December 16, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Happy holidays and God bless us, every one!

Recently, members of the Indiana House of Representatives got rapped on the knuckles for praying to Christ and singing a distinctly Christian hymn during the opening ceremonies of its session. It seems the Jewish members, especially, were offended so they enlisted the help of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union to protest these events.

Now, it’s my impression that the ICLU is often on the alert to squash public Christian expression in any form while neglecting to find fault with the overt practice of other beliefs. Sometimes they seem to go too far to protect us from practicing our religion, which I always thought was one of our basic rights. Silly me.

On the other hand, think how we Christians would feel if the invocation insisted on the primacy of a single God, not triune as we believe. Or if it invoked Allah as the sole agent of salvation or Buddha as the source of all wisdom.

Many of us might say, “What the heck. That’s OK with me if they want to pray that way. It doesn’t affect my faith.” But then, Christians are still a majority of believers in this country, especially in Indiana, and it’s much less threatening to be part of the majority.

OK, fine. Perhaps in public venues, such as the state Legislature, we are required to invoke spiritual attention in more general terms. Appeal to an unnamed higher power for wisdom, acknowledging that human abilities are limited, is not only a safe prayer, but also a meaningful one to almost anybody but a militant atheist. And, unlike the number of believers, I’m not sure there are many of them in Indiana.

Still, we should be proud of our Catholic Christian faith and protective of it when it’s really threatened. Which brings us to the current celebrations of Christmas.

Being as old as the proverbial dirt, I can remember when Christmas was celebrated in public grade schools with the singing of Christmas carols and pageants featuring the entire Christian cast of characters. No one seemed to mind, probably because the community was composed mainly of Christians.

Later, a Jewish friend told me of her father’s experience as an immigrant boy in Milwaukee public schools in the 1930s. Being the smallest child in class, he was chosen to be the baby Jesus in the school’s Christmas pageant. When he proudly told his mom about his assignment, she said, “That’s nice, son. But when they celebrate Easter, don’t volunteer for that part.” It had never occurred to me that my school’s Christmas customs might offend anyone.

But when I thought about what my friend said, I realized that our country was created not only to permit, but also to respect diversity in race, religion, sexual identity, ethnic origin or whatever. So, ideally, we should be able to compromise on public religious expressions.

No matter what they call it now, the upcoming holiday (holi-day) began in recorded history (his-story after all) as a Christian feast. Christian Americans are entitled to make this fact part of the day’s public celebration, which others should respect.

On the other hand, if non-Christians want to celebrate a “Happy Holiday” season of good will and generosity at this time of the winter solstice, so be it. And God bless them.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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