I grew up in a little tourist town called Grand Haven. It was a great place to be a kid… Especially in the summers. It was (and still is) the sort of place where everyone within driving distance would come to escape the heat during the day. It has this amazing boardwalk, and a pier with a lighthouse, and literally one of the best beaches in the country. At night–especially on the weekends–our little downtown would transform into an adolescent dream. And those summer nights downtown were punctuated by the Grand Haven Musical Fountain. It was basically a giant fountain, with water that was lit with colored lights and swayed in time to music. For a time, we got to say “Home of the world’s largest musical fountain…” As if anyone was keeping track. Every night in the summer, you can still watch the fountain (from across the channel where the Grand River flows into Lake Michigan) at its home near the middle of an old dune named Dewey Hill. And for as long as I had ever known, perched atop that piece of public land we all knew as Dewey Hill was a giant white cross looking over everything–the town, the Musical Fountain, the locals… even the hot out-of-town girls who were hopefully still wearing their swimsuits.
Outside of the summertime, things weren’t nearly as eventful in our sweet little tourist trap of a town. But whatever the season, that giant cross was still there. In the winter, Dewey Hill would get decorated with a giant nativity scene. All the major characters were there (in wooden cutout form)–Angels high on the hill, shepherds watching over their flock, wisemen on camels, and of course Mary, Joseph, & Jesus in the manger. In my youth, it never even occurred to me that there might be people in the world who didn’t appreciate their public lands being ornamented with Christian iconography. As far as I knew, EVERYONE was Christian… But I grew up pretty sheltered. I mean, I had heard rumors of “Catholics,” but never actually SEEN one. If I’m being honest, I was more than a little sheltered–There was only one “black” girl in our school that I knew of, and sometime around 6th grade, I figured out that she was actually Korean.
Anyway, earlier this year–after threats of a lawsuit–the city council voted to remove that giant cross (and the nativity scene as well) from the hill. And, as you might imagine, a lot of people were very upset about this. I’m part of a Facebook group of people from Grand Haven, and it seems like angry posts about the removal of the cross (and–especially this time of year–nostalgia for the old nativity scene) are an almost daily occurrence. And this sort of controversy is not at all limited to my little home town… Scenes like this are playing out all over the country. Here is what the brouhaha usually looks like:
- Small town has Christian decorations/nativity scene/iconography up on public land, in front of a courthouse, or in some sort of government building.
- Minority group threatens to sue.
- Majority of people find nothing offensive about the decorations, and want to keep the them up… based partly on “tradition.”
- City officials are aware that they have no legal leg to stand on.
- Given a choice between A) opening up the area to any number of non-Christian displays and B) taking down the religious decorations, the city usually decides to take the stuff down.
- A large group of Fox”News”-watching conservatives throw an absolute fit, and start using phrases like “Founding Fathers” and “Religious Liberty” and “Christian Nation” and “War on Christmas,” and even the word “Persecution.” And they take to social media to voice their displeasure, usually blaming the atheists… Ironically the same atheists their warped view of God helped to create.
So I wanted to write about this–Not only because this kind of thing is really interesting to me, but because I really do think that I might be able to help explain this situation to the folks who don’t get it yet. Listen…
First off–The majority of the people who are most upset about stuff like “nativity scenes being taken down from public property” are same people who claim to really love the Constitution. But this is weird, because the Constitution is the very thing that forces the nativity scenes to come down… The First Amendment of U.S. Constitution says two things about religion: 1) It wants to keep the government from doing things to establish one religion over another, and 2) it wants to insure that the government doesn’t impede the free exercise of religion. And in just about every case brought before U.S. courts, a city using a public space or a government building for one religion’s iconography (without giving equal space for other religions) has been interpreted as a clear violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
You may be a Christian living in an area where 90% of the people are Christians, and the majority of the people may have no problem with a giant white cross or a nativity scene built on a hill that is publicly owned… But YOU’RE not really the ones the Constitution is designed to defend. If 90% of the people in a state are Christians, and they all want to insist that everyone has to “swear to Jesus” when testifying in court, the Constitution is there to protect the 10% who don’t. And do you know why this is important? Because someday YOU might be one of the people in the 10%. This is a fairly fundamental part of what America stands for, and it is one of the things that has made this country great. This SHOULD be something that is fairly common knowledge, but it turns out that there are a whole lot of people out there who don’t get it. It is a safeguard that SHOULD be embraced as something fundamentally American…
What has happened instead is that any sort of push back against Christianity as the dominant religion is being framed as “persecution.” Or, if you will, the more seasonally appropriate phrase: “The War on Christmas.” Incidentally, it’s very much like the accusations of “class warfare” when people living in poverty start asking why 1% of the population has 50% of the wealth. It’s a common tactic used by the majority when the minority starts asking for fairness. Or even demanding it (yikes!). People are energized by the feeling of fighting against oppression, so if you can convince the ones in a position of power that they are actually the ones being oppressed, they will fight even harder against the ones with the boots on their necks–the folks who are working toward something closer to equality. Grosser still, they will even attempt to make terms like “fairness” and “equality” sound like something that is “unAmerican.”
