Robert Meyer
War on Christmas v. religious liberty
By Robert Meyer
January 2, 2014

While listening to the radio in my car several days ago, I heard about a new poll where a small majority of people said that there actually is no war on Christmas. Every year the term "War on Christmas" gets bandied about as we approach the holiday season. But I have to wonder if the term really expresses the actual phenomenon occurring in culture.

Personally, I think asking whether there is a war on Christmas is asking the wrong question to begin with. We should be asking whether Christian influence in public discourse is under assault. Of course it is, and the rub here is that it is merely more observable in the Christmas season, to those not constantly monitoring this issue.

Secularists hardly mind the goodwill engendered during the season, where they remind us about celebrating the winter solstice. Consumerists are gleefully exploiting their "shop till you drop" mentality in mass media advertisements. Santa still appears at department stores and waves to children in Thanksgiving parades. Little of this draws protests. So, other than the politically correct prohibitions against uttering certain phrases at retail cash registers, there is little that the non-religious or those hostile toward religious belief, would object to in regards to the secular observance of Christmas. That is the chief reason why polls about the "War on Christmas" yield confusing statistical responses.

On the other hand, can we deny the continued proliferation of court orders by religious suppression organizations, banning religiously themed displays and symbols, that have mysteriously become unconstitutional, or at least questionably divisive in recent decades? And how about the trend toward Christian belief becoming the disproportional target of comic ridicule, satire and denunciation?

A more subtle trend is the propensity to conflate the terms "freedom of worship" with "free exercise of religion." The first is a component of the second; the terms are not synonymous. Even more disturbing, this semantic reversal has been prominent in the speeches of the current administration over the past several years.

Columnist Ross Douthat makes this point in his column Defining Religious Liberty Down

"You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House's own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much."

Writer Ashley Samelson also summarized this well in an opinion piece entitled Why "Freedom of Worship" Is Not Enough.

To anyone who closely follows prominent discussion of religious freedom in the diplomatic and political arena, this linguistic shift is troubling."

"The reason is simple. Any person of faith knows that religious exercise is about a lot more than freedom of worship. It's about the right to dress according to one's religious dictates, to preach openly, to evangelize, to engage in the public square..."

"Those who would limit religious practice to the cathedral and the home are the very same people who would strip the public square of any religious presence. They are working to tear down roadside memorial crosses built to commemorate fallen state troopers in Utah, to strip 'Under God' from the Pledge of Allegiance, and they recently stopped a protester from entering an art gallery because she wore a pro-life pin."

Freedom of worship is largely a function of personal piety, which would be difficult for government to regulate in the first place. Religious liberty implies the right to act publicly. An authoritative source not known for its conservative leanings has spoken on this matter.

Article 18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) provides:
    Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Much of the reason that we have seen a linguistic shift between "free exercise of religion" and "freedom of worship," is because we have witnessed a corresponding change in First Amendment jurisprudence regarding the intent and meaning of the Establishment clause over the past several decades.

Justice Joseph Story wrote the first comprehensive commentary on the U.S. Constitution, and reflected heavily on the original intent of the First Amendment.

§ 1868. "Probably at the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it, now under consideration, the general, if not the universal, sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation."

§1871. "The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution, (the vice and pest of former ages,) and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled ..upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age..."

Story's statements hardly infer that indifference or even "neutrality" as we currently understand it, is necessary to avoid "establishment."

George Washington began his Thanksgiving Proclamation with this assertion.

"Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor..."

Washington was chairman of the convention that framed the First Amendment, yet apparently Washington, nor Congress viewed the act of "acknowledging God," as an act of establishment, as the "affirmative action for atheist crowd" seems to. Go figure.

© Robert Meyer


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Robert Meyer

Robert Meyer is a hardy soul who hails from the Cheesehead country of the upper midwest... (more)


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