Subverting Symbols: Why Baby Jesus Belongs In Church, Not City Hall

Putting a Nativity scene in city hall makes about as much sense as locating the tax collector's office in the nave of a church.

Mayor Stephen C. Acropolis of Brick Township, N.J., says we've "gone overboard" with the separation of church and state. He's going ahead with a plan to put a Nativity scene outside the town hall, no matter what the American Civil Liberties Union thinks.

Disputes like this usually focus on what the courts have said and the sometimes-confusing rules for government-sponsored holiday displays. (Is this is public forum or not? Can we include a crèche if we have a snowman? What can private groups do that government can't?)

Lost in this discussion is a more basic question: What is the point of putting a religious symbol like a Nativity scene inside or in front of city hall anyway? It doesn't belong there. Putting it there makes about as much sense as locating the tax collector's office in the nave of a church.

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, said it well in his 2006 book Piety & Politics: The Right-Wing Assault on Religious Freedom.

Lynn wrote, "I have seen Nativity scenes that were truly beautiful and even moving – in churches and on church lawns. I've been known to stop my car and watch what are called 'living Nativity scenes' as I pass through towns. By contrast, I've seen some of the tackiest-looking detritus adorning the lawns of city halls. A Nativity scene, no matter how well crafted or how well maintained, looks out of place and jarring on the cold marble steps of a government building. Placed on the lawn of a church, nestled among holiday greenery with a towering steeple in the background, it looks perfect. Why would we want to put it anywhere else?"

Lynn isn't the only believer who thinks this way. Writing yesterday on oregonlive.com, Melanie Springer Mock, associate professor of writing and literature at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, makes the point that when government places a religious symbol at the seat of its power, it sends a message of favoritism of that faith.

Mock notes that she's a Christian and a big fan of Christmas. Yet she has no problem writing, "But I wonder why such government displays are even necessary. Putting aside arguments about the First Amendment and church/state separation, do Christians really need baby Jesus on the courthouse steps to remind them of his birth? If the answer is yes, then perhaps that says more about their faith (or faithlessness) than it does about Christmas decorations or the Constitution."

Bingo. I've often thought that these constant demands for government to endorse religion by displaying its symbols are a sign of spiritual immaturity. It screams to everyone, "Hey, look! The government likes my religion best. In your face."

Grow up. A Nativity scene in front of or inside a church conveys a truly powerful spiritual message – a message that can never be equaled by some monstrosity stuck up for three weeks on the town green next to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and a small army of dancing elves.

Mock also makes the point that Jesus would not endorse the actions of those who exploit Christmas to divide others and further the "culture wars." (There's a reason he's called the "Prince of Peace," after all.)

Mock's column is well worth some of your time. Take a look.