Religion, law, and politics aside, Christmas and other
religious celebrations are culturally significant
By Ken K. Gourdin
This time of year — Christmastime, the holidays, or simply the month of December, depending on your perspective — necessitates navigating a tricky legal, political, social, and religious landscape in our once overwhelmingly-Christian but now increasingly religiously-pluralistic (and increasingly secular) nation. The line between impermissible government establishment of religion and impermissible government infringement upon its free exercise often seems indistinct, particularly at this time of year.
As ill-equipped as courts (particularly the United States Supreme Court) might be for providing workable guidance in navigating that tricky landscape, it falls to them to do so. What is the proper place of religiously-rooted celebrations in that landscape? Many argue that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause means simply that the state may not endorse a specific religion, such as Roman Catholicism. In an overwhelmingly-Christian nation, perhaps such an interpretation of the Constitution made sense. Should that understanding evolve as the nation has become more religiously pluralistic and more secular?
One partial answer to the question of the proper place of religion and religiously-rooted celebrations in a secularized, pluralistic society is to reframe religion’s contribution to that society. While it’s true that many people derive their morality from religion, others derive their morality from sources independent therefrom. Thus it’s not simply the moral underpinnings of religion that make it — along with the celebrations it has spawned, such as Christmas — significant. Religion also makes an important contribution (indeed, I would argue it makes an indispensible contribution) to culture. Even if a world without religion would not necessarily be morally impoverished, it would certainly be culturally impoverished.
The bottom line is, even if all of the constitutional questions surrounding the proper relationship between religion and government remain unresolved, there is absolutely no question that one aim of the Constitution’s framers in crafting the First Amendment was to promote nearly-unfettered freedom of expression. That freedom of expression includes freedom of cultural expression, including freedom of cultural expression in a religious context. That’s why Christmas (and other religiously-rooted celebrations) remain relevant in a religiously-pluralistic, nonreligious society.
I expand on this idea in a just-published op-ed in the December 18, 2012 edition of the Tooele Transcript-Bulletin, on page A4. It is available at the following address, last accessed December 19, 2012: http://tooeletranscript.com/view/full_story/21179443/article-Religion-and-culture-are-inseparable-%E2%80%94–no-matter-your-beliefs-or-lack-thereof?.
Update, December 21, 2012: BYU J. Reuben Clark Law School’s Professor Fred Gedicks on Christmas Displays, The Establishment Clause, and Secularism – An example of the United States Supreme Court’s attempt to deal with the sort of questions engendered by Christmastime displays vis-à-vis the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion can be found in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984). Professor Fred Gedicks of Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School criticized the Court’s Lynch opinion. A late (probably final) draft of a paper containing his criticisms, entitled Lynch and the Lunacy of Secularized Religion, can be found on the Social Science Research Network’s Web site at the following address, last accessed December 22, 2012 (the link is to an abstract, but also provides the option to download the full paper, for free, in PDF): http://www.papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1922802. Professor Gedicks criticizes Lynch on three grounds: (1) the Court failed adequately to explain its rationale for arriving at the decision; (2) the Court failed to provide any intelligible rule for lower courts to follow; and (3) the Court was only able to uphold the Lynch display by stripping the plainly religious symbols involved of their religious significance.
Professor Gedicks notes that when the display at issue in Lynch was challenged in 1980, the lower court, consistent with previous Supreme Court jurisprudence on the issue, held that “the city’s Christmas display violated the Establishment Clause for lack of a lack of both a secular purpose and a primary secular effect.” The Supreme Court, however, reversed the lower court. To explain inconsistencies in the Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence concerning Christmas displays, Professor Gedicks satirically cited what he called the “Three Reindeer Rule”: Notwithstanding the Establishment Clause, “[t]he government may appropriate a religious symbol for its own purposes—which may also be religious—so long as it places it in the vicinity of a few secular symbols and keeps its mouth shut.”
Professor Gedicks argues that the Court’s attempt to strip religious symbols of their significance made no sense:
The Court [in Lynch] concluded that the effect of the city’s display of the nativity was not religious just because it “happens to coincide or harmonize with the tenets of some religions,” as if the city had conducted a lottery of religious symbols and had randomly drawn the nativity out of a hat.
Further, Professor Gedicks also notes the pyrrhic nature of the victory the Court gave the religiously devout in Lynch as follows:
The most curious aspect of Lynch and its progeny is their enthusiastic endorsement by conservative believers. It is something of a victory, I suppose, to have the symbols of one’s faith used by the government; it counts as a kind of social validation[.] . . . [and] . . . as a refutation of “secularism”[.] . . . In case of religious symbols, however, the price of social validation and victory over secularism is that such symbols be emptied of their religious significance, however implausible that may seem.
Professor Gedicks’ criticism of the Lynch decision makes me wonder how he would regard my op-ed’s attempt to find common ground among Christians, non-Christians, and the nonreligious by appealing to Christmas’s cultural significance. I have written him and invited him to comment on this position.
I wonder if Professor Gedicks might feel that I have given away too much, diluting the significance of Christmas displays by appealing to their cultural impact rather than to their religious import. The difference, I think, between my position and that of the Court in Lynch, however, is that the Court attempts to draw an illusory line between religion and culture and to conclude that “ne’er the twain shall meet,” while I, by contrast, argue that wherever else culture may spring from, culture and religion are, in fact, inextricably intertwined.
 Gedicks, Frederick Mark, Lynch and the Lunacy of Secularized Religion (April 9, 2012). 12 Nevada Law Journal 100, 103. Page 103 of draft version accessed on line at the Social Science Research Network Web site on December 21, 2012: http://www.ssrn.com/abstract=1922802.
 Id. at 106.
 Id. at 106, 107
Update, December 22, 2012 – I posted links to my op-ed, to Professor Gedicks’s piece, and to this blog post on the Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board, and colossal misunderstanding ensued. Many of the religiously devout missed my point entirely. Should anyone else read any of these materials and be tempted to do the same, a clarification is in order.
The hue and cry was immediate: “Christmas has been commercialized for decades, all of these symbols having nothing to do with Christ have been thrown into the mix, people barely get the point nowadays even as it is, and now you want us to trade the idea that Christmas is religiously significant for the idea that it’s only significant in some abstract, virtually meaningless, cultural sense?”
No. I’m not asking the religiously devout who recognize Christmas’s religious significance to modify their views. What I am hoping is that perhaps some of the religiously indifferent who don’t recognize Christmas’s religious significance (and who don’t recognize the significance of religion qua religion) will recognize that Christmas is at least culturally significant, even if they cannot accept that it is religiously so. Yes, I would like everyone to believe, as I do, that Christ is the Savior of the world; but that’s not realistic.
If I can persuade the religiously indifferent to accept the proposition (the fact, in my view) that at least Christianity has made an indelible impact on the world in philosophy, in ethics, in art, in architecture, in theatre, in literature, and in numerous other ways (in short, that it has indelibly impacted culture), I will have succeeded. Yes, I would like them to understand the significance of Christianity, and of Christmas, as I do . . . to impute the same religious significance to these things as I do. But if I cannot do that, I would like them to value these things at least for their enormous cultural significance. And if-and-when the religiously indifferent are able to do that, I would like my fellow believers to give them the great credit I believe they are due for being willing to take that step.
Update: December 26, 2013 – I love this, from observant Jew Dennis Prager (last accessed today). In addition to wishing Christians a Merry Christmas, he points out that Jews have played no small part in the celebration of Christmas by contributing popular tunes to the holiday’s musical library:
Toda rabah, Mr. Prager!