POST-GAZETTE - Res Publica

Happy HOLY DAYS to All

by David Trumbull -- December 21, 2012

On Sunday, December 16th, I passed by the crèche on the Boston Common, a public display acknowledging the majority Christian faith of the residents of the City of Boston. Had I been there a few days earlier I should have seen the public menorah, which was lighted from December 8th through 15th, a civic statement of the importance of Jews and of the Jewish faith in our fair city. This is as it should be. It was not always so.

In Puritan Boston, Christmas was not generally celebrated at all until the middle of the 19th century. In the mid-17th century, when Puritans held political power, the celebration of Christmas was banned. The Puritans, you see, did not subscribe to our secular doctrine of separation of church and state. They did not consider Christmas permissible in their sect and had no qualms about using the power the state deny the joys of Christmas to anyone else, be it Anglican, Catholic, Lutheran, or even non-believer who simply enjoyed a bit of merriment during the shortest days of the year.

Image what puritan preacher Cotton Mather would have said from his pulpit in North Square if he knew that a menorah would be on Boston Common 300 years later! He would have probably condemned as witches any Jews he could find in the Bay Colony. A state-run church, especially one organized around very narrow beliefs, is not likely to deal gently with other faiths or persons of no faith.

Now we have freedom! Under our 1787 Federal Constitution the United States may not establish a state church. The Fourteen Amendment, in 1868, extended that prohibition to the States. Recognition of the universal right to freedom to practice religion is part of the fundamental charter of our nation.

Sadly, some today are attempting to change that fundamental understanding of the place of religion in our secular republic. From some liberal politicians we are increasingly hearing the phrase "freedom of worship" in place of the traditional American doctrine of "freedom of religion." "Freedom of worship" merely guarantees the right to gather in church, synagogue, or other place of worship for the liturgies or services of our denominations. Freedom to practice one's religion goes beyond that to recognize the civic aspects of faith. That includes the public display of nativity scenes and menoroth (yes, that is the correct plural of menorah, my two years of Hebrew in college finally comes in handy).

Those public displays of faith are important reminders that not only do we have no state religion, but that the state itself is not our religion. It is also not our metaphysic, nor our science. We pledge allegiance to the flag of our Republic, but we also, each of us, has other allegiances -- to God, to humanistic philosophy, to the rules of physics, and so forth.

On Christmas we celebrate the birth of the kings of kings. We do so in a secular state that, so far, has recognized the right of every person to practice, or not practice, religion, as his conscience dictates. Let us pray and work for an America where freedom of religion is never infringed.