Ecumenical Corner: Happy holidays, and Merry Christmas too!
Everybody seems to call that beautiful object in front of Harbor Church these days the Christmas tree. I’m a Christian, so of course it’s a Christmas tree for me. But I noticed that my good friends in the Tourism Council had a notice in the Times about the lighting of the holiday tree. It didn’t bother me that they might want to call it a holiday tree to help the Jews and unbelievers and former believers among us feel included. Why is it a big deal what we call the tree?
It’s ironic that Rhode Island — the colony founded by people wanting to be free of government-sponsored religion — would be the center of national attention over protests sparked when Governor Chafee apparently declined to use the word “Christmas” to describe a government-sponsored tree. The Baptists who founded Rhode Island (and Block Island) were firm in their conviction that religion was a matter of conscience and that the power of the state should never be used to push a person toward one theology or another. In our view, it demeans the Christian faith to make it a part of one’s citizenship or to give elected officials any incentive to endorse a particular religion. True faith is always chosen personally, and it can only be chosen freely if it is free of the influence of government. Baptists are libertarian when it comes to religion. The less government, the better.
It’s hard to understand why a Bishop in Rhode Island would be oblivious to the separation of church and state. Of course I know that Rome has never believed in that doctrine and I’ve heard the Bishop hates the Governor. But the very reason that Catholics were allowed to immigrate and build churches in this country was that the Baptist and Protestant majorities pushed for a state that was resolutely secular. The founders made this republic secular on purpose, with religion a matter for personal conscience and houses of worship. To complain that the statehouse does not choose to give its tree a religious label it to undermine the freedom of the church itself.
So it suits me fine if the tree inside Harbor Church is a Christmas tree and the one outside is a holiday tree. Jesus inside; Santa outside. Inside the church — and in our hearts — we have made a choice to welcome Jesus into our lives. We don’t expect the government to welcome him. It never has and never will. What we Christians celebrate this week is that God came down and became one of us — not becoming a ruler but becoming a servant, one of the bottom half of our society who are poor, identifying with us in our weakness and powerlessness so that he might restore the image of the loving Creator in each of us. If you don’t believe that, we still wish you “Happy Holidays!” If you do believe, “Merry Christmas!”