Busybody: noun; a person who mixes into other people’s affairs; meddler; gossip
Every year at this time, as predictable as snow in Saskatchewan or icicles in Idaho, it happens. The bleating about the “oppression” of Christians starts anew. Usually, it is triggered by some evangelist group that wants to place a nativity crèche on a courthouse lawn or a public park.
When non-Christian groups object, the cries of anguish begin.
A department store hangs a sign that says HAPPY HOLIDAYS or SEASONS GREETINGS instead of MERRY CHRISTMAS.
THEY ARE TAKING CHRIST OUT OF CHRISTMAS!
CHRISTIANS ARE OPPRESSED BY THE SECULAR AND ATHEIST LEFT WING!
Let’s take these in order. First nobody can take the religious significance out of Christmas for a Christian. The meaning of Christmas is whatever each individual decides that it is. To a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist or an atheist, Christmas does not have the same significance that it does to a Christian. Christmas has become a secular, as well as religious, holiday…a time when families gather, exchange presents and share in a holiday feast. Non-Christians probably don’t think much about the religious aspects of Christmas. What’s wrong with that? It doesn’t prevent devout Christians from celebrating its religious significance.
This is similar to the claim that same-sex marriage “threatens” the institution of marriage. The “sacred union” that religious people forge in a church has exactly the significance they choose to place on it. Nobody can change that except the partners in the marriage. How other people marry is, quite simply, none of their business.
Now, let’s address the “oppression” question. Surveys have shown that Christians make up somewhere between 70% and 85% of the US population. Of course, Christians come in many flavors. Many of them don’t go to church regularly, and religious thought doesn’t play a major role in their lives, but they say they are Christians, and I see no reason to doubt them. Now, that is a substantial majority of the electorate, and so I find it laughable that the miniscule minority of non-Christians are “oppressing” that vast majority. I would venture that many non-Christians living in this country feel oppressed by the constant pressure from Christian religious organizations who persistently push their Bible-based ideas into the public sphere.
One of the main purposes of the Constitution is to protect minorities from oppression by the majority. Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the “tyranny of the majority” is a real danger in “illiberal” democracies.
The founders of our nation saw that danger, and built into the Constitution some safeguards to protect minorities from persecution by the majority. They realized that religion should never dominate government. That is not to say that individuals in positions of power cannot let their religious beliefs influence their decisions. Such a prohibition would be unenforceable anyway. Instead, the founders said that government should never officially endorse religion. Some people have interpreted this to mean that government should not endorse any specific religion. They claim that endorsement of religion in general…with nondenominational prayers for instance…is permitted. A simple reading of Article 1 makes it clear that this is not the case:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”
The prohibition is against religion in general, and it is unequivocal.
Others have claimed that this refers only to the federal government, and that state and local governments are free to endorse religion. Or that it only prohibits the Congress from establishing a national church. But the courts have generally adopted a literal interpretation…until recently.
Why do some Christians feel the need to erect Christian displays in public places? The reason often given is that it “reaffirms the fact that we live in a Christian nation.” The quote from Article 1 above makes it clear that we most assuredly do not live in a Christian nation. We live in a secular democratic republic in which a majority of the citizens claim to be Christians.
Is it an attempt to demonstrate their personal devotion? Why not erect the display in their own back yard or in the churchyard? Would it not be seen and appreciated by God there? There must be another reason, and that reason seems obvious to me.
It’s advertising. Like any business, churches have a product to sell. The Bible tells them to spread the word of the gospel.
Mark 16:15 (King James Version): “And he said unto them, Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature.”
So they want the displays to be in public places where they will be seen by the most people. But more importantly, their presence in a courthouse or other government facility connotes an implicit endorsement of the religion they represent…and, of course, that is exactly what the writers of the Constitution were trying to prevent.
A long string of court decisions have affirmed and reaffirmed the prohibition against such displays in general, but recent rulings of an increasingly right-wing and overwhelmingly Catholic Supreme Court have diluted the decisions of earlier courts.
It has occurred to me that one way to solve the problem is to allow anybody and everybody to advertise their products and services in government buildings.
Just imagine what courthouse walls would look like:
The halls of legislatures and city councils, where “In God We Trust” is often displayed would look like this:
But then, every business would claim a right to advertising space and the walls of public buildings would quickly fill up. Who would decide which business gets the space?
There is only one answer for a capitalist society. The space should be rented to the highest bidder. The rental income could help alleviate the chronic deficits that government at all levels is suffering.
But wait, there is still a problem. Churches have a huge advantage in competing with businesses. They don’t pay taxes. Taxes from businesses helped to build those courthouses and council chambers, and provide the funds to operate them and pay the government officials who work there. Is it fair to make them compete with tax-exempt churches in a bidding auction for advertising space?
That opens a whole new can of worms: Why are churches tax-exempt? Why doesn’t a tax exemption for a church violate the Constitution? Doesn’t that tax exemption constitute an endorsement of religion? Isn’t a law that gives churches tax exemptions a law “respecting the establishment of religion?”
Even though a majority of American voters approve of laws that give tax exemptions to churches, doesn’t that constitute tyrannical rule by the majority that de Tocqueville warned us about? Isn’t that exactly what the Constitution was designed to prevent?