Keeping the “Free” in “Freedom”

Is it heresy for Americans to try and keep Christ in Christmas? That’s the charge made by Stephen Ingram in a recent blog post. His hometown of Piedmont, Alabama has recently run into some trouble with the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The anti-religious activist group first demanded an end to prayer over the intercom at the town’s football games. The town conceded under the threat of legal action and opted for a moment of silence instead. More recently, the town chose the controversial theme of “Keep Christ in Christmas” for their annual Christmas parade and then backed away once again when it unsurprisingly caused controversy among the same activists.

So what makes such action heresy according to Ingram? Well, he says American Christians need to stop playing the persecution card, that taking such actions through civic institutions imposes religion on the irreligious or differently religious, that Christianity itself eschews political power in favor of meekness, and most importantly, that Christ is already in Christmas of his own accord and so we don’t need to put him there. For a Christian to insist on the point shows a lack of faith and a “belligerent” attitude at odds with his religion.

In a way, I do think he has a point. Granted, I don’t think Ingram quite grasps what the word “heresy” actually means as he casually throws it about—while he clearly considers culture warrior Christians to be in error, I don’t get the impression that he considers those who persist in the error to be cut off from the Body of Christ and Hell-bound. But if we overlook his poor choice of words, his observations that the persecution card is overplayed, that Christ is already in Christmas no matter what we do, and that Christianity neither requires nor demands political power to spread the Gospel are entirely correct.

But while Ingram has a point regarding his criticisms of some Christians, this is not the only aspect of the ongoing “war of Christmas” controversy. This is one of those matters that crosses the boundaries between the Two Kingdoms and exists in both at once. In the Church—the right-hand kingdom—the matter is already settled as Ingram suggests. It is not a fight that we need to even take part in, let alone win. Nevertheless, as long as Christians live in this world, we also bear dual-citizenship. Our home is heaven, but for the sake of our earthly neighbors, individual Christians must still take an active role in the kingdom of the left—civil government—through our vocations. For example, the Christian leaves it to God to avenge wrongs, but a Christian who is an officer of the law has been called by God to avenge wrongs done against his fellow citizens, for as Paul writes of civil authorities in Romans, “he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” Likewise, though a Christian must turn the other cheek, a Christian soldier holds an office whose God-given responsibility is often to kill and maim.

When these facts of life in the Two Kingdoms are taken into account, the controversy over Christmas and public expressions of faith are not nearly so cut and dry. After all, freedom of religion is not merely a benefit for Christians, but for all American citizens regardless of their religion. Accordingly, it is indeed a matter of responsibility for Christian citizens to fight for this freedom on behalf of our neighbors—Christian and unbeliever alike. But the beating heart of religious freedom in the United States is not the recently discovered and constitutionally dubious doctrine of utter separation of church and state as Ingram seems to suppose. Rather, the freedom of all citizens is found in the free exercise of religion granted by the First Amendment.

Thus, what is at stake in the war on Christmas are not primarily theological questions, but civic ones: First, are Americans allowed to have an individual religious identity? And second, are groups of Americans allowed to have collective religious identities?

The First Amendment does forbid the establishment of a state church, but it in no way imposes the incoherent burden of religious neutrality on our civic institutions, nor does it demand that the right to free exercise of religion end when one crosses from the private to the public sphere. We can already see where this leads. Our President talks about “freedom of worship” rather than free exercise. But freedom of worship is nothing more than the right to go into a private building and follow one’s preferred liturgy on any day of the week so long as it is out of the public view.

But the right of free exercise of religion cannot end there, for there is no religion on earth that ends there. Whatever the specific details of one’s god, the very nature of a god is that it is supreme—that it lays claim to one’s entire life rather than merely one’s private life. This is true regardless of whether one follows a traditional religion. Even the hedonist, whose god is pleasure, does not leave his worship of pleasure behind when he enters the public sphere. He certainly may refrain from certain pursuits in the public eye, but he will only do so if this will net him more pleasure in the long run—it is still his god which dictates his public activities. So it is with the Christian, the Muslim, the Utilitarian, and the Scientologist. And so, when the follower of a god becomes a public official—anything from simple voter all the way up to President of the country—he does not and cannot cease following that god. He will instead look to what that god demands of someone within that public office.