There is an expression called “The Tyranny of the Majority.” Sometimes democracy can be used to take away the rights of the ones with less votes. But luckily, we have a document that is supposed to prevent that from happening. The Constitution is not there to protect the people in positions of power (the ones with all the power don’t really need that much “protecting”)… The Constitution is there to protect the ones actually being oppressed. It was there to protect the rights of women to be part of the political process. It was there to protect the little girl with brown skin who just wants to go to the “good” school that all the white kids go to. It’s there to protect the same-sex couple who lives in a state where the majority of the people use words like “abomination” because of a misguided religious belief. And it’s there to protect religious minorities when those same misguided religious beliefs lead them to believe that America is supposed to be a “Christian Nation.”
There is a guy here in Nashville who owns a strip of land next to the interstate. A while ago, he decided to build–on his own land–a statue of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, Nathan Bedford Forrest. Flanked by a bunch of Confederate flags, it is a grotesque monument to hatred, discrimination, white supremacy, and murder. He’s allowed to do this because he is protected by the “free expression” part of the 1st Amendment… But if a majority of people living here in Tennessee wanted to use STATE LANDS to erect that same statue at the capitol building, this is when the rights of the minority must be considered. And unfortunately, we are living in a time where any attempt to consider the rights or feelings of the minority is demonized as “political correctness.” This same neo-conservative ideology that pits “political correctness” as the enemy not only revels in offending as many people as possible, but seems to use offensiveness as some sort of litmus test for truthfulness.
And it’s easy for people to get there, because a lot of these people who lament any attempt at treating minority populations with respect (and dismiss it as PC) are the same folks who believe that–as Christians–if people aren’t getting offended at the stuff they’re saying, they’re probably not doing it right. All because a verse in the Bible says, “You will be hated by everyone because of me.” But I’m pretty sure that Jesus would have clarified that statement a bit if he knew how many “Christians” would end up using it as a justification for being an ass. Anyway, the people who hated Jesus were the religious folks and the ones in power–If you’re making THEM mad, chances are good you’re doing things more like Jesus.
But when you label “treating people with respect” as “Political Correctness,” and then frame “Political Correctness” as the enemy, you can get away with saying all kinds of hateful garbage… Just look at the frontrunners of the republican party. And then, if you call them on their hateful, offensive rhetoric, they call you a whiny baby who is too easily offended. But consider the following: So many people in this country bemoan the tragic state of how easily offended people are–they talk about “political correctness run amuck”–but when there is even THE SLIGHTEST movement away from total and complete Christian dominance in this country, these same folks throw their hands up and cry “PERSECUTION!”
It is a dictionary-level definition of hypocrisy. Imagine–JUST IMAGINE–how much conservative Christians would LOSE THEIR FREAKING MINDS if a local government put up decorations for a Muslim holiday on public lands. People would be wearing sackcloth and ashes, and marching in the streets at the clear injustice of the lack of separation between church and state.
But here’s the situation we have right now in America: Last week, a bunch of people threw a fit (even suggesting that an arrest should be made) because a judge in New York decided to be sworn in by placing her hand on a Qur’an instead of a Bible. We have a Presidential candidate (Ben Carson) who says that Islam is inconsistent with the constitution, and thinks that being a Muslim should disqualify someone from being president. We have another candidate (the one who’s leading in the polls. I’m thinking about Voldemorting his name, and just referring to him as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named,” just because now the word “Trump” sticks in my throat like some sort of acid reflux belch) who is advocating not only suspending immigration for Muslims, but also said he is open to the possibility of registering Muslims in some sort of database. It is within this climate that we have people upset about not being able to have explicitly Christian images and decorations in public spaces.
