More than any other time of the year, the holiday season gets people to thinking about their differences. Should we allow plays portraying Indians on Thanksgiving in our schools? Should we allow public education to produce music programs that sing Away in a Manger and Silent Night? Should we call it Winter Break? Or Christmas Break? Or Holiday Break? Should politicians endorse religiously themed community programs? And of course, this year, we have to ask if a holiday wreath in the form of a peace symbol is acceptable practice. My goodness, what are we coming to?
Recently, I came across a thread on a forum I visit regularly that was both enlightening and appalling to me. An article was posted that looked like a cut-and-paste from one of those chain emails we’ve all seen. This in itself doesn’t bother me. What bothered me was that a fantastic commentary about diversity and political correctness from Mr. Ben Stein had been given a hefty addendum from an unknown source to push a religious agenda into politics.
Perhaps it was originally Mr. Stein’s intention to say, “God should be in our schools. God should be in our politics. Our country is going to hell because we insist on separating religion from our national identity.” But I don’t think so.
Mr. Stein writes, “It doesn’t bother me a bit when people say, ‘Merry Christmas’ to me. I don’t think they are slighting me or getting ready to put me in a ghetto. In fact, I kind of like it. It shows that we are all brothers and sisters celebrating this happy time of year.” Excellent! This is what America should be: an acceptance of our differences to the degree that everyone can feel comfortable wishing a happy holiday (whichever holiday they might be celebrating at this time of year) to their neighbor without fear that their neighbor will then assume they are pushing a religious value on them. We should be able to recognize that we are a diverse country and that well-wishers are doing so from their own unique background and cultural standpoint. When I, as a Christian, wish someone a Merry Christmas, I’m not saying, “You should come to church with me sometime.” I’m saying, “I hope you find happiness during this season.” Celebrate our differences. They are what make our country a comfortable place to live in. But also recognize that many of our differences are similarities manifesting in diverse ways. This is also what makes our country a comfortable place to live in.
Where I think things got convoluted in Mr. Stein’s original message is the fifth and sixth paragraphs of the text. Here Mr. Stein wonders why it seems as though there is a push for America as an atheist country and why individuals might feel like they are no longer “allowed to worship God as we understand him.” Certainly it feels that way when we have gone from a system that forbids educational and political endorsement of a particular religion to a system that forbids individuals within those institutions from pursuing their religious values. The problem isn’t that teachers can’t teach religion (which they shouldn’t) or that politicians can’t use public money or public time to promote a religion (which they shouldn’t), but that individuals within those institutions are being pressed to not have a religion at all (which it is their right to have). Equally bothersome is the recent trend of politically correct thought that people should not even acknowledge their religion in day-to-day conversation or in the course of conducting their personal business.
Mr. Stein is clear that he doesn’t like the idea that “Nick and Jessica” are everywhere in our consciousness, but that people are discouraged from sharing their values and morals. This in itself is a wonderful message. The problem is that he also accuses people of shoving atheism “down my throat.” It should be noted that most people who believe in separation of church and state (myself being one of those) and separation of religion and public education (myself being one of those, also) are not atheists (as I am not) and are tired of being accused of lacking morals (wrongly implied by the word “atheist”) when they suggest that such a separation should exist.
In truth, there are very few atheists in the United States. Although the number of those who don’t identify with a particular religion is quickly growing, most of these individuals still identify themselves generically as Christians or monotheists. Most of these folks are individuals who believe in God, but recognize that America touts religious freedom and diversity while constantly bringing religious (not moral, but religious) values into their public institutions where those who belong to the minority (i.e., those who practice non-Christian religions, no religion, or spirituality-based lifestyles) are regularly told that their values are un-American and lacking in morals. These folks are also sick to death of religion being shoved down their throats and both situations need to be addressed.
For my part, I can forgive Mr. Stein his closing rant for the terrific message he presents earlier in the text. Truly, we are a diverse nation. Truly, we are all different. Truly, we are all “brothers and sisters” at this “happy time of year.”