Americans United’s Religious Right opponents love to make false accusations against us. One of their frequent claims is that we seek to sanitize the public square by removing all traces of religion.
Not quite. We oppose government-supported religion in the public square. Our view is that the government, from U.S. Congress on down to your local city council, should not have an opinion on theological matters. But if a public space is being used by private individuals for various types of free-speech activities and religious groups want to join in, we say let them have at it.
Now, there is one important caveat. As I told the National Catholic Register recently, individuals must sponsor these religious displays “on their own time and own dime.” They should not expect government help or support.
How does this play out on the ground? Well, let’s go to Tallahassee, Fla., to answer that question. Last week, a private group called the Florida Prayer Network sought and won permission to display a nativity scene on the first-floor rotunda of the capitol. This area has traditionally been a forum for free-speech activities, so the organization was given permission.
Chaz Stevens, a resident of Deerfield Beach, heard about this and decided he would like to take advantage of this forum as well. He applied for and got permission to erect his own display.
It’s a Festivus pole. Made out of empty beer cans.
If you weren’t a fan of the “Seinfeld” sitcom in the 1990s, you might have missed Festivus. In a memorable 1997 episode, character George Costanza recalled his father’s creation of Festivus, a kind of parody of Christmas marked by display of an aluminum Festivus pole around which people would gather to air grievances and engage in feats of strength.
Another character, Cosmo Kramer, talked with George’s father and made plans to resurrect the holiday. Wackiness ensued.
Daniel O’Keefe, a writer for “Seinfeld” claimed that his family actually celebrated Festivus in the 1960s, although it was not originally timed to coincide with Christmas. O’Keefe described Festivus as a kind of stress-release mechanism for times when family tensions got high. These days, Festivus adherents mark the holiday on Dec. 23. It has entered the popular culture, and now some people incorporate it into the late-year merriment. You can even buy Festivus poles online.
Stevens told the News Service of Florida that he made the Festivus pole himself out of empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon. The pole will occupy space this week that formerly housed a menorah that was erected by Chabad Lubavitch of the Panhandle-Tallahassee. (Hanukkah ended Dec. 5 this year.)
“I still chuckle,” Stevens said. “I literally can’t believe there will be a pile of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans in the state rotunda.”
How does the Florida Prayer Network feel about the display? Pam Olsen, president of the group, told the news service, “It’s their right. They have a right to exercise freedom of speech; that’s what America is about. It doesn’t faze me; it doesn’t faze the God I serve.”
That’s a remarkably mature attitude. If more people felt that way – instead of sometimes physically attacking privately sponsored displays that they don’t like – maybe the holiday time could reclaim its title as the season of peace.
I like the Tallahassee solution. Let many voices speak through these symbols – all paid for, maintained and erected by private money and private initiative. That’s hardly a sanitized public square. One could argue that it’s positively robust.
Now who’s up for a traditional Festivus meal?