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Public Theology: Christmas Peace and Conflict
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Christmas Peace and Conflict
Media debate over Christmas symbols gives voice to the religious right but not mainline Christianity. But the state should not be propagating Christianity.

By Ed Knudson

The following article was sent to the Seattle Post Intelligencer newspaper for publication in their editorial section. The article makes the observation that the perspectives of the majority mainline church bodies do not receive a fair hearing within the media today. Conservative media give the spokespersons of the religious right wide exposure. Liberal media do not give attention to the more liberal religious voices because the liberal orientation does not take religion very seriously in public affairs. If liberal media does carry religious news it too tends to be the perspective from the right. Here is the article.

Christmas is the celebration of the coming of the prince of peace. Yet again this year as Christmas approaches people are fighting with one another in public. This year the battles seem more frequent and bitter than ever. News commentators attack those who question the appropriateness of displaying Christmas symbols in public places or singing carols in public schools. On talk shows those who want to greet one another with “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas” are ridiculed. People express themselves over these matters with much anger and hostility. What’s going on? Why so much conflict over Christmas?

My first answer is that some folks in our culture have experienced a deep sense of grief over the fact that the United States has clearly become a pluralistic, secular society. They believe there was a time when this was a Christian country, that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution are conservative Christian documents, that non-believing secularists have taken over the country and dethroned bible-believing Christians from their rightful position of power in society. If all this was true then one can understand why these folks might be angry in their grief, they would have lost something important indeed. But, of course, none of that is true. Though God is mentioned in the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that document, was a deist; he didn’t believe in the Christian Trinity. And reference to God was deliberately left out of the Constitution when it was adopted twelve years later in 1789. Christian churches fiercely opposed Jefferson in the presidential election of 1800, but they lost. It was the intention of the founders from the beginning that this was to be a pluralistic, secular society as free as possible from the conflict generated by intense religious belief.

In the past couple decades a new form of Christian revivalism has been exerting itself within the political culture of this country. Called the religious right, or evangelicals or fundamentalists, it emerged mainly out of the South as a result of reaction to the integration of public schools and found particular expression through popular television preachers in the 1980s. When you listen to these preachers you will find them directly associating “God and country”. For them and their many followers and the pastors and congregations associated with them, such as the Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God, the government of the United States of America should explicitly recognize God and implement laws and policies based on their interpretations of the bible or the natural laws of God. And they believe this with all their heart.

Though these folks are a minority religious expression in this country, their voices have become powerful. One reason for this is that one of the two main political parties has made common cause with them. And they claim to have played a major role in the recent election of George W. Bush. They feel they have earned the right to be able to demand that Christian symbols be displayed in public, especially during this Christmas season.

The religious right has also been able to command access to the media, another reason their voices have become powerful. Conservative media channels provide a great deal of time to them, of course. On one program recently a panel was composed of members of the religious right and atheists. Representatives of mainline religious groups are rarely heard from, even on the more liberal media channels. The latter do not cover religion very much at all, but if they do they also provide access to voices from the religious right. That means the general public hears the Christian faith primarily in the form of revivalist religion, the form that is strident, oppositional, uncompromising, and demanding. The majority and moderate voices of the Christian churches are not heard.

For example, my own Lutheran church body does not expect government to manage or display religious symbols. It does not promote formal prayer in public schools because that would mean that a government official would be making decisions about the form and content of prayer. It is the church itself which must maintain authority over its symbols and practices. Furthermore, Lutherans are able to see many benefits in secular society, the use of science and reason in human affairs. Lutherans do not have a sense of grief over the loss of a Christian country because they are not committed to this idea in the first place. The love and grace of God for all people in all creation is not dependent on the power of the state; it is the church that witnesses to this gracious God, the state is not needed. Indeed, it would be most dangerous should the state take as its responsibility the job of propagating Christian faith.

As a Lutheran I believe it is important for Lutherans and people in other church bodies who are not part of the religious right to try to make clear to others in the community that we do not share the extreme views of revivalist religion. We do not expect a secular society to celebrate Christmas with all the symbols appropriate to our faith. We invite everyone to our churches to celebrate the coming of the prince of peace but we do not want to make of the one we worship a symbol of anger and hostility, for the one we know as Lord and Savior is the source of hope, peace, and love for all.

And so we also say to all: “Happy Holiday!”

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Date Added: 12/17/2004 Date Revised: 12/17/2004 12:23:35 PM

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