Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christmas Presence

"No holiday season is complete, at least for the courts,
without one or more First Amendment
challenges to public holiday displays."

This was the wry observation in December 2004 by the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, called upon to decide a case pitting Andrea Skoros, a mother of two public school students, against the New York City Department of Education. Only three out of 127 pages of the decision are available on-line; a pdf error message prevents further reading, and the error has never been corrected. The Second Circuit web site seems to be particularly vulnerable to such errors. But the details hardly matter.

There is a reason that Christians have, for many decades, been uttering the slogan "Put Christ back in Christmas." Jesus Christ did not have a particularly prominent role in early American observance of the Christmas holiday. Our earliest models of piety in government, the Pilgrims and Puritans, forbade observance of a Christmas holiday. From 1659 to 1681, the law in Massachusetts Bay colony imposed a fine for observance of Christmas "by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way."

The Anglican church observed an Anglican mass for Christmas. Many Anglicans ONLY went to church for this special occasion, or perhaps also for Easter. Roman Catholics celebrated Christ Mass; that is where the name Christmas comes from. Accordingly, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians remained hostile to observance of the holiday, until well into the 19th century, long after the American Revolution. Methodists were all over the map, coming out of the Anglican church, but in America often converted directly from unbelief in emotional mass revivals during the Great Awakening. For strict Methodists, celebrating the Christ Mass was as sinful as playing cards or dancing the Virginia Reel.

Whatever Christmas is, it does not fall on any likely birth date for Jesus. Mary's baby boy may have been born in April or August (more likely times of year for shepherds to be watching their flocks by night in Palestine). The date of Christ Mass was timed by the fathers of the church, after becoming the official state church of the Roman Empire, to pre-empt the pagan Saturnalia. As missionaries moved north to convert the pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed barbarians of northern Europe, it also scooped up the midwinter festivals and co-opted the Yule logs.

Dutch families of the Reformed Church, and German Lutheran immigrants, brought to America their own traditional celebrations of Christmas, supplying America with "Sinter Klaas" and the Christmas tree. But no state recognized a Christmas holiday until 1836, roughly the 60th anniversary of American independence. Congress made no act recognizing the holiday until 1870. Sometime in the 1840s, a committee of New York businessmen got behind making the holiday a major annual event. Why? To boost sales of course. Our current orgy of gift giving, not to mention returns and exchanges, was not a thoughtless byproduct. It was the original motivation for the holiday as we know it.

Eventually, most churches caught the spirit of the great national civic celebration. If the stores rendered themselves profitable off of Christmas, the churches certainly found it appropriate to get in a word or two about Christ. Special services for the holy day, which were once explicitly rejected, became commonplace. In recent years, church choirs have even been known to come downtown singing spiritual carols in the midst of the secular holiday sponsored by the chamber of commerce. (They have a constitutional right to do that, as long as the celebration is held in the public square).

Many of our modern Christmas customs came from devout religious observance in one century or another. (Jesus was not born "amid the winter snows," but the English carol is a beautiful icon). As far as American observance is concerned, celebration that the Messiah is born, and God reconciled to a sinful world, is a late-breaking add-on to feasting, buying, and extended vacations. For that matter, Hannukkah was not such a big deal in traditional Jewish communities, until American Jewish immigrants sought for a way to join the American civic holiday season. These religious observances do add a certain significance to the whole exercise.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Why Did We Vote on This?

Wednesday Morning Quarterbacking about Marriage

I've got to hand it to Arizona. They had the common sense to say no. Wisconsin may be the first state to adopt a constitutional amendment concerning the definition of marriage, with less than 60% voting in favor. That distinction pales by comparison. We are seeing the first hopeful signs that sanity may yet return to this hysterical debate. Two older women passengers on the Milwaukee paratransit system gave the best spontaneous insights into the insidious amendment proposal:

"If God said it, we don't get to vote on it. So why are we voting on it?"

"This is too confusing. There has to be some purpose they're not telling us about."

