During the Christmas season, we as Christians hope to focus on the coming of Christ. We can do this individually by preparing a place for Jesus Christ in our hearts, and we can do this within our communities by sharing the gift of Christ’s love with others in our lives.
At the same time, as Christians we need to be aware that during the Christmas season, and throughout the year, there are also groups that are attempting to remove references to Christ from our public culture: from our schools, from our town squares and from the celebrations carried on around the Christmas holiday. Let’s look at these efforts to remove Christ from the public celebration of Christmas and discuss how we should respond–with a spirit of charity, and with the goal of being effective.
History of Religion and Government
To understand the current debates on the public role of Christ in Christmas it is important to look briefly at the history of the relationship between religion and government in our nation. The framers of our Constitution wanted to both protect the freedom of individuals to practice the religion of their choice, and to prohibit the government from establishing a state religion. The 1st Amendment to the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”.
Since our nation’s founding, various groups and the courts have debated the meaning of government not establishing a religion, while also maintaining the free exercise of religion. Our courts have come to an agreement that the “Establishment Clause” isn’t violated when government pays for sick patients to receive care in religious hospitals, and pays for students to receive an education in religious schools. The courts’ rulings often focus on whether individuals are forced through government action to participate in a religious endeavor, reasoning that if individuals are not forced or compelled, then the Establishment Clause is not violated.
Christmas and the Establishment Clause
Some believe the Establishment Clause is violated when Christ is mentioned or depicted in Christmas celebrations within public schools and on public property. Over the years, groups have challenged the actions of cities and states in presenting Nativity scenes on public property, and having Christmas carols sung within public schools. Since the 1980s, various Supreme Court rulings have in general outlined that religious symbols and songs within public schools and on government property do not violate the Establishment Clause if they are presented as part of our cultural heritage, where the religious display or reference is one of several religious choices and / or non-religious references, reflecting the diversity of our nation (see references for Supreme Court ruling in the Resources section).
A Nativity scene by itself, though, in a town square would likely be ruled by the courts as violating the Establishment Clause for promoting one religious belief and promoting religion in general. However, exhibits containing a Nativity scene along with other faith communities’ symbols and non-religious holiday symbols have been ruled as acceptable and not violating the Establishment Clause.
Looking at a recent example in a school setting in Salt Lake City, Utah students at West High School began to prepare for their annual Christmas concert tour. The group sang both non-religious and religious songs. One student named Rachel then decided that it was unfair to her that she be forced to sing songs that celebrated the birth of Christ. So she decided to sue the teacher who led the choir, the school, and the state of Utah. Rachel and the organizations that supported her, argued that since she didn’t believe in Christmas, singing songs about it restricted her religious freedom.
An advocacy group and legal foundation, The Becket Fund , came to assist the teacher and the school in defending the right of the teacher and students to sing Christmas songs in their concert. The Becket Fund wanted to defend the principle “that religion is a valid part of our culture and our heritage, and that the Constitution does not require us to pretend that it isn’t.” The Becket Fund agreed with the majority of parents that it was a case of defending public school students from anti-religious censorship. It argued that such censorship was against true freedom of religion .
The Becket Fund and West High School also argued that Rachel was not forced to join the choir. Religious freedom meant that the students, who chose to sing, should be able to sing Christmas songs at Christmastime. Furthermore, the Becket Fund argued, there were a mixture of Christian Christmas songs and other secular, holiday melodies included in the concert. The 10th Circuit Court ruled that the school was allowed to have a Christmas concert and include Christmas songs that mentioned Christ. The court pointed out that Rachel “had a choice whether or not to sing songs she believedinfringed upon her exercise of religious freedom.” In this way, the free expression of religion of the other students and the teacher at West High school was protected.
Rising to the Challenge of Secularism
It’s important for us as Christians to respect the rights of others to follow different faiths than ours, or not follow any religion at all. But, it is also important that we defend our own rights to practice our faith and to not allow some groups to eliminate religion and Christianity from our public life. This endeavor to remove religion from our public life is a form of secularism. As we have seen, a certain amount of separation between the government and religion is right, such as the government not establishing one religion as our country’s “official religion”. However, intolerantsecularism , which seeks to eliminate any references, celebration or acknowledgement of religion in public life carries great risks.
