For one reason or another, I receive large numbers of e-mails from lots of different sources. One I received recently was from the blog of a man named Stephen Frank, who promotes himself as providing a “frank” discussion for conservatives. This particular edition was sent out under the heading “Barack and Michelle Obama Ignore Christmas.”
The thrust of Frank’s message was that the Obamas’ holiday card, which was paid for by the Democratic National Committee, makes no religious reference whatsoever. What it did say was “May your family have a joyous holiday season, and a new year blessed with hope and happiness.”
Then Frank went on to say that about 58% of Democrats, 70% of independents and 91% of Republicans prefer to be wished a “Merry Christmas” instead of being greeted with things like “Happy Holidays.”
So, from all of that, he infers that the Obamas are ignoring Christmas, and are out of the mainstream of a majority of Americans. I disagree with Frank’s criticism.
Preliminarily, and so that there is no confusion, I was raised as a Christian in a Christian home. I have been a member of the Methodist Church all of my adult life, and I will compare my religious values to anyone’s. Furthermore, and as I have said before in this column, I did not vote for Obama. But having said all of this, I believe that the Obamas are taking the right approach in this matter for two important reasons.
First, Barack Obama is the president of the United States and everyone in it, and that fact must be present inextricably in everything he does. Therefore, publicly to wish all of his card’s recipients a Merry Christmas would be to show presidential favoritism toward Christians, as opposed to other people in our country who hold other religious beliefs. As such, Frank, that would be inappropriate.
To be consistent, but on a matter of insignificant importance, I do criticize the president for having publicly rooted for the Chicago White Sox when they played the Boston Red Sox in a major league baseball game last summer. I know that Obama resided in Chicago for a long time, but does that mean that people from Boston should be concerned that he will take sides against them in other things merely because of geography?
Traditionally presidents have upheld the philosophy of neutrality in the annual Army/Navy football game, by ceremoniously changing sides of the stadium during halftime. This shows symbolically that the president is the commander-in-chief of the Army and the Navy, and is therefore neutral in contests of one against the other. Obama should learn a lesson from that tradition.
The second reason is even more critical. And that is the fundamental importance of honoring the separation of church and state. Going back to the Thomas Jefferson, one of the main principles of our government has been to maintain this separation. This is also true for two important reasons.
In the first place, we want to protect government from the influence of the church. Many times throughout history when various religions have been involved in government, some truly terrible things have happened. Some examples of these are the Salem Witch Trials, as well as the Spanish Inquisition, and religious human sacrifices by the Aztecs, Incas and other societies around the world. Indeed, today we are seeing first-hand the tragic results that happen when religions have taken command of governments in the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and also with the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Actually, on balance, probably the largest threat to peace in the world today comes from the merging of church and state in countries like that. And, although I am not saying that we would resort to things like human sacrifices, to some degree the same types of things could happen here in our country as well. How could this happen? To paraphrase Congressman Ron Paul, even if you agree with the ideas and dictates of our government, some day different people will be in charge and will use government for their own agendas. So the wisdom of the constitution is that it keeps government out of these issues altogether, regardless of who is in charge.
Of course, that is not at all to say that the values of religion should not have an influence in government. Our great country was founded in many ways upon Christian values, and the concept of us publicly being “One Nation Under God,” and having “In God We Trust” on our currency, etc., should be recognized and supported. Those mottoes display that we have important religious values.
But if the message on our currency instead were to be “In Jesus We Trust,” or “In The Buddha We Trust,” etc., this would and should be a constitutional violation, and must be avoided. Why? Because then our government would be favoring one religion over another. The Obamas’ holiday card implicitly recognizes that fact.
Yes, Christmas is a national holiday, and, yes, Jesus’ name is certainly an important part of the title of that meaningful day of celebration and reflection. But although the mottoes we use show that we are a country of Christian values, they do not mean that we are actually a Christian nation. That can be a subtle distinction, but it is enormously important. Otherwise we could not be a nation with religious freedom!
The second reason for the separation is that we want to protect religion from the influence of government. Several years ago, my wife and I took a wonderful trip to Turkey.
While we were there, we learned that the Turkish government actually pays the salaries of the Muslim imams. When we asked why this was done, we were told that this was the best way for the government to keep track of what these religious leaders were doing, and to “keep the lid on.”
Actually this is quite an effective tool that the Turkish government is using, but I hope you can see that it can be truly corruptive and controlling for the religions involved.
Why? Because whenever government becomes involved in anything, it almost unfailingly works to control it.
So the best way to protect the freedom of religion is to have the government scrupulously kept away.
Our country would face similar issues by allowing our government to funnel money to do charitable work through religious organizations.
This practice has been suggested both by President George W. Bush and by Obama. But this would be dangerous, because if we allow government to fund religions in any way, government will soon be in a position to control those religions.
Nevertheless, Frank, none of this means that you or I as private citizens cannot and should not wish other people a Merry Christmas. In fact, when I hear Christians wishing other Christians a “Happy Holidays,” I commonly respond that it is OK to wish people a Merry Christmas. And it is.
So may I take this opportunity to wish each of my fellow Christians a truly Merry Christmas.
And for those of you of different religious beliefs, I wish you a Merry Spirit of Christmas.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com .