Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Sarah and Santa Are Comin’ to Town
“Oh, you better not shout, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why. Sarah Palin’s comin’ to town.” And she’s promoting her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. Like others who see an assault on religious freedoms lurking under every garlanded tree, Palin raises the specter of ACLU Scrooges taking away our “right” to celebrate Christmas:
We need to protect the heart of Christmas and not let an angry atheist armed with an attorney, a Scrooge, tell us that we can’t celebrate traditional faith in America. We have a constitutionally protected right to celebrate faith and Christmas is part of that.
Putting aside for a moment the fact that angry Christians have tended to do a lot more damage to America over the years than angry atheists, it seems far-fetched to imagine government agents barging into her home in Wasilla to cart off a shiny new hunting rifle lovingly wrapped and placed under the tree for Todd, thereby ripping the heart out of Christmas. Or to fear those same agents tromping down the aisle of the Assembly of God church shouting down the singing of “Silent Night.” Nor would the Holy Family, cast in painted plastic and sitting on the front lawn of the church be in danger of arrest for disturbing the peace or violating the Constitution.
Despite Sarah’s devoted, though dwindling following, she’s easy to dismiss. Less easy to dismiss is the Supreme Court which is considering a case from a suburb of Rochester, New York dealing with the question of whether prayers offered at the beginning of official government meetings by clergy who are predominantly Christian and who frequently invoke the name of “our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” are Constitutional. You may have thought this was a settled question by now, but a rightward leaning Court could be preparing to reinstate and reinforce a privileged place for Christianity.
This is a threat that ought to bother Christians far more than any Palin jeremiad. Radical, biblically grounded Christian faith has never fared well under Constantinian patronage. Imperial protection of either the fourth or twenty-first century varieties almost inevitably lead to compromise and domestication. Furthermore, careful reading of Scripture reminds Christians that hospitality for the stranger and concern for the marginalized is high on the moral agenda. Adherents of non-Christian religions are a growing in the United States, but still represent less than 10% of the population. They live with daily reminders of their minority status and of the dominance of the Christian residue overlaying our culture, not the least of which is the two to three months every year when Christmas dominates Main Street and the media. What they don’t need are Supreme Court interpretations of the Constitution that reinforce their sense of alienation.
If Christmas is about a Jew born in a country under occupation, chased into exile as a refugee to Egypt, convicted and executed as an enemy of the Roman Empire, then the best one can say about Americans’ traditional Christmas extravaganza is that it is “ironic.” Meanwhile, Palin is pretty clear that the “heart of Christmas” requires not only government protection, but the cultural excess to which it now seems inextricably bound. “I’m not saying it’s way too commercialized. I love the commercialization of Christmas because it spreads the Christmas cheers, the most jolly holiday obviously on our calendar.” Jesus would be so proud, tortured syntax notwithstanding. Get ready. In just a couple of weeks a gigantic balloon representing Garfield the Cat will float down State Street in Chicago wearing a Pilgrim hat. Santa, and Sarah, can’t be far behind.
John H. Thomas
November 14, 2013