DECEMBER 22, 2003
The Political Square, Festooned
Martin E. Marty
All is well in America at Christmas. The Wall Street Journal (December
19) cheers the superabundance of Christmas lighting around American homes. "Energy
Puritans may denounce the inessential use of electricity," but aesthetic
pleasure and low costs, thanks to consumerist economics, should and do win out.
Joy to the world!
Or: not all is well in America pre-Christmas. An accompanying editorial in the same paper rages that "the grinches … are again out in full force, trying their best to strip from our public squares any hint of what most Americans will actually be celebrating come Christmas morn." The editors point, quite properly, to some legal sillinesses, if not outrages: a New York City judge may allow a public school to display Jewish menorahs and Islamic stars-and-crescents because these are secular, but may rule against a Nativity scene. It's religious. In Palm Beach, Florida, citizens are suing to place a creche on public property that does feature a menorah. A Washington state teacher allows Hanukkah songs, but expunges the word "Christmas" from secular "carols." Grinchy. Stupid. Let's agree.
Where the Journal and the prosecutors of the traditional "December Wars" on all sides go wrong is when they talk about all this as "public square" conflicts. Not at all. These battles have to do with the "political square," which is only a species of the generic "public" sphere. It is fights over the political square, not the public square(s), that pit citizen against citizen, believer against believer, communities against themselves, religion against religion -- to no measurable positive effect.
Empirical research: we live in a town with perhaps two thousand homes with two thousand lawns festooned seasonally with two million (or is it too billion) lights at Christmas. There are not enough Jews or Muslims to make things interesting in this town with six Christian churches. The village is so Christian, it even votes Republican. This week the Martys have nightly driven through the streets of this overwhelmingly Christian town, enjoying lawn displays mounted in public by our townspeople who, the Journal says, without having taking a pew-census of sleeping America, "will actually be celebrating come Christmas morn."
These Christians' lawns are public, in public, subjects of publicity. We saw reindeer, Santas, bells, angels (now thoroughly secularized, aren't they?), and wreaths, but almost never, almost never, Nativity displays, though we are free to display there. Creches are easily available in our markets, but are largely unsold.
Bottom line: the Nativity-Menorah-Crescent battles are not about religion. They are about politics, about preemption of space in the official polis. Wielders of these and other symbols (e.g., Ten Commandments) placed there are saying, "We belong, and you don't." "We own the tradition. You don't."
Our founders cited Montesquieu: "to attack a religion is by favor, by the commodities of life ... by what makes men lukewarm." For centuries, European Christians festooned their political squares and spaces, favoring Christian symbols, and people turned lukewarm. Here the voluntary sector and its public places: lawns, advertisements, malls, concert halls, art galleries, forums, and neighborhood celebrations beckon, but Christians would rather fight in court than freely make use of them to praise God and for the enjoyment of all.