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24.12.04

Nativity Scenes

Ah, Christmastime. I just love the way that the cries about the persection of Christianity in the US get loudest at exactly the time that the nation is at its most overtly Christian. I guess some people get a taste of a national religion and are reminded of how much they like it.

I won't address the "happy holidays" outrage -- now that Mouse Words has weighed in, I have nothing to add. Slightly more significant is the "nativity scenes on public property" issue. Despite what you've heard about the allpervading hand of the ACLU, they're still pretty common -- I've seen plenty even in Massachusetts, the blue state par excellance.

Here's what I don't get about this insistence that nativity scenes be allowed on public property: it's not like there's a lack of places to put them. The US is a predominantly Christian country, so churches own large amounts of real estate in prominent locations in pretty much every town in the union. If you put a nativity scene there, everyone will see it. In fact, the ACLU would defend you if someone objected.

Given that, I find it hard to believe people who say that nativity scenes on public property aren't church-state entanglement, because church-state entanglement is the only thing a public-property nativity scene has to recommend it over a church-property nativity scene. For defenders of public nativity scences, it's not enough that individuals voluntarily come together to celebrate a holiday that has a shared significance for them. They want an official stamp of approval. They want something that says "we all must recognize the significance of this day."

The weakness of much of modern Christianity is illustrated not by the ACLU's attempts to hold the line between church and state, but by the hysterical backlash against them. It seems to express a fear that Christianity will not be able to hold its own in a voluntary and pluralistic world. I think (and hope) that this is true for some variants of the faith, but I also have confidence in the appeal of the core message and tradition to a substantial segment of the population. Just as one begins to wonder about homophobes who warn that if exciting gay sex is allowed nobody will want to have boring straight sex, one wonders about Christians who fear that everyone will leave the church in the absence of social and governmental pressure.

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