Croker Sack

"Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard." — Henry Louis Mencken (1880-1956)

Thursday, July 28, 2005

The Great Wall of Separation -- Still Under Construction

The argument over “Winter Break” versus “Christmas Break” on the South Kitsap School District calendar for school year 2005-2006 is a game that isn’t worth the candle.

There is no harm to the Christian community or religion in using “Winter Break” to refer to the absence of regular school days from a few days before Christmas until after New Year’s Day.

Since there’s no harm, it just isn’t worth it to engage in an argument with those who resent using the religious holiday that occurs during that period of time as the name of the school break.

Ironically, the use of “Christmas Break” is another step towards removing all religious meaning from the word Christmas. Instead of being the name of a particular day on which Christians commemorate the birth of Jesus, Christmas is becoming (or perhaps has already become) a generic term for a period of shopping and festivities lasting from late November to early January.

Christians ought to consider acting as does the Coca Cola company in protecting its “Coke” brand name from being used to refer to all similar carbonated drinks. But, there is little chance the majority of them will recognize that “keeping Christ in Christmas” requires restraint in using the name of Christmas to identify long periods of time in which many activities with no religious connotation have become traditional.

In the meantime, the argument does provide an opportunity for us to discover the ignorance of history that underlies the opinions of some people.

Take for example the article by opinion columnist Laura Schuck in today’s Kitsap Sun.

She wrote in reference to the First Amendment’s limits on government authority regarding religion: “For the most part, we Americans have been living peacefully — and happily — with that wall of separation for some 200 years.”

Note that the First Amendment (ratified in 1791) didn’t apply to the states, and that not all states had a similar provision in their constitutions. Not until 1925 did the Supreme Court hold that the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) had changed things so that the First Amendment guarantee of free speech applied to the states. Not until 1940 did the Court hold that the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment apply to the states and limit their authority regarding religion.

From 1868 to 1925, one might say that there was a new limit placed on the states which had simply not yet been recognized. After 1925, the application of the amendment to the states was not only recognized: It became a topic of some concern as previous state government actions were held to be violations of the federal constitution.

That’s a period of 80 years, not 200; and it has hardly been an entirely peaceful or happy period of change and debate.

Schuck’s ignorance of history also includes the early American colonists who came to the New World in an effort to establish societies based on their own religious beliefs.

She wrote: “[M]ost of the first European immigrants to America were fleeing religious intolerance or even downright persecution in their home countries.”

It is correct that the Pilgrims, Puritans and Quakers wanted to avoid persecution resulting from their own religious views, but that’s only half the story. They also wanted to establish societies governed by their own faith, not to establish tolerant enclaves for people of all religious persuasions.

The difference is important, since the colonies and the newly independent states – if they were so inclined – continued to use government authority to carry out the majority’s views of what an ideal society based on religious principles ought to be. The First Amendment applied only to the federal government for the simple reason that the people wanted the individual states to have the authority to continue acting as they had been rather than being constrained by one rule contained in the constitution.

Most of that early drive toward establishing Christian societies with the aid of government power had disappeared by the 20th century, but many traditions still remained – until they were outlawed one at a time by the Supreme Court.

Perhaps if Schuck studied the history of the U.S. constitution’s effect on relations between government and religion, she would have a better understanding of the basis for the current argument.