Everyone SHOULD be able to get this. You can do it… Just attempt to consider what it might be like if YOU were an atheist living in a town that had a giant crucifix or nativity scenes on state land. Or, if that’s too hard for you, imagine the imaginary feeling of persecution you got when Starbucks didn’t put enough Christmas decorations on their cups… And then multiply that times ACTUAL discrimination. People talk about “Freedom of Religion,”but what they really want is freedom for their religion to be dominant. If you are fighting against this, you are fighting against one of the main things that makes America great. People say things like, “If you don’t like it, you can move somewhere else…” but “If you don’t like it, you can move somewhere else” is not the way this country works. And just because the majority of the people in your town are Christians does not give you the right to decorate your courthouse with pictures of Jesus. When we stop looking out for the rights and the feelings of the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the minority, we have lost our way–This is true for us as a nation, but it is especially true for us as a Church.
One last thing: A bunch of people celebrated when someone recently put up another big white cross on top of Dewey Hill. A similar situation happened in a town in Minnesota called Wadena that was forced to take down a nativity scene from their town square–and as a result, thousands of their citizens put up big nativity scenes in their yards… To send a message to all the non-Christians, I guess. That message? Well… it sure wasn’t “We love you, and we are happy you’re here.” It was the same message that people were sending when they lined up around the block at Chick-Fil-A’s. It was a giant middle finger. But here’s something true: A nativity scene is not a middle finger. If you are putting up Christmas decorations to establish some sort of demented religious dominance, you are doing it wrong.
I’ll leave you with a multiple choice quiz that you SHOULD be able to ace:
They will know we are Christians by our…
A. Life-sized nativity scenes.
B. Town’s giant white cross.
C. Eagerness to offend.
D. Hypocrisy when it comes to supporting the First Amendment.
E. Inhospitable attitude toward people who are not like us.
F. Greeting of “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.”
If you answered anything other than “G,” again… You are doing it wrong. Here is a really good verse from the Bible: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” ~ Romans 12:17-18
Happy Holidays… And Peace on Earth!
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Great article/blog and there can never be too much of this. However, after living in Maryland for 35 years and moving to Georgia last year, I have acquired a whole new understanding: There is no “separating” Jesus/God from ANYTHING for most Christians. So I am afraid there will never be an understanding for them about the rights of others, which is unfortunate, and yes, un-Christian.
There is hope, tb. I was one of those Christians not too long ago. 🙂
As a Jewish woman living in Nashville, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this column. Thank you, Chris, for being wise beyond your years and willing to share your wisdom. I appreciate you!
As a Christian man living in Nashville, I can’t tell you how much I’d love to know more about your experience as a Jew living in the south. You should probably find me on Facebook, and send me a friend request. 🙂
We’re already Facebook friends 🙂 I’ll private message you.
It’s not even “imagine if you were an atheist living in a town that insisted on putting up a nativity scene.” It’s “imagine you were the Christian that you are, living in a place like Iran or Syria.” To throw around the word “persecution,” when our brother and sister Christians are risking their lives every day in places like those, is the height of self-centeredness.
An anchor? Really? Now that’s funny.
It’s “Coast Guard City, USA” so it makes at least a little sense. 🙂
My family and I visited the fountains this summer. At the very moment when the last note hit and the lights and water exploded in a finish that can only be described as orgasmic, a shooting star appeared right out of the top of the fountain. That’s when I knew God loved America and wanted Dewey Hill adorned with a 1st century torture device, not some mamsy-pamsy anchor.
This is in the running for best comment of the year.
If your definition of Love is total acceptance of anything and everything, YOU are doing Christianity wrong. Jesus never said to accept all as a term for Love. If you have never felt the chastisement of God, then you have never been his child. Not judging you by any means, I have no idea if you Live for him that died for you. I do know that we love the person, and we Hate the sin, by that token we all have sin to hate in ourselves and others, no sin other than blasmophy is unforgivable, but the point is that you need to ask for that forgivness, not dictate is as not a sin in the first place. The old testament should give you a refresher course in How God feels about false Gods and our acceptance of them.
It sounds like you completely missed the point of this post.
I grew up Jewish in a town that sounds very much like yours (well, maybe not quite so extreme, but still very conservative). My family periodically got Jews for Jesus literature stuffed in our mailbox and tracts on the windshield of our car when we went to Temple. It’s not even that I’m disgusted by the people you describe who feel persecuted by loss of privilege, but I seriously don’t GET them. It’s like looking at a grape and seeing a cantaloupe…my best attempt at an analogy after one cup of coffee.
I think I “get” them… I think the feeling you’re talking about is the frustration of being unable to pull anyone toward the next stage of human consciousness… At least without them being ready to move.
