Christmas Cranks: Rhode Island Governor Under Fire For ‘Holiday Tree’

Some Rhode Island residents are bent out of shape over a 'holiday tree' at the statehouse.

My family and I are planning to get a Christmas tree this weekend. We usually opt for a Fraser fir. They’re attractive trees with sharp needles that discourage our two cats from getting too close.

I have no problem calling it a Christmas tree because we celebrate Christmas. But if someone called it a “holiday tree” or even “a seasonal evergreen display,” I wouldn’t much care. The holiday will come either way, and we’ll still experience all of our traditions.

In Rhode Island, some people are all worked up because Gov. Lincoln Chafee has repeatedly referred to the “holiday tree” at the statehouse in Providence. The Fox News Channel has been whining incessantly, and politicians in the state are piling on.

Even Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence has joined in. Tobin called Chafee’s terminology “most disheartening and divisive” and said the governor’s action is “an affront to the faith of many citizens.”

In response, Chafee has pointed out that Rhode Island was founded by Roger Williams, a 17th-century religious liberty pioneer who despised all forms of government-sponsored religion. Williams, who fled Massachusetts because he couldn’t tolerate the bay colony’s oppressive theocracy, once uttered the memorable line, “Forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.”

So what’s really going on here? Are people in Rhode Island really so thin-skinned that they have nothing better to do than fight over what to call a Christmas tree? I doubt it. I think politics has a lot to do with it.

Jim Baron, a columnist for the Woonsocket Call, gets it right.

“I’m sorry, but I get a whiff of politics about all this nonsense,” Baron wrote recently. “This isn’t about some ‘War on Christmas.’ It is a war on Chafee.”

Baron noted that Chafee’s predecessor, Republican Donald Carcieri, used the term “holiday tree,” and no one batted an eyelash.

“But now that Chafee is in the governor’s office the sky is falling because he won’t call the damn tree a Christmas tree,” Baron wrote. “Why is everyone’s hair on fire over this? Can’t they just look at it and say, ‘that’s one more thing Linc Chafee is wrong about’? I mean, these are people who already think that Linc Chafee is wrong about six things every day before breakfast. Why does this one stick in their craw?”

Part of the problem may be that Chafee doesn’t have a huge political base. He’s a former Republican who left the party because he believed it had become too conservative, and he backed Barack Obama in 2008. In 2010, he was elected governor in a four-way race with just 36 percent of the vote.

Chafee has been mindful of church-state separation while in office. His inauguration in January did not include an official prayer service, although religious leaders were invited to give an invocation and a benediction.

Bishop Tobin was so angry over what he perceived as a slight that he refused to attend. I suspect the bishop’s latest salvo against Chafee over the holiday tree has more to do with his hurt feelings than principle.

The Rev. Donald C. Anderson, executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, had a more mature take on the matter.

“I would ask my fellow Christians,” said Anderson, “with all of the poverty, hunger and injustice that surround us, do we really believe that Jesus would have us spend all this time and energy around what we call a tree? Do we truly think that the Jesus of the Gospels cares what we call a tree?”

Bishop Tobin could learn a few things from Rev. Anderson. If you’re devout and believe in the spirit and meaning of Christmas, then maybe it would be more productive to focus on good works instead of playing political games. After all, to believers, Christmas is supposed to be a season of peace and goodwill, right? A sensible person embraces those principles no matter what the tree at the statehouse is called.

Gov. Chafee’s critics need to let up on the man, take a deep breath and find their way back to real reason for the season. To mangle a well-known proverb, I’d say they can’t see the forest because of their obsession over a Christmas tree.