Monday, December 20, 2004

I have a fellowship that is designed, in part, to get historians (such as the one I hope soon to be) to comment on public affairs. Obviously, I comment on public affairs all the time, but I'm supposed to learn to comment as an "expert", informed by my scholarship. And to be honest, this makes me very nervous. I'm not entirely convinced that people who study the past in minute detail actually do have particular insight into the present and future. Certainly, I think people who study the present in minute detail know more about current events than I do. And I'm conscious of the ways in which the past can be selectively remembered and manipulated to suit political goals. My politics don't grow out of my engagement with the past: as with all historians, my interpretations of the past are informed by my politics.

With that disclaimer, however, I'm going to launch into two quick points about the debate over public celebrations of Christmas. Because I do think a historians' perspective might clarify some things.

First of all, when Americans first started arguing about religion and public life, the arguments were not between Christians and Jews, Christians and atheists, or believers and atheists. The parties to the debate were all believing Christians. Even when the overwhelming majority of Americans were Christian, this country was always characterized by extreme, potentially-divisive religious diversity. At least in the North, the impetus to ban prayer in public schools came not from atheists or Jews, but from fights between Catholics and Protestants. In the nineteenth century, there was no religiously neutral way to pray: Protestants held that the King James Bible was G-d's Word; Catholics held that was blasphemy. Catholics and Protestants had different versions of the Ten Commandments and the Lord's Prayer. By the 1850s, militant Protestants were arguing that Catholic children should be forced to recite Protestant prayers, since America was a Protestant country and Catholicism incompatible with good citizenship; militant Catholics were arguing that the government should fund Catholic parochial schools, since public schools were being used as Protestant indoctrination centers; and moderates on both sides determined that taking prayer out of public schools was the only workable compromise.

These days, it's fashionable among right-wing nut jobs to suggest, in so many words, that there's a Jewish or atheistic conspiracy to deny America's Christian heritage by removing Christ from public life. In fact, we separate church and state in part in deference to the heartfelt beliefs of various kinds of Christians. Separating church and state is an outgrowth of America's Christian heritage, not an affront to it.

Second of all, people who advocate government acknowledgement of Christianity often suggest as a compromise that the government put up a menorah next to the public creche. There's only one reason that this seems like a viable compromise, and that reason is America's history of racist immigration policies. Until the middle of the twentieth century, Asians were not allowed to become naturalized American citizens. For much of the period of mass immigration, they were barred from even entering the country. Until the 1960s, there was pretty much only one minority religion in the country, because the vast majority of the world's Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (and Sikhs, Jains, etc.) couldn't be American. In the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S. got rid of its racist immigration and naturalization policy, and the country became much more religiously diverse. To me, as a Jew, putting a menorah next to the Christmas tree was never an acceptable compromise: Chanukkah is a very minor Jewish holiday, and it fundamentally distorts my religion in order to comply with a Christian-centric calendar. But it's not even possible, in the context of contemporary American religious diversity, to acknowledge every religion or to find an appropriate wintertime holiday for every faith. As America's religious profile comes more in line with the rest of the world's, we're going to have to realize that the only way to keep the government religiously-neutral is to keep the government out of the religion business altogether.

Personally, I love Christmas, perhaps because not celebrating it takes off some of the pressure. I feel guilty about how much I love all the over-the-top lit-up houses: I know it's a waste of electricity, but it's hard to focus on that when the lights are so dang pretty. I adore listening to Christmas carolers. I think it's great when individuals, churches, clubs, and other private entities celebrate their most sacred holidays, either in public or in private. (Businesses are more complicated: it doesn't bother me, but it does piss off some of the more devout Christians I know. But that's a whole different issue.) But the government has to represent all of us, and we are too diverse for the government to acknowledge all of our religions equally. We need to look to our nineteenth-century forbears and come up with the same compromise: when there's no way to be religiously-neutral, just don't acknowledge religion at all.

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