Denver-area churches decided that the official, government-sanctioned secularization of the Christmas holiday had gone too far recently when the city’s mayor decided to replace the traditional “Merry Christmas” banner atop the local City and County Building with a “Happy Holidays” greeting and the organizers of the local Christmas parade denied permission for a local church to participate. Christians around the city rose up in protest by descending on the city’s annual Christmas parade and sang carols emphasizing the Christian origins of the celebration, as noted in this surprisingly sympathetic account in yesterday’s New York Times.
“Like a spark in dry tinder,” the Times reported, “the result was a flare-up that caught even some church leaders by surprise. A holiday rite that had drawn thousands of paradegoers annually suddenly became a symbol, for many Christians, of secular society run amok.”
A December 4 Denver Post story reported that approximately a thousand people gathered to sing religious Christmas songs before the start of the parade, as a peaceful protest against the decision by the Downtown Denver Partnership, the private, nonprofit group that stages the parade, not to allow a local church, the Arvada, Colorado, Faith Bible Chapel, to have a float in the parade. According to a December 5 Denver Post story, the partnership had “cited a longstanding policy against overtly religious and political themes” in refusing to allow the church to have a float in the parade.
The December 4 Post story noted that local resident “Steve Schweitzberger carried a basket with a tiny baby Jesus doll inside that had a paper teardrop falling from its eye. The baby came with a sign that read, ‘It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to.'”
The Faith Bible Chapel, which seems to have had a large part in sparking the reaction, is led by a former Marine who served in Vietnam as a helicopter gunner, as the Times article reported. The article said members of his church described him as “not a man who likes getting pushed around,” a description suggesting him as a throwback to the nineteenth-century Anglo-American idea of “muscular Christianity.”
The Times article noted that the parade’s organizers promised to reevaluate their policies and said the event may never be the same.
An additional December 4 Denver Post story noted that smaller, local parades in Colorado Springs and Boulder were to take place that evening, with Christian groups well-represented, including a gingerbread Nativity scene on display in Boulder. The story quoted the director of the Colorado Springs celebration as saying, “We try to be inclusive and represent the entire community.… But you have to realize what is the vast majority of the community, and they need to be included, as well.”
AS THE COLORADO STORIES show, a liberal society certainly has room for reasonably inclusive expressions of its people’s religious faith, and it seems clear enough that a local Christmas celebration, with the community allowed, and not required, by the government to acknowledge and commemorate the essential religious nature of the occasion, definitely falls into that category.
Likewise, refusing to acknowledge Christmas in a sign mentioning the “holiday” season in a majority-Christian community naturally strikes Christians as a slight, and when the government is the one putting up the sign, it sends the majority of the public a very unfriendly message. In such cases, it is important to recognize that the maintenance of civil peace requires that a community reflect fundamental realities such as people’s religious beliefs, lest citizens come to see the government as an open adversary.
Even the Illinois American Civil Liberties Union agrees, to the point of recently saying that it’s all right for public schools to have overtly Christian Christmas carols in school activities, according to an article in yesterday’s Chicago Tribune. “Christmas songs about Christ are fine at this time of year, [IACLU] spokesman Ed Yohnka said,” the Tribune story noted. That sounds quite different from the position typically staked out by the national American Civil Liberties Union.
BUT NOT ALL THE news is good: a local suburban Chicago school, in a decision representative of policies in many schools across the nation, sponsored last week a very “inclusive” Christmas celebration that entirely excluded any mention of Jesus Christ, as documented in the Tribune story mentioned above.
Some muscular local Christians quickly raised a fuss, led by the Illinois Family Institute working with the national Alliance Defense Fund, and although the school’s district superintendent denied any intent behind the omission and “said his teachers did nothing wrong this year,” he added that “he would review the holiday programs next year to make sure Christians are not perceived to be slighted,” according to the Tribune report.
Obviously, much work remains for “muscular Christians” around the nation in ensuring that local governments don’t show disdain, accidentally or otherwise, for the most deeply held beliefs of the majority of their citizens. It’s interesting to see that the people we hire to run our public schools are in some cases more radical about excluding religion than even the local ACLU chapter is.
As the Illinois Family Institute and Alliance Defense Fund have observed, it is essential that the public hold these people accountable for their actions and make sure that the public schools’ programs and curricula truly reflect the beliefs of the persons who pay for this vital and highly expensive public service. Overall, a more sensible approach to state- and local-level church-state issues must start with the simple recognition that there is a big difference between establishing a coercive state religion and simply acknowledging and recognizing the religious beliefs of the vast majority of a community’s population.