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H1 A nativity Scene without the baby?

One of my correspondents wrote:

> Nativity scene without the baby?!!! A Memphis public library allowed a Nativity scene provided Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were excluded. ... Now their spiritual descendants (and it IS a descent, all right) have taken the next logical step: remove Mary, too!

Good! I'm on the side of the scrooges here. The USA is a secular nation that does not support any particular religion. It lets the free market decide. That's the way it should be, and public money should not be spent on religious displays.

I will support anyone's right to display a nativity scene on their own property, and I even put up a tree of my own, but I am a firm believer that governments should be restricted to essential services that cannot be sensibly provided by the rest of the nation.

Roads come in that category, police do, the army does, and a bunch of other things, but nativity scenes do not.

Some people read this as a religious vs. secular conflict, and it is to some degree. One can also read it as a debate about what a government should do, vs. the things that are really the job of the people.

If you are religious, do you really want the government involved in religion anyway? Consider the experience of the United Kingdom. It has had a state-established religion for about 400 years, but how many people go to church? Oh, about 1/4 as many as do as in the US. Now, there are many cultural differences between the US and the UK, much more than established religion, so one can't jump to the conclusion that government support of religion reduces attendance in chuch. Still, it makes one wonder.

> A Grinch-like Medway middle school has ordered children to ditch religious songs in tonight's holiday concert, refer to Christmas trees as "magical trees and even purge the red from their elf hats. ... I can see a religious holiday being offensive to those who don't celebrate it, said Dale Fingar, whose sixth-grade son brought home red and green elf hats and requested she replace the red fabric with white. But red and green hats? Come on.

Now, I'll agree with you that the prohibition of religion in public spaces can be taken to the point of silliness, such as prohibiting red and green hats, but that's a different matter. The problem there is that someone is trying to apply a black-and-white hard rule to a situation where a little common sense and moderation is needed.

Laws come in black and white: actions are legal or illegal. Unfortunately, the real world often deals in shades of gray, or red or green in this example. But, that's a topic for another entire essay.

Question and Answer


Does a Nativity scene represent an establishment of religion? At least if there are no little tin haloes attached to the troublesome three? Especially if the figures were donated by a private citizen? We're not talking tithes and blasphemy laws enforced by the government here!


True. However, we are talking about the government supplying a valuable commodity: space for the manger scene.

There is nothing wrong with a donated manger scene on space that has been donated by a private individual. That's a manger scene in someone's front yard, or perhaps a collection of people getting together to put a big manger scene in someone's front yard. Fine!


How about a plaque disclaiming government endorsement of the religion symbolized by the donated scene?


Not if the government pays for the plaque. Also, it would be a lie, unless the government charged rent and rented the space to the highest bidder. If the government only rented the space to people who want a manger scene, that would be support of one particular religion at the expense of other groups.

Renting it to the highest bidder wouldn't violate my principles, but it would unfortunately end up as an advertisement for something obnoxious. So, it would violate my sense of esthetics. Just imagine: a manger scene the first few Christmases. Then, some marketing guy notices the opportunity, and soon you have plastic figures of people smoking, or a giant bowl of plastic dog food, or whatever stupid idea is attracting the most money.

No way!


The founders of our country established our country on a foundation of a belief in God. "In God we Trust" "Inalienable rights" from our Creator etc. Our laws and judicial system, in fact our society, is based on a Christian sense of morality.

The Christians in our country have made many sacrifices for the betterment of our culture by way of schools and hospitals, etc. Our government should recognize the diverse religious communities to the extent that they have helped build up our country with appropriate displays like Nativity Scenes. To deny those roots would rob our culture of a heritage that has many good things to help us grow even better.


One cannot deny that Christianity had and has an important influence on our nation. But, so what?

So did the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the British and the French (remember Lafayette!). Are we to encumber our public buildings with symbols of gratitude to all of these groups?

We have broad and deep roots, and Christianity is only a part of those roots. Islam, for instance, played an important role of preserving knowledge through the dark ages of Western Europe. For that matter, science and scientists have made many sacrifices for the betterment of our culture. The list could go on, into african and native american cultures, and groups within our culture like lawyers.

Ultimately, there are too many groups to be grateful to. Why should we single out Christians?

Equally importantly, gratitude is not the business of governments. Could you take seriously a law requiring you to be grateful (for a week) to the Greeks? Gratitude is ultimately the business of individuals, and may be freely offered or not, but cannot be coerced by a government.

For, how can a nation be grateful except by the sum of individual decisions? It's not like a nation is a person.

Incidentally, "In God We Trust" was added much after the founding of the United States. It's a relic of the Civil War, and not part of the founding ideals.


Christmas has been a recognized public holiday for over a century. If we follow your logic, would we have to get rid of it?


Perhaps, but the questions are not quite identical: the choice of holiday dates doesn't translate into money in a clear and simple fashion. So, perhaps they have different answers.

[ Papers | | Phonetics Lab | Oxford ] Last Modified Sun Apr 27 16:26:55 2008 Greg Kochanski: [ ]