One transparent purpose they didn't openly mention in Wisconsin failed to come true. The amendment was not the wedge for a Republican sweep of the elections. Voters split their tickets in all kinds of ways, with great sophistication. One congressional district even tipped to the Democrats. A fair number of people who voted "Yes" seem to have voted AS IF the referendum were a simple question: "Is marriage the union of one man and one woman?" That would have gotten about a 70% yes vote. It is not what the legislature presented to the people for ratification.

Still, it is odd that those who claim to know what God ordained wanted us to vote on it!. One might have expected those who claim marriage can mean anything we want it to mean to push for a vote. It is strange that so many pastors and churches thought it worthy of their attention. There has never been a time when any political body was so anxious to pass a constitutional amendment to provide that things are going to stay the way they are now. Nor has there been a time when opposition was so aroused on the ground that if the amendment is voted down, nothing will change. For its stated purpose, it would have been hard to write a more twisted and uncertain set of sentences. There would have been no harm in sending the whole thing back to the drawing board until the authors could get it right.

But the most dangerous thing about the rash of state constitutional amendments on this subject is that it takes the courts off the hook. Paranoia about "activist judges" inspires many to nail the absurd debate about marriage into an airtight coffin, without bothering to drive a stake through the heart of the controversy. Yes, the famous ruling by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts was ridiculous. But no court, no state attorney general, nobody from Liberty Counsel or American Center for Law and Justice, has come close to dissecting what the court's error really was. Instead of doing the hard work of clearing the air, everyone is looking for airtight compartments to seal off the real questions that remain unresolved.

It is a general and accepted practice in drafting legislation, and in legal reasoning, to begin by defining the terms of the controversy. There is no case on record where any judicial opinion began by defining the term "marriage." Advocates of expanding the definition have cleverly made the definition the end result of their argument, rather than addressing it at the beginning.

If any judge began by looking the word up in a standard Webster's dictionary, or in Black's Law Dictionary, every available definition would focus on male and female. On that basis, a court could examine with some clarity whether any individual man or woman has been denied equal protection of the laws. The answer would be, no. No male, and no female, has been denied equal access to the status of marriage. The fatuous claim that homosexuals are a "class" of persons who are "excluded" from a deliberately undefined status, vaguely referenced as "marriage," would fall flat on its face. Homosexuals are not a class at all. Marriage laws take no notice of such a condition – unlike skin color, race, nationality, religion, etc. Throughout history, thousands of "homosexuals" have been married in the traditional sense – to individuals of the opposite gender.

Some individuals simply do not desire to enter into the historically constituted partnership known as marriage. They desire to enter into other partnerships. So be it. Those partnerships are what they are. However loving, they are not marriage. And, as anyone looking at it from a Judeo-Christian tradition would recognize, they do not reunite the Adam. They do not bring together the two parts into which the image of God was divided. (Courts in the United States cannot make rulings about the image of God. It is outside their jurisdiction. Spiritual matters are protected by the First Amendment from the profane hand of the civil magistrate.)

This needs to be presented to the courts, stripped of the obfuscation wrapped around most arguments submitted so far. The courts need to clean up the controversy. It needs to be settled, not walled off behind hasty constitutional amendments. Good arguments and bad arguments need to be laid out, examined, publicly displayed, and thoroughly recognized for what they are. No short cuts. So far, the best arguments have not even been submitted to a court of competent jurisdiction.

Once we settle that marriage is marriage, and nothing else, there is no reason we cannot provide by law for individuals to make and register their own choices for hospital visitation rights, joint ownership of property, shared obligations for children. There is no reason for the government to take any notice of the motives. There is no reason the community as a whole must formally acknowledge or celebrate individual choices that deviate from the norm for the human race, any more than we need to persecute such deviations. It simply isn't a marriage.If the Metropolitan Baptist Church wants to celebrate such partnerships as a marriage, they have a right to do so. The Southern Baptist Convention is under no obligation to do likewise. That is called free exercise of religion.