And a Merry Christmas to You Too, Christopher

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Christopher Hitchens is over at Slate, bah humbugging away like crazy. I know, that’s what he always does, but here he is more focused, and the subject is Christmas, which is where bah humbugs are more appropriately out of place. If you know what I mean.

And the issue, of course, is not tinsel, or snow, or egg nog, but rather the place and role of a public religion like the Christian faith.

“The core objection, which I restate every December at about this time, is that for almost a whole month, the United States—a country constitutionally based on a separation between church and state—turns itself into the cultural and commercial equivalent of a one-party state.”

And of course, here is some genuine humbug. The United States Constitution does not mandate separation of church and state. The phrase “wall of separation” comes from a letter that Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists, and that phrase has no constitutional authority or ground. It was Jefferson’s opinion, which, when he was alive, he had a right to. What the Constitution actually mandates with regard to religion is two-fold — one, the non-establishment of a national church by act of Congress, and two, non-interference with the free exercise of religion by Congress. Got that? No Church of the United States, comparable to the Church of Denmark, or the Church of England. When the Constitution was ratified, nine of the thirteen colonies had established state churches at the state level. There is no conflict if the national bird is different from the various state birds, or the national flower from the state flowers, and so on. But if one Christian denomination were privileged at the national level, this could and would lead to conflicts with the established churches at the state level. Prior to the War Between the States, the country was governed on true federalist principles, and all this made sense. But get this down. The Constitution prohibits establishing a national denomination and supporting it with tax money. It does not require every branch of civil government, down to the smallest municipalities, to ignore the nature and will of the triune God. Still less does it require them to pretend that Jesus Christ, by His birth in Bethlehem, did not actually come to establish a new humanity in His own person and work.

But Christopher complains anyway, and he does so in the year of our Lord, 2008. He does so on the threshold of the next year of our Lord.

“If the totalitarians cannot bear to abandon their adoration of their various Dear Leaders, can they not at least arrange to hold their ceremonies in private?”

Now I fully understand the request. Can you not arrange to take your faith indoors, and make it a private matter? Keep it away from the rest of us? And here is the answer — no. The star appeared in the sky to announce the birth of one who would hold a universal scepter, and such scepters are not held privately, or stored in closets. The angels appeared to the shepherds to announce peace on earth, good will toward men, and our sorry world’s screaming need for peace is a very public matter indeed. When Christopher and I were traveling on our book tour, he wore a red poppy the entire time, in commemoration of Armistice Day. He is willing to remember the day when the civilized nations decided to stop slaughtering one another by the metric ton, but he refuses to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace.

But Jesus really is Lord, and whatever else that claim is, it is no private matter. It is either true or false. Being true as it is, we sing about it the public square. Why? Because He came to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found. Where does Christmas belong? Wherever the curse is, and it seems to me this means we should start with the public square.

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