The thing is to be patient, and stay loving. Regardless of the differences in our faiths.
I appreciate this post so much. As a college student who is a pastor’s kid, I have met so many of the “Christians” who are going it wrong. I think their understanding of Christianity is focused on the Old Covenant, wrathful God in the Old Testament. They fail to see that God is equal parts of everything; wrathful, loving, just, etc. The Old Convenant was full of rules and sacrifices that had certain parameters. That wasn’t the way God wanted forever—which is why the New Covenant is unconditional, less about religious rules and more about the ultimate sacrifice that has everyone covered. Too many people view Christianity in a legalistic, overly religious way. That just isn’t what it is. It’s a shame that they’ve portrayed Christianity poorly by their lack of understanding. You wrote in such a true and revealing way about loving and accepting other’s beliefs and personal freedoms. It all boils down to empathy and I think anyone of any religion would agree nothing bad every happens when you’re empathetic.
Thank you for this article. I am an atheist living in the Grand Haven area, and have been feeling pretty defensive since the cross came down. It is not a battle I would have fought, but now that it’s over and the cross is down, the comments being made towards people of other belief systems are unbelievably alienating. I believe in the basic message of Jesus: love and care for one another. Period. That message has been seriously lost.
Yup. Sorry about that, Katie. Jesus was radically inclusive. American Christianity seems to be defined by who it alienates. The offensive/wonderful thing about the God that Jesus reveals is not “who is kept out,” but all the people who are “let in” (for lack of a better term). Grace has always been offensive… especially to the ones who believed that they are in the group that gets invited to the party.
Modern Christianity seems to chase our young people away from our faith communities, and it’s issues like this, the “establishment” of Christianity wanting their rights and nobody else’s to be the “freedom of religion”.
Just a couple thoughts… in numbers 1-6 you wrote above, I noticed that the argument wasn’t to have equal displays of religion but rather to abolish the christian displays. I think that the Christians are correct when they feel like others aren’t trying to get equal rights with Christians but rather are trying to annihilate, erase and destroy our christian heritage and faith.
And that feeling of persecution is the reason for their strong defense. And I think that the Christians are correct in their judgment of the motivations of the people who want to take down the displays. And I think that the Christians are incredibly frustrated that everyone doesn’t see the hatred behind the masquerade of “defending the first amendment”.
Love would have asked to add a menorah.
Many Christians are open to Jewish imagery… Not so much with Hindu, Muslim, Wiccan, etc…
By the way, I agree those other religions aren’t trying to get equal rights with those of you Christians who feel you are exclusively living in America, because you don’t interact with Americans of other religions, and think your violations of the Constitution don’t matter. All other Americans have equal rights under the Constitution, as do you, already. No litigation needs to be undertaken to make Christian displays, or other exclusively religious displays on public land unlawful, unconstitutional, and mean they will cost taxpayers big wads of cash, so I suggest you get busy removing them.
Although, as Jesus told us in Matthew 22, (The Greatest Commandment), treating those other citizens with the rights we wish we had, is the very least we should do as Christians, isn’t it? But I wonder if perhaps you didn’t read Chris’ blog entry from Monday thoroughly?
“People talk about “Freedom of Religion,”but what they really want is freedom for their religion to be dominant.”
I think when you make blanket assumptions like that one it cuts off the conversation. Do you want to really know what people are thinking or do you want to denigrate them?
I’m not sure if Arachne646 was asking the questions above to me or someone else, but my answer would be that I would like everyone to have equal rights to display their religion’s artifacts wherever they want in a fair manner. I say everywhere because the post above criticized people with displays in the front yards of their private homes.
I think that if the photo of the idol above was placed near the cross in the town square it would allow all citizens the ability to see and judge for themselves who they would worship. And I think that the action would then have more transparency, unless the goal of removing the Christian symbols is really to remove Christianity– which I think it is.
There are no “Christian Symbols” only living with pure intentions, actions, and demonstrating Christ’s love to Everyone without discrimination. Anything else is Idol Worship. Icons- Idol worship, Crucifix- idol worship. We are COMMANDED not to swear upon anything on Earth or In Heaven, to let our yes be yes, and our no be no.
James 5:12 But above all things, my brethren, swear not, neither by heaven, neither by the earth, neither by any other oath: but let your yea be yea; and your nay, nay; lest ye fall into condemnation.
Who swears by the nativity? We are called to common sense, too. One pound of learning requires ten pounds of common sense to apply it.
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