Religious Freedom: The Greatest Gift Of All

Some seem determined to force everyone to celebrate Christmas. This year, as in others, Religious Right groups spent much of December moaning about an alleged 'War on Christmas.'

Note: This blog post is a re-publication of an item that originally appeared on Christmas Day, 2007. "The Wall of Separation" will be on hiatus until Monday, Dec. 29. Happy Holidays to all!

It's Christmas. Some Americans are observing this day by attending religious services, others are celebrating in a mostly secular fashion while still others aren't making note of it at all.

What could be better than to have the right to choose for yourself?

I was reminded recently that it wasn't always that way.  I've been reading an interesting book titled Salem Witch Judge: The Life and Repentance of Samuel Sewall by Eve LaPlante. Sewall was on the bench during the Salem Witch Trials but later was deeply sorry for his role in that fiasco. In giving the background of his times, LaPlante reminds of us of the harsh Puritan theocracy that ruled Massachusetts.

"Friday was Christmas Day, which the Sewalls were careful not to observe," LaPlante writes. "Puritans had left feast days behind in England, along with the many other features of the state church they still reproached for its 'popish injunctions,' in the words of Samuel's father-in-law."

LaPlante notes that in 1659 "in keeping with its goal of creating a Bible Commonwealth, the Massachusetts General Court banned all Christmas celebrations."

The statute read, "[B]y reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries to the great dishonor of God and offence of others...whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas and the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way...shall pay for every such offence, five shillings a fine."

In church that week, Sewall listened to his minister, the Rev. James Allen, remind the congregation that observing Christmas is "anti-Christian heresy."

Nearly 350 years have passed, and now we seem to have the opposite problem: Some seem determined to force everyone to celebrate Christmas. This year, as in others, Religious Right groups spent much of December moaning about an alleged "War on Christmas."

They complained because city halls and courthouses were not festooned with nativity scenes. They wailed because public school concerts included "Frosty the Snowman." They even had the temerity to whine when clerks in big-box stores said, "Happy Holidays" as they rang up purchases.

The Religious Right sought a strange thing: Instead of laboring to put more creches where they belong by nestling them among the greenery of a brightly lit and decorated church lawn, the cultural warriors of the "Christmas Police" advocated putting them on the cold, marble steps of city hall.

They did stranger things: Every year, people complain that commercialism, greed and overspending mar Christmas. The Religious Right's answer to that is to ask the business community to re-sanctify the holiday.

They sought a religious experience in a public school – the last place that can provide an authentic one. The Religious Right did this, even though hundreds of churches threw open their doors and heartily welcomed anyone seeking to connect with God for the holidays.

But worst of all, the Religious Right, having realized its groups could make money by posing as Christmas defenders, launched crude invective against anyone who dared to point out that government should not be in the business of promoting the religious aspects of the holiday. Religious Right groups sold rude buttons, stickers and other geegaws proclaiming its smug moral superiority – making a mockery of the very season of peace and goodwill it so claims to cherish.

If you celebrate Christmas, then I wish you a very merry Christmas. If you do not, I send my wishes for a good day. I'm thankful that you, I and all other Americans have the right to choose – remembering that years ago, people did not enjoy that right. They had instead a "general court" consisting of government officials who worked in conjunction with ministers to determine which mode of religious expression was right for all and pleasing to God.

It took some time for more enlightened thinkers to come along and put a stop to all of that. What they gave us – complete religious liberty resting on the wall of separation between church and state – is the greatest gift of all. And best of all, unlike an electronic gadget that breaks in a month or a sweater that doesn't quite fit, it's one we can enjoy every day of the year.