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Kudos to the Bush Administration for Putting the Happy in Holiday -- by Sending Out Holiday Cards and Having a National Holiday Tree

Thursday, Dec. 15, 2005

I am happy to report that this holiday season, the Bush Administration has chosen the correct side of the social war over church and state.

Lately, under President Bush's leadership, it has appeared that the separation of church and state is vanishing to zero, as right-wing Christian groups called the shots. The ridiculous federal Terri Schiavo law attempted to make a religious point at the cost of constitutional federalism. The push to get federal funds to religious groups in every situation -- whether it was an inner-city church, Jerry Falwell, or the religious groups that took on the Katrina victims as part of their religious mission - aimed to mingle church and state. Also grievously disappointing was the Department of Justice's practice of filing meritless suits under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act to force cities to give religious landowners preferential treatment, and allow them to avoid the zoning laws everyone else must follow.

I must give the President his due, however. This holiday season, he did not follow the dictates of the so-called Reconstructionist movement, nor of his most conservative Christian advisors. Rather, he engineered a small but significant revolution: This year, there is a "National Holiday Tree," and he sent "Happy Holiday" cards.

The Blowback That Bush's Holiday Tree and Cards Caused

The tree and cards caused quite a stir. William Donohue of the Catholic League declared, "This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements of our culture." He continued, "To neuter Christmas, this is sending the wrong message to Christians and the culture at large."

Similarly, Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative website said, Bush "claims to be a born-again evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one. I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it." And House Speaker Dennis Hastert had a fit when he learned that the tree was a "holiday tree" and not a "Christmas tree."

Some have even suggested that if you are uncomfortable with the federal (or state and local) government endorsing Christianity, you should find another country. Their theory is that this is and always has been a "Christian country," so just get over it.

Has Bush somehow betrayed Christmas - or Christians? Hardly.

Christianity in Early America Was Diverse, and Sects Were in Conflict

Those who would designate the President of the United States as the lead Christian missionary, and who would capitalize on the Christmas celebration to put forth a Christian agenda, ought to reflect on the fact that Christians in early America differed bitterly on what Christianity ought to mean. Any idea of a unified Christian tradition that formed the religious background for our Constitution is, put simply, a myth.

Here are a series of well-established facts about Christians in early America:

The Puritans were the established church of Massachusetts, and they believed the following: believe what you want, but if you do not believe what we do, leave. It is an unfortunate historical truth that the Puritans escaped oppression in Europe, only to become oppressors here. (They also opposed public Christmas celebrations, ironically enough.)

The Baptists who lived in Massachusetts were not permitted to practice their form of baptism (total immersion), because the established church, the Puritans, believed the Baptists' beliefs were wrong, blasphemous, and heretical. The Baptists opposed the establishment of the Puritans' church, because they experienced the consequences of having the government stand behind one religion. They were, at the time, a severely oppressed, politically powerless religion (though with eloquent preachers).

The Quakers in Pennsylvania are often said to have been tolerant. They were, but it is also true that they were tolerant of non-believers only because they believed that if given enough time, the non-believers would see the light and become Quakers. In any event, they did not run nonbelievers out of their communities. Instead they found a way - opposite the Puritan way -- for different believers to live together.

All three Christian denominations were here during the founding era.

These facts lead to a single, inexorable conclusion: Christians were no unified bloc at the time of the founding. Far from it.

Nostalgia for A Supposedly Unified Founding Era Christianity Is Misplaced

So enough of this public discourse about grounding the United States holiday season on the "founding era." For every one who says this, they must make a choice: is it the founding era of the Puritans, the Baptists, or the Quakers, that they choose? Exclusion, oppression, or tolerance?

Let there be no mistake: Those who are saying publicly that the President of the United Statesought to put the "Christ back in Christmas" are arguing for, and participating in, the triumphalism of Christianity at the expense ofpolitically powerless believers (today, that would be the non Judeo-Christian believers). They are also selectively forgetting that there is a long tradition of tolerance on the part of some Christiansfor those with different beliefs. There is no necessary conflict betweenan inclusiveholiday message like the President's andthe history of this country.

The truth, as messy as it is, is that this country always has been a collection of competing and differing religions. And the absolute constitutional principle that one may believe whatever one chooses has fostered not just a collection, but a plethora, which is nearly uncountable, of different religious sects and organizations. The United States Constitution is responsible for fomenting extraordinary religious diversity, and for anyone now to demand that this culture be "returned" to a "Christian era" is to take both an ahistorical and an anti-constitutional position.

The President Has Rightly Honored Contemporary Religious Diversity

With his holiday message - which follows the tradition of tolerance, not that of oppression -- the President is sending a wholesome message to every believer. The message is simply this: We are all equal citizens in the eyes of the President. Americans, of any belief, are not the Baptists to his Puritan. Rather, they are to be respected for whatever celebration they choose (or not) in this season.

With the relatively small, but important gestures of his holiday card and tree, Bush has demonstrated himself not to be a puppet of the religious right, as many have accused. Rather he has marked himself out as a President who is conscious of the fact that millions of his constituents, across the United States, practice many faiths - and that they deserve his respect. The Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, and nonbelievers are citizens, every bit as fully as the Christians are.

Bush made the right choice: These are treacherous times for any Administration to choose religious sides. We are in worldwide war with a fanatical religious sect, the jihadist Islamicists, because they hate what is best about this country -- its constitutional order -- as I explained in a previous column. They hate us as Americans, regardless of our religious beliefs.

We are not participating in the Crusades, but rather fighting, quite rightly, to retain each individual's right to decide what to believe in the first instance. "Happy holidays" from the President unites all Americans as Americans and affirms the very core of what makes this country great and a threat to autocracies everywhere.

When American Christians insist on owning the culture, the law, and public policy, they seek a return to the regime of the Puritans, and the exclusionary policies that entailed. Though I'm a Presbyterian, myself, I'll take the side of the Baptists in that fight.

Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Her email address is Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005).

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