Our nation’s founding fathers often spoke and wrote about how religion, which did not impose itself on others, was a great advantage for our new nation in helping our citizens to develop the virtues necessary for democracy to succeed. Virtues such as respect for others, tolerance for others’ views, willingness to sacrifice for a larger good, charity toward others, are all effectively taught through the Christian faith and other religions. If we were to eliminate religion from public life, then we would send to our children and citizens the incorrect message that religion is more of a personal matter that has little impact on the public good. Over time, this cultural demeaning of the value of religion would harm us as individuals and harm our nation.
This Christmas season new challenges have arisen. Initially, the Christmas tree in front of the U.S. Congress was renamed a “holiday tree”. Fortunately, the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert, led a successful effort to change the name back to the Christmas tree. This type of secularism that tries to publicly rename a faith community’s symbols shows a lack of respect for the culture and tradition of others.
In some communities and schools, officials are afraid of a legal challenge if they present anything religious in school activities, or present religious symbols on public property. In these instances, we need to effectively state the truth that religion is a part of our heritage that should be celebrated, and to remind our communities of the great benefits that religion offers to us as individuals and to our nation.
Joyfully Live the Reason for the Season
In addition to raising others’ awareness of taking Christ out of Christmas, we can also look within ourselves to deepen our own observance of Christmas. Simple things like making a point of earnestly wishing others a “Merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays” can go a long way in moving us as individuals, and our culture at large back to Christ. Focusing on the religious Christmas traditions such as prayers by the Nativity set or Advent wreath at home, instead of shopping for example, will also help us center our hearts and minds back on Christ. Finally, ramping up our acts of charity can help us to grow in love and generosity during Advent and the Christmas season.
The forces of secularism will likely always be with us tempting us to take God and religion out of our public life. Our challenge is to maintain our vigilance, identify when these challenges arise, and be effective in countering them. Sometimes we need to mobilize our talents and resources in defending our rights in the courts. More often, we need to make our views known within our local communities and schools that it is important to keep God and religion in our public life, for our own good and the good of our nation. And always, we need to strive to more completely and courageously live out the love of Christ, which will bring the most hearts and minds to Him and keep the focus on Christ in this Christmas season and throughout the year.
“She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
So do not be ashamed of your testimony to our Lord, nor of me, a prisoner for his sake; but bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.”
(2 Timothy 1:6-7)
“So they called them back and ordered them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. Peter and John, however, said to them in reply, “Whether it is right in the sight of God for us to obey you rather than God, you be the judges. It is impossible for us not to speak about what we have seen and heard.”
(Acts 4: 18-20)
“A just laicism allows religious freedom. The state does not impose religion but rather gives space to religions … and therefore it allows these religions to be factors in building up society.”
(Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Now Pope Benedict XVI) interview with La Reppublica 19 November 2004)
“…despite being steeped in a rich Christian heritage, (these countries) today face the pervasive advance of secularism. …. This loss of a sense of God … leaves many men and women… feeling disoriented and at times even without hope.”
(Pope John Paul II, Address to the bishops of England and Wales, October 23, 2003)
“In contemporary society, which shows such visible signs of secularism, we must not give in to despair or a lack of enthusiasm in pastoral projects. Remember that the Holy Spirit gives you the strength you need.”
(Pope Benedict XVI, Address to bishops of Mexico, September 23, 2003)
“People often invoke the principle of secularity, legitimate in itself if it is understood as the distinction between the political community and religions (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n. 76). But distinction does not mean ignorance! Secularity is not secularism! It is nothing other than respect for all beliefs on the part of the State that assures the free exercise of ritual, spiritual, cultural and charitable activities by communities of believers. In a pluralistic society, secularity is a place for communication between the different spiritual traditions and the nation.”
(Pope John Paul II Jan 12, 2004)
“In our times, secularism advances, threatening to lead societies of former evangelization to forms of agnosticism that constitute a real challenge for believers…In this context, the testimony of those who, out of fidelity to Christ and to the Gospel, have not hesitated to give their lives, acquires extraordinary eloquence… With their example, they encourage Christians to a courageous consistency” to the point of “heroism.
(Pope John Pual II December 11, 2004, Message sent to Bishop Salvatore Boccaccio)
Saints and Heroes
Defender of the Religious Freedom
ST. THOMAS BECKET
Thomas was born in 1118 in Normandy, France, which then was a part of England. Thomas grew up in a very well-to-do family and was educated at the finest institutions in Paris and London.
