April 13, 2009
— Martin E. Marty
America got past the seasonal holidays and festivals relatively unscathed this month. Such an observation may sound surprising, because one would not expect holidays or festivals to scathe anyone. "Holiday," says definition one in the dictionary, is HOLY DAY. "Festival," says the same authority, is "a time of celebration marked by special observances." Religions, like nations, cannot not observe special days. Observing is in their lifeblood, and holidays and festivals breed loyalty and inspire passion. All positive.
Yet observance of holidays can breed conflict. People get killed in clashes over holidays. An observation from Voltaire about England, one that James Madison picked up on: In societies with one religion (in my translation), everyone who does not belong gets killed. Holiday-observers bring out the knives. More Voltaire: In two-religion societies, they kill each other. We see this relationship between Protestant and Catholic in the Thirty Years War and in Northern Ireland's recent past, or between Shi'ite and Sunni Iraq. However, wrote Voltaire, because England had thirty religions, they had to find ways to get along.
The United States has more than thirty, and for decades if not centuries, citizens have been learning to get along, to accommodate each other, to refrain from killing "the other." We are far from being at ease about pluralism and diversity at festival time, so to get through relatively unscathed (with fewer court cases, fewer interrupted school board meetings, and less gnashing of teeth about neighbors' ways) is something about which to cheer. The religious might some day be able to concentrate on HOLY DAY and celebration.
I played a game with Google. Link "religious holidays" and "conflict," and "December Wars" alone turn up 54,400,000 hits. That's the worst, as defenders and attackers of baby Jesus have it out with each other. Because Good Friday is a school day in most districts, the number you get is 4,870,000; Easter, a serene Sunday, brings up only 564,000 conflicts, many of them intra-Christian occasions of debate about the date of Easter. Passover? The number is 180,000. Recall again that these numbers include internal, member-versus-member controversy and not always with outsiders. Muslim? Eid brings up 143,000, while Islamic holidays together draw 1,030,000 references.
Whoever has been near controversies and conflicts over religious holidays, whether in legislatures, courts, or school boards, knows to duck when Easter eggs fly, the crèche is on the court house lawn, or Jewish or Muslim children have a hard time getting excused from school for their holiday. One state that decided to take this issue on and allow for "HOLY DAY" and "celebration," is New Jersey, which by law lets children's absences be excused when school does not close for their holidays. That state recognized seventy-five religious holidays: thirty-two Christian, fourteen Jewish, eleven Hindu, eight Buddhist, eight Muslim, and a scattering of others. Commented a Star-Ledger article three years ago: "For state officials more familiar with pedagogy than theology, it can be a challenge to sort it all out," and "setting the religious calendars for schools can be a complex process."
Empathize with pedagogues and calendar-makers. Their jobs are indeed complex and the stakes are high. One wishes that conflict did not always loom, but the price these officials pay helps breed civil peace in a warring world, a fact that prompts Thanksgiving Day, when everyone gets off to give thanks, or watch football on television. Happy holidays!
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.