Why we can’t see the Christmas forest for the trees
December 8 marked the fortieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council. That historic day saw the signing of one of the capstones on four years of work: the Council’s declaration on religious freedom.
Is the Church still behind the times? After all, the First Amendment predates Dignitatis Humanae by more than 170 years.
Anything but. Besides reaffirming perennial teaching, the document is today more astonishingly relevant than ever, not least in the midst of America’s annual Christmas silliness over “holiday trees” and “Sparkle Day.”
Try this, for example: “Government ought to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor.” [Those are my italics.] Religious partisanship? Not in the least.
What’s so odd about the fact that, just two miles from the Vatican, the Italian President’s palace is adorned with a “Christmas tree” about which no one has thought to complain? In a country where church attendance runs much lower than in the US and with a far uglier history of church-state relations, that ought to raise eyebrows. But it doesn’t.
The Italians, after all, are on to something that we almost uniformly overlook in our own Christmas squabbles. “Showing favor” in such a simple matter as the president’s interior decorating is simply to accept a historical and cultural fact. Italian society, though renowned for both sanctity and sin, freely recognizes Christianity as the force that built the country and the root of its common culture.
I live in Rome. When I mentioned our Christmas silliness to two Italian friends — one of whom is agnostic — the other day, they looked at me dumbstruck, as if I had just poured ketchup on my pasta. “What? Well what do they call the tree then? Do you mean they don’t even have manger scenes? Mamma mia, questi americani…”
Maybe we can’t see the Christmas forest for the trees. We Americans are by now so conditioned to think in terms of a wall between church and state, of the Establishment Clause and legal precedents, of sensitivity to all but majority will, that we completely miss the fundamental force of culture in our midst.
Christmas is not just something religious and/or nongovernmental: it’s something cultural. It’s on that uncomfortably slippery middle ground between religion and government. And the hermetic sealing-off of these fields is worse than counter-productive.
As Seamus Hasson shows compellingly in his witty, thought-provoking new book The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture Wars over Religion in America, if government resolutely shuns all contact with religion, that is very different from simply being religion-neutral: “It is implicitly saying something profound — that religion is at best an unimportant, and at worst a shameful, aspect of our lives.”
Of course culture isn’t religion either, though the two overlap. In these post-medieval days, the common cultural glue that holds us together as a society isn’t any single religion. Still, a religion-less culture just doesn’t work. Hasson, founder and chairman of the Becket Fund for Relgious Liberty, points out that that kind of culture doesn’t reflect and express the full scope of our humanity. We simply can’t live happily that way.
So there is a higher ground to this debate, something that transcends the Language Games (apologies to Wittgenstein) and the legal precedents. We are, and always have been, first and foremost a Christian people. There certainly has always been room for other traditions, so long as we all mutually respect what Hasson calls one another’s “right to be wrong.”
That’s the simple reason why we’re a Christmas-celebrating people. For many, the reasons are religious. For more, the reasons are cultural. That’s why our natural gut reaction to “giving” trees and “friendship” trees is repugnance, and why conservative columnists get so much mileage out of annually bemoaning the folly of the Christmas Wars and the social discourtesy of calling a “Christmas” tree something other than what it manifestly is.
I imagine that more high-schoolers probably know who wrote the Gettysburg Address than know that the evergreen represents the perpetual presence of Christ, symbolized as Tree of Life. But then again, more of them probably know the date of Christmas than the date of Washington’s Birthday.
The lowest common denominator of who we are as a people isn’t the Constitution, but our common American culture. We were a people with a culture before we set a government over ourselves. The ACLU and friends, by laboring patiently to untie our cultural moorings and set us adrift on uncharted waters, are really denying something key to who we are.
Fine, but why then should government show favor to religion, in the words of Vatican II? Because it’s supposed to be at the service of its citizens. Doesn’t that go far beyond mere holiday decorations? Yes and no. “The religious acts whereby men, in private and in public and out of a sense of personal conviction, direct their lives to God transcend by their very nature the order of terrestrial and temporal affairs,” wrote the Council fathers. There are limits to government. (Heresy!) There is something that transcends the Constitution. (Burn him!) Now we’ve turned the tables, haven’t we?
In any event, those of us expats in Rome can breathe a prayer of thanks that there are no Grinches at the Vatican. Here, being “12/25-centric” is perfectly okay. No one has even sued the Pope to get his “Christmas” tree renamed. If you’re fed up with political correctness and are contemplating seeking political asylum, Italy may be the place for you. The food is great, and the absence of Christmas silliness is positively refreshing.
- (Br. Shane Johnson of the Legionaries of Christ is studying for the priesthood in Rome.)