Nation

Christmas, Religion and Government

Interesting article from the Wall Street Journal a few days back – I tend to think that the Establishment Clause jurisprudence has gone much too far in the direction of interpreting any expression as “establishment,” and has done so at the expense of the Free Excercise Clause. Anyway, good observations in the article. Belated Merry Christmas.

WITHOUT STATE SUPPORT

Christmas and Christianity
Why religion remains a mainstay of American culture.

BY JAMES Q. WILSON
Friday, December 24, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST

Americans are buying Christmas gifts at a record rate and competing to see who among us can string the most lights and decorations on their suburban homes. Lots of people send out Christmas cards that make no mention of Christmas and contain, not a personally signed note, but a printed name. Meanwhile, virtually every business firm announces to its friends and customers that they should have, not a Merry Christmas, but a Happy Holiday or enjoy Season’s Greetings.

The Columbia High School brass ensemble was not allowed to play Christmas carols at its annual concert and the mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologized for mistakenly calling his December celebration a “Christmas party.” He should have called it, he said, a “holiday party.” Many school districts have banned the playing of Christmas carols. Various department stores have put up Hanukkah but not Christmas displays because, they wrongly suppose, the former contains no religious message but the latter does.

It is small wonder that Pope John Paul, watching lucrative holiday business and the de-Christianizing of Christmas, should have been a bit disturbed. He cautioned Christians against getting caught up by materialism. Christmas is, after all, about the nativity scene. Charles Krauthammer recently wrote that the “attempts to de-Christianize Christmas are as absurd as they are relentless,” absurd precisely because the United States is already the most religiously diverse and tolerant society in the world. But despite being diverse and tolerant, America is also filled with religious people.

Let me suggest that there is a link between religious freedom and the size and vigor of most American churches. We are more religious than any European state precisely because in this country there has never been a national church against which to rebel.

Matters are very different in Europe. The English were dismayed by the constant struggle between a nationally supported Catholic church and a nationally supported Anglican one, interrupted by a brief period of Puritanical rule.

The Scandinavians, when they came under the rule of Social Democratic parties, were expected to dismantle their state-supported churches, but instead they chose to make them instruments of their new welfare states governed by state-managed bureaucracies. The Swedes eliminated all religious qualifications for serving on church boards, so that, as Professors Rodney Stark and Roger Finke have pointed out, control of the Swedish state church has passed into the hands of atheists.

Since the French Revolution in the 18th century, the government has worked, with some ups and downs, toward state regulation of churches. An appointment to be a Roman Catholic bishop must be approved by the government, and an organization called the Observatory of Cults oversees “dangerous” religious groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and other evangelical movements. Messrs. Stark and Finke argue that state control, however weak, leads to a reduction in church affiliation.

There are European exceptions to this pattern. In Poland, the Catholic Church grew in membership and influence because it was an important part of the effort to get rid of Communist rule, and in Ireland the Catholic Church became more important as part of the struggle against the political legacy of the Potato Famine in the 19th century.

But in general, there has been in Europe very little that resembles the First Amendment to the American Constitution. Here, where the free exercise of religion is guaranteed and there is a ban on laws “respecting an establishment of religion,” there has never been a national church. Without one, there is no enemy to defeat, and so there has never been a political reason to either rebel or become secular.

In this empty space of religious freedom aspiring ministers compete for adherents. The more skilled the ministers and the more demanding the benefit of becoming an adherent, the more people join them. As a result, mainline Protestant churches, lacking both evangelical zeal and a deeply meaningful religion, have lost the struggle for members to fundamentalist churches that recruit members and expect a lot of them.

This fact worries many people in the Blue States just as it pleases many in the Red ones. Those who are alarmed by the extent of religious belief in this country have roused themselves to make the so-called wall of separation between church and state both higher and firmer. In insisting that we describe our late December holiday as having nothing to do with the birth of Jesus, in fighting to keep every nativity scene away from any government property, by arguing that our freedoms will be compromised by any reference to Christianity, they have succeeded only in intensifying religious beliefs among the great majority of our people who are angered by these assaults.

They would be well advised to let matters alone. We have been a free country even though “In God We Trust” is printed on our dollar bills, even though sessions of Congress begin with a prayer, and even though chaplains paid for by our tax dollars are part of our military forces. Our freedom does not depend on eliminating these acknowledgments of the power of religion; it relies instead on the fact that for many generations we have embraced a secular government operating in a religious culture.

That embrace will be weakened, not strengthened, by silly attacks on religiosity, stimulating the spiritual to question the seriousness of people who profess a concern for civil liberties.

Our Christmas buying habits are a sign, not of materialism, but of ordinary commercial activity undertaken in pursuit of profound human sentiments. The Pope said that the message of the Christmas tree is that “life is evergreen.” It symbolizes giving, not simply or even chiefly material things, “but the gift of yourself.” We acknowledge the importance of family and friends and draw the ties among us a bit tighter by using gifts to highlight the value we attach to others. Most of us do not seek to enrich others with our presents but to make evident the strength of our affections.

Merry Christmas to everyone.

Mr. Wilson is the author, inter alia, of “The Moral Sense” (Free Press, 1997).