The annual RI Christmas Follies
As much a part of the Christian Advent season in Rhode Island as caroling, gifts and mangers is the annual political joust over public celebrations of Christmas.
Over the years, our multi-cultural little slice of New England has seemed to relish these holiday rifts as much as a fresh plate steamers after the Bristol parade in July.
A generation ago it was Pawtucket and Barrington. Pawtucket’s 1980s holiday display with a manger triggered a legal scrum that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court ruled 5 to 4 in a decision authored by Chief Justice Warren Burger that the Pawtucket crèche did not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Establishment clause because it did not confer government endorsement of a particular religion. The crèche, opined Burger, was merely part of a larger display that included such secular elements as reindeer, holiday trees and Santa Claus figures.
A few years later, Barrington was the site of one of these divisive battles. The issue, again, was a crèche, this time on the town-owned lawn of the Town Hall. (The Pawtucket display was owned by the city but placed on private property). The Barrington issue drew national television cameras to chronicle the splits in a suburban town. The issue faded when the Barrington Congregational Church shifted the crèche to church property. But before the move, the Barrington crèche matter brought to the surface nasty emotions, including more than a hint of anti-Semitism.
Fast forward to 2011, where the State House is the scene for an issue completely remote from the spirit of Christmas. The controversy this time is over Governor Lincoln Chafee’s decision to call the State House evergreen a `holiday’ tree rather than a Christmas tree.
The usual suspects have chimed in on this one, including talk show hosts, an overblown ProJo top-of-the-fold page one article and the usual run of publicity-seeking pols. Surprisingly (or perhaps not) Rev. Bishop Thomas Tobin, Roman Catholic bishop of Providence, slammed Chafee. Tobin told the ProJo that Chafee’s decision was “disheartening and divisive’’ and “ignores long-held American traditions and is an affront to the faith of many citizens.’’
“For the sake of peace and harmony in our state at this special time of the year, I respectfully encourage the governor to reconsider his decision to use the word Christmas in the state observance,’’ Tobin said in a statement.
The long-held tradition in the U.S., and especially in our corner of New England, is religious tolerance. The state establishes no religion, thus neither promoting nor discouraging any religious observance. This is basically Governor Chafee’s message. It harkens to Roger Williams, founder of Providence.
Chafee’s stance is the same as that of neighboring governors in Massachusetts and Connecticut, both heavily Roman Catholic states. Both governors, Deval Patrick of Massachusetts and Dan Molloy of Connecticut, are holding ceremonies that are dubbed `holiday’ events.
Christmas trees were not part of the original Christmas story. There is no mention in the New Testament of Christmas trees being a crucial part of any celebration of the birth of the Christ child. Maybe Christmas trees – or any other religious symbols – ought to be kept out of the capitol.
What is more, there was no political outcry or big ProJo story when then-First Lady Suzanne Carcieri appeared several years ago at an anti-abortion prayer service in the State House rotunda. If ever there was a blurring of the lines between church and state that one has to qualify.
Why should any religion be able to claim the State House as its own?
Some Christians think their beliefs are under siege in our country, despite much evidence to the contrary. The United States is the most Christian nation in the industrialized western world. Six of the 9 justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, the court which establishes the boundaries of church and state, are practicing Roman Catholics. Where is the discrimination against Christians?
Now comes the Rev. Donald Anderson, executive director of the RI State Council of Churches, which represents mainline Protestant denominations. Anderson makes much sense when he says that fighting over semantics is not upholding the spirit of Christmas.
“I would ask my fellow Christians, with all of the poverty, hunger and injustice that surround us, do we really believe that Jesus would have us spend all of this time and energy around what we would call a tree,’’ said Anderson in a statement. “Do we truly think that the Jesus of the Gospels cares what we call a tree? I would suggest that if we truly want to honor the birth of Jesus, let us be found honoring and serving one another in recognition and thanksgiving of what God has done for us.
“The governor, as have others, has chosen a more inclusive term to refer to the tree in the rotunda. Why is this such a problem? My exuberance is not diminished one iota by what we call that tree, for my celebration focuses on the implication of Jesus birth for my life.’’
Trees, gifts and ornaments to not reflect the celebration of Emanuel, God’s presence with us, in the person of the newborn Jesus.
Christmas, as Anderson says, “marks the beginning of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. I, along with many others of our faith tradition, have long regretted the theft of this celebration by commercialization.’’
Amen, Rev. Anderson. It is too bad that some very public Christian spokespeople don’t worry more about the pollution of Christmas into a shopping frenzy than what the governor calls a tree that happens to adorn the State House.