Should Governments Promote Religious Holidays?
A perennial question that comes up this time of the year is the question of how Christmas should be celebrated in public places, with a significant amount of anger and heated accusations being traded between proponents and opponents of the idea.
The Argument For
Christmas is a major part of American culture, especially since it was heavily commercialized in the late nineteenth century by nascent department stores and mail order businesses. Since the majority of the citizenry in nearly every polity on the local, state and federal levels that make up the United States are self-described Christians, governments universally make concessions to their holy day by refusing to conduct public business on or around that day. In order to maintain vital services, fire-fighters and police-men are paid bonuses for working on that day. Since governments are already marking this Christian holy day, since they are spending extra public monies for it, so why not go the extra step? After all, Christmas is a cheerful celebration marking birth and life, and God knows generally when the state shuts down business to mark an anniversary, it usually is about death; the day a war started or ended, or the day some war-maker was born or something.
Argument Against #1
Of course, a substantial minority of Christians don’t celebrate Christmas as it actually has little to do with Christianity itself. Jesus was not born anywhere near the Winter Solstice. The earliest recorded celebration of Christmas on or about the winter solstice as a Christian holiday occurred in Egypt. Their worship of the holiday bears a strong resemblance to the celebration of the resurrection of Osiris, which were also celebrated on the winter solstice. It is very clear that the leaders of the late Roman Empire folded the popular festival of Saturnalia into the new imperial Christian religion. Much like Jews making a big deal about Hanukkah, and black Americans celebrating Kwanzaa, it is clear that the early Christians made up the holiday to basically have an excuse to participate in the holidays of the non-Christian cultures they were embedded within. The Christians who don’t celebrate Christmas and view its observance as a heresy, are quite understandably upset to see it promoted anywhere. This would have included many of the colonists in new England. As frequent Reason Hit and Run commenter joe observed:
Here is Massachusetts, they had a fight a few years ago about whether the Town of Lexington should be paying to put a nativity scene on the town common. One of the arguments often made was, “What would the Minutemen say if they found out we couldn’t have a nativity scene for Christmas?”
The desired answer was, they would be aghast at the hostility of the government towards Christianity.
The correct answer was, they would be aghast at such a blatant display of papist idolatry, and smash it to bits with the butts of their muskets.
Why should people be forced to pay for blasphemy?
Argument Against #2
Some people pay taxes but don’t like to see the money spent on things that they don’t like, including Christmas celebrations. The reason they don’t approve is immaterial, perhaps they are not Christian, perhaps they are but think that Christmas should be a private matter. These folks are, of course, aghast at the misuse of money. It is one thing to compel people to pay for a good like fire-prevention. It is another to force people to pay for something frivolous like a manger scene. They want their tax money spent on other things, perhaps ensuring that children have adequate health care or for more policemen or better radios for firefighters. If they were in charge the public monies would go to those things and not be frittered away on displays.
Argument Against #3
Of course, a significant number of people aren’t Christian, yet they too have their own ways of celebrating the Winter Solstice. Why shouldn’t they have their traditions celebrated as well? Where should one draw the line? At having the 49% of the population who are non-believers subsidize to 51% who are? 25%? 5%?
Again, why should a man be forced to pay for another religion’s celebrations?
Christmas at Disney-world: Where’s the Controversy?
“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?” [asked Inspector Gregory]
“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” [answered Holmes]
“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.
Every year, Disney-world has a massive extravaganza in celebration of Christmas. This celebration elicits little or no controversy. People don’t file lawsuits or get in shouting matches over their choices of how to celebrate the holiday. Why is that? It’s not that a single individual or sect owns the property. Disney’s board of directors answer to the shareholders, and there are millions of shareholders who own Disney, more than the thousands of voting taxpayers living in Lexington, MA. Surely there must be atheists, Jews, or people opposed to ostentatious displays of Christmas cheer in their ranks. Why do these millions not get angry while a mere ten thousand or so get into shouting matches? The answer lies in the fact that people who are unhappy with Disney’s decision are free to end their involvement with the company. They can sell their shares. They can refuse to give their custom to Disney-world.
But when it comes to government, people are denied that freedom. In his wonderful 15+ hour Commentaries, Robert LeFevre recounts the story of an exchange he had with a town commissioner. At the time, he was a newspaperman, and he was asked to publish an announcement on behalf of the town government to the effect that a local park would be closed to public access on a certain night. The commissioner explained that they had invited a youth group from a neighboring town to have a party of some kind in the park. LeFevre, apparently feeling a little mischievous, challenged the commissioner and asked him by what right he could make such a decision. The commissioner explained that he had been appointed by the townspeople who collectively owned the park. “Aha” LeFevre said, “you see, I know something about the guests you have invited, and they are rough customers.” He told the commissioner that he feared the guests would damage the park, and as an owner he would be on the hook for repairs. Since he thought his ownership share in the park was about to become a liability, he told the commissioner that he would like to sell his share. The commissioner, of course was apoplectic at the idea; “you can’t sell your share!” he cried. Regardless or Robert LeFevre’s concerns, he was a prisoner. So long as he lived within the commissioner’s zone of control, he was yoked to the wagon of state, compelled to go where the commissioner directed it, and forced to yield his back to the commissioner’s whip. As LeFevre predicted, the guests caused a significant amount of damage to the park. The damage was repaired at cost to the taxpayers.
Government Action Inevitably Causes Conflict
By forcing people to bear the costs of government, government officials are setting people at each other’s throats. Rather than being a force for peace and civilization, the government becomes a divisive entity, weakening the bonds of fellowship. People who otherwise would get along and have good relations with each other find themselves driven into conflict.
If the fans of Christmas really which to honor the Prince of Peace, they should eschew government-funded displays in favor of privately funded ones. Otherwise they are nudging society in a more conflict-prone, violent direction.