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I went to a Christmas concert last night. There is a decades-long tradition of performing parts of the Messiah as part of holiday celebrations. The performance was ecumenical, or at least non-denominational, though it took place at the Lutheran church. In the past, certain types of religious observances often took place in town halls along the North Shore or in public schools. To an extent they still can. If the group rents the public hall, it can perform there, or likewise at a school facility. If the program were to be done by the school and attendance required or considered as serving “all,” then specifically religious content has to be left out. Think of this as the “Hello Rudolph, Good-bye Baby Jesus” rule. It makes some people very unhappy (even angry) that Christ is kicked out of Christmas and God is banished from the schools.
There’s a human emotional side of the argument I find easy enough to share. (I’m surprised as anyone to find I have human feeling.) Culturally and historically, we’ve been a “Christian nation” for several hundred years. Why can’t that be respected? Why must an impressively solid body of Christmas music be off-limits in a public setting? What’s the harm, and doesn’t the good easily outweigh any small harm that might tag along? That’s reasonable, isn’t it? Yes, it is, at least as far as it goes. I think of my mother’s response to “those people” (I was always included in that shotgun blast) who’d taken away her right to smoke in public and were now shutting out the Baby Jesus as well. It made her angry enough to take some extra devilishly long drags on her Pall Mall (no wimpy smoker she) to breathe her irate fire about lost rights and people butting in making life complicated with their fussing. I understand. I’m even somewhat sympathetic, but no matter how much I’d like to be conciliatory, I come time and again to the conclusion that despite its problems, separation is the best public practice because separation avoids what the Constitution sought to avoid: an establishment or promotion of a state religion.
As good, decent people, we might have a tougher time seeing what the founders saw. Did they wish a Catholic Maryland (the name Maryland is not whimsical accident), Quaker Pennsylvania, Puritan Massachusetts, and Episcopal New York? Apparently, they saw the dangers of that sort of “separation” and chose a different separation to counter it. As in most compromises, no one is going to be entirely happy with the layout. To help settle their hash, I think those good folk (and they are) objecting to separation need to be reminded that the inconvenience of separation of church/state is for their protection, too.
Separation protects us. It does. Look at civil rights, actual religious freedom, and freedom of conscience in nation-states with a prescribed religion. In general there’s not a one that isn’t repressive and will eagerly penalize anyone for not following the prescribed belief. Don’t believe me? Try flying certain places wearing a visible cross or carrying your Bible. You know what happens to people with “outside” beliefs. We call it persecution, though those doing it tend to label it justice.
Of course, when I defend separation, good people often come right back at me with “WE aren’t like that.” I have to agree that no, we are not like that, but I can also attest that we are not because we’ve been blessed with separation, which helps to allow that very difference. The best way I’ve found to answer the we-are-better argument (that is what “we aren’t like that” boils to) is to ask which reed or reeds in the Judeo-Christian bundle we are to follow. Do we go with the Roman or Orthodox calendars? Are we the kind of Christians who shun electricity or the ones who pray with energetic music? Do we weigh more heavily for the birthday of Christ or to the date of his circumcision a week later? In a single decision, exactly what does Christianity prescribe regarding circumcision: is the belief for it or not?
When we get down to particulars of observance, there is no monolithic Christianity. There are many good faith interpretations. Because of that, I believe it is in our national good to not give any one of them preference over any other—well, at least if we want to avoid civil religious war and effective or functional persecution over belief that we’re supposed to be so free of because “We aren’t like that.” Give religious sects governmental powers and see how long it takes them to be “like that.” I think you’d hardly have time to finish a sandwich before one of the zealous would presume to instruct you on the right way to eat it. Life in a secular state does mean certain compromises and losses, but the alternative as found in every theocratic state is orders of magnitude worse, because the church/state combo allows the sanctimonious preaching of good while doing immense evil. It’s a great thing we don’t have to be a good Lutheran, good Catholic, good Jew, or good anything else to be a good American.
If communities such as ours up the North Shore can pull together to put on a Messiah concert, I don’t see any particular threat or loss of religious belief and observance. Indeed, paying heed to separation and learning from it might add to our faith by giving greater understanding of what belongs to God and what is Caesar’s. When you and I are not restrained and limited by a set state religion, we are free to celebrate the holidays eating like pigs, glorying in seasonal hymns, or in quiet devotion without some paper-waving preacher authorized to prescribe your menu or curtail your song. Separation in no way prevents any of us from personal sharing of such joy or love as we have to give. There is no separation of heart and spirit. Only the most foolish would try to impose obeisance on that which cannot be bound.