Sunday, December 7, 2008

Nativity Scenes on Public Property: Conflict Begins Anew in Olympia, Washington

This is December, which means it is time for rampant consumerism (normally), office parties, Christmas seasonal music old & new, and Christian Nativity scenes on public property. Every year, somewhere in the United States these public nativity scenes evoke challenges and protests of one kind or another. This year is going to be no exception.

This past week a Nativity scene has been set up in Washington State’s Legislative Building in Olympia. Early Friday morning the Freedom From Religion Foundation posted a rather heavy metal sign near the display. Its top sentence, to me, makes a lot of sense: “At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE [caps are in the original] may reason prevail.” In the spirit of fairness, where Christian displays are allowed, other faiths, other viewpoints possess an equal right of access to space for equally tasteful displays.

Still, groups such as the Christian Coalition ceaselessly fight against this access fairness by arguing that such displays, no matter how tasteful, attack religion. Even though the Olympia sign concludes by describing religion as “myth and superstition that hardens the heart and enslaves the mind”, in my opinion, it does not attack religion. Rather, it expresses an opinion, a viewpoint. Under the US Constitution’s First Amendment, public expression of this type of opinion is, or at least should be, Constitutionally protected speech.

What the Christian Coalition and similar groups fail to recognize is that, by maintaining what strikes me as an exclusionary expressive right of public sphere access, they are increasingly proving observations such as the one that concludes the Olympia sign right. The near universal blindness of the more radical Fundamentalist groups never ceases to amaze me. What concerns me is the increasing extent to which many of these groups are diverging from the teachings of the Judao-Christian Scriptures in general, and the Christian New Testament in particular.

I grew up in a strict Christian faith so from childhood on I read the King James version of The Bible on my own. Thus, through the years, I have read, and thought about, the entire text of both Testaments several times. The positions on a number of positions they maintain do not mesh with my readings of Scripture.

On this Olympia flap, I find it amused that one or more local Christians became so incensed over the Freedom From Religion sign that they felt justified in breaking one of the Ten Commandments (Thou Shalt Not Steal). The sign installation was completed by 6:30 am; an hour later it disappeared. A few hours later someone spotted it in a ditch outside town, and dropped it off at a local radio station.

This situation in Olympia strikes me as an extension of the disputes over displays of the Ten Commandments in public places. generally such displays are challenged on the grounds that they promote Christianity to the exclusion of all other faiths and beliefs. Nothing could be further from the truth. For one thing, the Ten Commandments descended to Christianity from Judaism, thus they predate the birth of Christianity. For another thing, similar expressions are found in many, if not all, wisdom traditions both east and west. I don’t have access to a Qu’ran, however I suspect that a similar set of commandments appears there as well. Similar guidelines for how to live also appear in Buddhism, the Tao, and probably Hinduism as well. Thus the Ten Commandments need to be seen as universal in nature, which means they promote no specific religion.

Personally I don’t have a problem with tastefully designed displays of the Ten Commandments and Nativity scenes on public property as long as the displays minimize the name of the sponsoring Church (or Churches). Equally, as long as such displays are set up so that viewing is voluntary by all passers by, then I fail to see how they differ from monuments honoring veterans or pioneers mounted on public property.

Perhaps, too, these disagreements during the holiday season underscore the extent to which Christmas has digressed from what it technically is about: the virgin birth of the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Is it time for US society to reevaluate the meaning of the entire holiday season?

No comments: