Special Report

The Bell Ringers’ Christmas Present

A Christmas message of freedom from a Pennsylvania minister and Paul Revere.

By 12.22.09

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The story begins just as you would imagine.

There's the minister. The bell ringers. And that iconic piece of Americana called The Mall.

In this case the minister is the Reverend Phil Cockrell, the minister of music and worship at Country and Town Baptist Church. The bell ringers are the handbell choir from Country and Town. And the part of The Mall is played by Capital City Mall, a piece of American malldom that sprawls over a piece of suburban acreage over the river and through the still occasional woods of the Pennsylvania state capital of Harrisburg.

You know what's coming here, don't you?

Reverend Cockrell and his musical flock have spent Christmas Past spellbinding shoppers with surefire controversial pieces like Silent Night and Joy to the World. For years. But as the Season approached and the chimes were warming up there was something different about Christmas Present. Explained the Reverend to the Harrisburg Patriot-News: "This year, we were asked to sign an addendum to the contract that we would only perform secular music."

Ahhh yes. The Addendum. But of course. To borrow a phrase, here we go again.

But wait! This time the story gets better!

Reverend Cockrell, displaying a wonderful American commitment to freedom, the telltale American trait called individuality and the stubbornly American refusal to do the popular thing simply -- refused.

"Our handbell choir has played traditional Christmas carols like 'Silent Night' and 'Joy to the World' at the mall for years," he said. And his response? "We said we couldn't abide by that."

Word spread. The story made the local news. One could feel the blood pressure of an entire community begin to rise. The Reverend stood his ground. And then…

"It has always been our policy and remains our policy to allow community organizations to perform the music of their choice in our center," said a mall spokeswoman who doubtless was surprised, as were her employers, to find the mall on the front page of the local paper. This was just a "simple error" in what the paper described as "interpreting the mall performance policy."

And? "We apologize for the confusion this has caused."

And?

At last report the mall is working with Reverend Cockrell to re-schedule the bell ringing choir's performance. There will be Joy to the World, or at least in this particular American slice of it.

What's to learn from this small episode of American life this Christmas season of 2009?

A lot.

First, the "War on Christmas" is not just some ratings ruse dreamed up by Fox News hosts. There in fact was a time in America -- in the living memory of many who are not old -- when the very thought of banning Christmas carols from a Christmas performance in a public space would have been thought of as bizarre -- if thought of at all. The mere fact that someone in the officialdom of an American shopping mall could even have such a thought in their head, let alone act on it, would simply never have happened. Turkeys would sooner be seen strutting on the moon.

And yet, there it was. Straight out of a book by Fox's John Gibson (The War on Christmas) or Bill O'Reilly (Culture Warrior). But there was something else too, and a very good something else.

Confronted with a refusal to allow his bell ringers to the traditional freedom to ring traditional Christmas carols, the Reverend Phil stood up and said, well, thanks for the invite, but no thanks. In other words, at the exact moment in his life when it was required of him to stand up for his principles, centuries old principles of freedom, which not so-coincidentally are at the very core of the country that allows the Capital City Mall to exist in the first place -- the Reverend Phil stood up. He refused to back down. Either the bell ringers would perform the Christmas music they are known for performing, music that by its very performance is a celebration of religious freedom -- or they would not perform at all.

Period.

As a direct result, in a shopping mall in the state where the Liberty Bell is literally physically enshrined, the Christmas bells of Country Town and Baptist will ring. And this year, they will ring especially loud and clear.

The message of those bells is not dissimilar to the rising tide of dissent against the politics of 2009. Large numbers of Americans, increasing by the day if one is to believe the polls, are, like the Reverend Phil, simply unwilling to stand by quietly and accept the loss of their freedom and liberty. One by one, they are willing to stand up and ring the figurative bells of freedom, to say yes to the core principles of that freedom, to fight for them in the principled fashion those principles demand. They are willing to take on directly the "politics of no" as it is now plain is the governmental agenda of the day. With thanks to the ever vigilant folks at the Heritage Foundation, here are but a few examples of the politics of no as run by the Dr. No's of the Obama administration and their congressional friends:

No, you can't choose your private health insurance without federal controls.

No, you cannot keep the federal government out of controlling the content of insurance benefit packages.

No, you cannot decide for yourself the use of medical treatments of your choice, or medical procedures and medical devices either.

No, you cannot stop the transfer of massive health care regulatory powers to the federal government.

No, you cannot reject the mandates imposed on your businesses by the federal government health care changes.

No, your importance as an individual does not count in your health care and you will be required to give up your freedoms in this area.

No, you cannot refuse to buy health care and will be forced by the government to do so.

No, you cannot refuse to have taxpayer funds used for abortion.

And one more thing. Yes, the government will be taxing you for getting a tan. Really.

As a result of all this and more no's -- no you can't run a car company without the government taking it over, no you can't refuse government money being injected into your bank, no you are not free to earn the salary you negotiate in a private and free market -- in a striking fashion, the American people are turning into a nation of bell ringers.

True to their history, to a nation where bell ringers for liberty are cherished whether they were the Pilgrims of 1620 or the Founding Fathers of 1776 or anti-slavery activists of 1860 or the anti-Nazis and anti-Communists of 1940 or 1980, Americans are standing up to make themselves heard. To ring the figurative and sometimes literal bells of liberty.

This is Christmas, not the Fourth of July. A religious holiday not a purely secular celebration. Yet whether it is the Christmas bell ringers of a Pennsylvania church in 2009, or those who rang the great, cast iron bell immutably linked to that original Fourth of July of 1776, the animating spirit behind both is unmistakably the same. And that spirit is making itself heard, once again, across the land.

In a season when the poem most often recalled is undoubtedly Clement Moore's 'Twas the Night Before Christmas there is another that is perhaps not only appropriate but a harbinger of the politics of 2010.

Paul Revere's Ride is the legendary work of the quintessential American and New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). Taught to schoolchildren who grew up in Massachusetts, memorized under fear of the teacher's wrath, it is the very symbol in verse of the American spirit that so instinctively surfaced in 2009. The poem closes this way:

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm, --
A cry of defiance and not of fear,

A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,

And a word that shall echo forevermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beat of that steed,
And the midnight-message of Paul Revere.

In this Christmas season of 2009, with the subject at hand the preservation of American freedom and liberty at home, with young Americans at risk around the globe defending that freedom -- and sadly at risk even on an American army base in the heart of America itself -- the poems of Clement Moore and Longfellow, messages both of freedom, are worth remembering. One, a simple, popular celebration of Christmas, the other, a celebration of the right that protects that celebration of Christmas.

That message has been delivered anew by a choir of Pennsylvania bell ringers and a minister, Americans who stood their ground in a small and almost unnoticed fight for the freedom to celebrate Christmas. And won.

Let freedom ring.

Merry Christmas.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.