Faith, not politics, keeps Christ in Christmas

December 22, 2014

By Charles C. Haynes
Inside the First Amendment 

     If you ask me, America's perennial turf battles over "Christ in Christmas" are about politics and power — and have little or nothing to do with authentic faith.

     Consider the Texas lawmakers who held a news conference earlier this month to remind people of their right to say "Merry Christmas" in public schools — thanks to the landmark "Merry Christmas law" they passed last year with great fanfare.

     The law isn't really about protecting speech (since students and teachers already have the First Amendment right to say "Merry Christmas"); it's about pushing back against the more inclusive "holiday" programs that are replacing the traditional Christmas celebrations in Texas schools.

     Meanwhile at the State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan, state officials have acknowledged — much to their chagrin — that the long-standing tradition of allowing Christians to put up a Nativity scene opens the door for other groups to put up their displays.

     As a result, this year's Christian Nativity scene at the statehouse will be displayed next to a satanic exhibit erected by the Satanic Temple.

     Behind these and many similar Christmas controversies is the cultural shift, from a country where government promotes the majority faith to a country where government levels the playing field for people of all faiths and none.

     Living up to the First Amendment — the constitutional requirement that government not take sides in religion — isn't easy after a long history of Protestant hegemony in the public square. The so-called "Christmas wars" are fueled by futile attempts to hold on to a bygone era.

     What many Christians will discover, if they haven't already, is that loss of government endorsement is gain of spiritual power. The lessons of history are that when state and church are entangled, both are corrupted. And when the two are independent and autonomous, the church retains its prophetic voice for justice in a broken world.

     Putting Christ in Christmas, therefore, is a task for the faithful — not for public school officials or state lawmakers.

     Christians should welcome, not curse, the proliferation of "holiday trees" and the cries of "happy holidays." If Christ is removed from the shopping mall "Christmas," so much the better for preserving and celebrating the birth of Christ.

     To my Christian readers, I wish you a blessed Christmas. To all those putting gifts under trees and expecting Santa, I wish you a Merry Christmas. And to people of all faiths and none, I wish you peace and goodwill in this season of joy and light.

Charles C. Haynes is director of the Religious Freedom Center of the Newseum Institute, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20001. Web: www.religiousfreedomcenter.org Email: chaynes@newseum.org.

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