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Sham battles obscure real war
By George A. Ricker

Over the past month or so we have been regaled with complaints from many Christians about a so-called war on Christmas. The mavens of public morality have demanded—with threats of economic boycott for recalcitrants—that retail outlets wish customers a “Merry Christmas” instead of using such nonspecific, and entirely appropriate, phrases as “Season’s Greetings” or “Happy Holidays.”

Government agencies that refer to “holiday parades” and so on have been accused of the new crime of “Political Correctness.” Apparently anyone who shows the slightest concern for the sensibilities or sensitivities of anyone besides the largest gang (i.e. the Christian majority) is guilty of this crime. It’s funny. When I was growing up, we used to call this sort of consideration good manners or basic politeness.

Meanwhile talk show hosts like Bill O’Reilly and religious hacks like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have kept the faithful enraged—and the donations flowing—with visions of poor persecuted Christians suffering terrible penalties for uttering the words “Merry Christmas.” To hear them tell it there are hordes of secularists who are so bothered by the phrase favored by Christians that they are determined to drive it from the lexicon of public discourse.

The reality is that the only effort made by organizations concerned about upholding the wall of separation between government and religion has been to get government agencies out of the business of peddling Christianity in particular and religion in general. What private citizens and private organizations do or don’t do to observe the various holidays that fall around the time of the Winter Solstice is entirely up to them.

Unfortunately, the hysteria surrounding the “War on Christmas” and other sham battles manufactured by the Religious Right has obscured a more serious purpose and hidden the nature of a real war.

There really is a culture war going on in the United States. It is not, however, a war on religion. It is a war by the religious on secular society—a struggle that has been waged, with increasing desperation, by religionists fearful of losing their privileged place in our culture.

Although it was the clear intent of the founders of the United States of America to establish a national government that derived its sole authority from the “consent of the governed,” modern-day fundyvangelists claim our government is somehow based on Christian principles and the belief in a deity. Politicians, seeking to accommodate the squeaking wheels in the fundamentalist minority, have taken our government far from its roots.

Today, it’s commonplace to hear politicians claiming our laws are “based on the Ten Commandments”—which is a ludicrous idea to anyone who has actually “read” them—and the “wall of separation” between religion and government is really a mythical creation by the ACLU and “liberal” judges. And, of course, all are agreed that the Constitution protects the freedom OF religion but not the freedom FROM religion—as if the former is possible without the latter.

What’s needed today is not more accommodation between government and religion but an end to it. There is a clear line of demarcation between what should and should not be acceptable.

Government officials, as private individuals, have every right to practice their religions. They have every right to express their points of view on religious matters. However, they do not have the right to make their personal beliefs the sole basis for public policy, and they do not have the right to impose those beliefs, or even to promote them, as part of their official duties.

By the same token, government agencies must be respectful of the rights of conscience of all their constituents, not just those of the majority. In a democratic republic, the absolute bedrock of our system is that each of us is equal under the law. Government agencies have no business expressing any sort of preference for one class of citizens over another class of citizens. They may not do so because of gender, age or ethnic background, and they ought not do so on the basis of religious opinions or the lack of them.

Government agencies don’t get to have religions or religious rights. They don’t have any business promoting religion or religious ideas. They should stand mute on the subject altogether, neither promoting the cause of religion nor hindering it.

Nothing less than an absolute separation between government and religion can serve the interests of all our citizens. Those who clamor against such separation are waging a war on the rights of conscience of all the rest of us—those who have a different religion than the flavor preferred by the accommodationists or those who have none at all.

That’s the real war we’re fighting. It can only be won by a clear commitment to government that is secular and not sectarian. But it will surely be lost if we allow that effort to be muted by fear or indifference.

When he was near the end of his life, the great abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who had once been a slave himself, was asked by a young black man what he—the young man—could do to further the cause of equal justice for his race.

“Agitate,” Douglass told him, “agitate, agitate!”

That advice has application beyond the sphere of racial injustice. We who seek an end to the co-option of our government by religionists of every stripe need to agitate continuously on behalf of a secular government that treats the religious and the nonreligious with full equality and without preference or prejudice.

This war may never be truly won. Religion always seeks to protect its interests by co-opting public institutions. But it is a war we must not lose—not if we wish to preserve our freedom.

© 2006 by George A. Ricker
* This article first ran in Freely Speaking, the newsletter of the Space Coast Freethought Association, in January 2006.

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