If our neighbor’s right to free exercise is to have any meaning at all, then they must be able to exercise that right even within their public capacities, for they cannot stop serving their god while teaching, coaching, or governing without making their god less than a god—less than their ultimate concern. A mayor or council in charge of a public event or institution must therefore have the freedom to choose what kind of religious character (if any) it is to have. One may talk of religious neutrality in our public institutions, but one may never actually achieve it. When the question is whether to pray before games or not to pray before games, only one side may have their way. There is no neutral ground between X and not-X. To pretend that X or not-X is a neutral position that must be adopted by default is to grant victory to one side rather than the other. It merely grants that victory through deception and pretense rather than open and honest debate. It cries fairness while forbidding one side from even having a seat at the table. If decisions must be made one way or another, it is far better to allow both sides to honestly and openly contend for their goals, for such is the very substance of religious freedom.

But what of those whose religious sensibilities are offended by the free expression of their public officials? What protection do we have against, say, someone who believes his god demands a parade in December? Our contemporary response has been to avoid these controversies and provide such protection by restricting free expression. If the Christian cannot freely express himself in public, then he cannot offend the Muslim, nor impose religious responsibilities upon him and vice versa. But pursuing this course to its end leads only to the eradication of the freedoms of both Christian and Muslim alike—the relegation of religion to a small portion of their lives.

There is another way of handling these disputes—an American tradition that is remarkably simple and effective: voting. If you do not like the manner in which your representative represents you, then vote for someone who you think will do a better job. Now not everyone will get their way. The Christian in New York City would never be able to achieve a Keep Christ in Christmas parade, nor (presumably) would an atheist in Piedmont be able to stop one. Nevertheless, this approach allows all citizens to freely follow their gods and openly contend for what those gods demand. Their freedoms are left intact even for those who do not get their way. Such is life in a society.

But what of those who believe his god demands the imposition of his religion at the expense of all the others? What of a potential majority among a single religion that would throw all the others under the bus? Here, we do have Constitutional protections—not by limiting the religious freedom of individuals, but by limiting the potential power and authority of government. Our government is forbidden from creating a state church and from restricting religious freedoms by, say, forcing adherence to one religion at the expense of others.

Nevertheless, we cannot consider such protections to be religiously neutral, for different religions have different understandings of government. Islam, for example, does not delineate religion and government at all. It is simultaneously a religion and a philosophy for temporal government. This is very different from Christianity, which does distinguish between the two. Our precise doctrines may differ among two kingdoms, sphere sovereignty, subsidiary sovereignty, etc, but Christianity does recognize a distinction. It is therefore no accident that religious liberty arose in the Christian West as opposed to the Middle East. Accordingly, it would be fair to consider the 1st Amendment to inherently favor Christianity over Islam even as it seeks to protect the religious freedoms of Christians and Muslims alike.

It is here that Christians must therefore consider the question of a collective religious identity among Americans. The simple fact is that not all collective religious identities would be of equal service to our neighbor. Neither can we simply refuse to have one, for this would merely be the de facto adoption of secular humanism or atheism as the national religion. This is exactly what political liberals in this country have been carrying out for a long time, and their ever growing hatred for the consciences of those who do not share their faith has been quickly eroding religious freedom. It is clear that not every religious identity will be inclined to allow religious liberties to others. Therefore, if we are to serve our neighbors as Christians, we cannot simply practice our religion as discrete individuals, but as communities.

When it so happens that a municipality acquires a religious identity of this kind, there is no inherent need to quash it. Regardless of whether I think it is a good idea to have a “Keep Christ in Christmas” parade, it should be within the purview of the municipality in charge of that parade. Regardless of whether I think it is a good idea to have a prayer before a football game, those in charge of the game ought to have the freedom to follow their best judgment. It is unfortunate that some citizens will feel left out, but they will nevertheless be free to pursue their own religion however they feel. Too many Christians have bought the postmodern lie that religious freedom for all means subduing everyone’s public expressions of religion—especially the majority’s. On the contrary, such public expressions of religion are the incarnation of religious liberty. For the sake of their neighbors, Christians must honestly contend for their religion. This should be an obvious service for those neighbors who are Christians, but it is no less a service for the Hindu and Buddhist, for their religious freedoms depend on public expression as well—both their own and ours.

This is the true challenge of religious tolerance in America. Too many suppose it to be the incoherent task of suspending religious judgments. But if a god’s nature is to hold authority over the judgment of its followers, then to suspend religious judgment is merely to suspend religious freedom. If Americans must make religious judgments, then we must do so as best as we are able—Christians included. Do we dare to allow our neighbors their freedom? Is that freedom worth the price of both causing and encountering offense? If Christians so dare and so value freedom, then the war on Christmas is worth fighting—not merely for the sake of our own religion, but for the sake of the religious liberty of all Americans.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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One Response to Keeping the “Free” in “Freedom”

  1. Pingback: Father Knows Best: Mid-December Edition | Patriactionary

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