As an adult Thomas was given one of the highest posts in British government, that of Chancellor. He served King Henry II in a way that pleased the king, and was his close friend. When the Archbishop of Canterbury died, King Henry had Thomas appointed as Archbishop. King Henry hoped he could influence the Catholic Church in a greater way through Thomas.
His new responsibility brought a dramatic conversion of soul and attitude to Thomas. As soon as he became Archbishop, Thomas abruptly changed his relationship with Henry, showing his allegiance to the Church and the Pope instead of to his friend, the king of England.
Thomas sought to separate the Church in England from governmental control. After many disagreements with the king, Thomas fled England to live in France while continuing to shepherd his flock in England.
Thomas eventually came to an agreement with Henry II, and returned to England.
But just few days after his return, some knights, who were friends of King Henry, brutally murdered Thomas on the steps of the Cathedral in Canterbury. It was clear that he died because of his defense of the Church against control from Henry II. St. Thomas is remembered as a great defender of religious freedom.
Maker of First Live Nativity Scene
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI
One of the Church’s most beloved saints, St. Francis was born into a wealthy family in Italy. He led a raucous life of partying, fought in two wars and was set to take over his father’s merchant business. But, shocking his parents and friends, Francis left all this to lead a life of prayer, penance and poverty. Francis began to attract followers who joined him in his life and they are now known as the Franciscans.
Francis’s spirituality of poverty and love for the poor stirred a great devotion to the birth of Christ. A few years before his death, St. Francis is credited with putting on the first live nativity scene and enriching our understanding of the mystery and beauty of Christ’s coming to earth in the poorest of environments. Several miracles happened in relation to this nativity scene (See instructor’s resources.)
Story of St. Francis and the Nativity Scene
One of Francis’ followers, St Benedict, describes the Nativity scene that Francis organized and the miracle that occurred in the small town of Grecio in Italy:
It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, [St. Francis] prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.
A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant marvelously beautiful, sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep. This vision of the devout soldier is credible, not only by reason of the sanctity of him that saw it, but by reason of the miracles which afterwards confirmed its truth. For example of Francis, if it be considered by the world, is doubtless sufficient to excite all hearts which are negligent in the faith of Christ; and the hay of that manger, being preserved by the people, miraculously cured all diseases of cattle, and many other pestilences; God thus in all things glorifying his servant, and witnessing to the great efficacy of his holy prayers by manifest prodigies and miracles.
St. Bonaventure (d. 1274)
Advocacy group: Organization that promotes or defends certain values
Courage: Bravery to do the right thing
Defend: Protect with courage
Duty: Obligation, responsibility
Faith: Commitment to God, trust in him
Fear: Cowardice, lack of bravery
Freedom of religion: Right of people to practice their own faith and express it in public
Heroism: Bravery in action
Intolerant secularism: Aggressive effort to expel religious expression from public
Respect: Fully acknowledging the dignity and value of every person
Responsibility: To accept and meet our duties in life
Secular: Belonging to this world and this time
The Becket Fund: “A bi-partisan and ecumenical public-interest law firm that protects the free expression of all religious traditions” (from their website)
- What are some other holidays that have religious roots?
- What are some of the shortfalls of a system of public expression which refuse to allow religion?
- What is the difference between the free expression of religion and separation of church and state? At what point should we draw the line between state-supported and state-allowed religion? Is it necessarily wrong to promote your own religion (proselytize)? How would the secularist argue against proselytism?
- What is the difference between culture and religion? How are these things related?
- Benedict XVI spoke out against secularism. Does society really need religion? What happens when we completely remove faith and religion from society?
- Although we cannot promote Christianity through our government, religion is recognized as legitimate by our government, and certain Judeo-Christian values have inspired many principles in our government, such as the respect for the dignity of every person. Are these values helpful to our society? Do they hurt our government or help it? How do they do this? What would happen if they were not there?
- Why are some groups lobbying for elimination of religious expression in public institutions and public culture? How can this affect our society?
- Is putting a manger scene in a town square promoting Christianity or celebrating Christmas? Is there a difference? Who loses out when this symbol is removed from our public view?
Review of Supreme Court rulings concerning religious displays on government property: 1984 Lynch v. Donnelly, 1989 Allegheny County v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU
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