By Rob Boston
Hanukkah began on Tuesday, yesterday was the Winter Solstice, and Sunday is Christmas. With all of this celebrating going on, it can be hard to find time to take a breather. But this is a good time to reflect on religious liberty in America, even if you aren’t celebrating one of these holidays.
Consider Christmas. It occupies an interesting niche in American public life. It’s primarily a Christian holiday, but as years pass, more and more people are celebrating it in a secular fashion. At the same time, others celebrate the holidays of other faiths or choose to ignore them all.
Isn’t it great to have the choice? Some of the earliest European settlers in America, the Puritans, didn’t see it that way. They banned Christmas celebrations. Ironically, people who today are very much like the Puritans in many respects – followers of the Religious Right – seek government sponsorship of the holiday.
Here’s what’s really going on: Some people believe their religion is better than everyone else’s and certainly better than non-belief. They have the right to believe this, but merely believing it is never enough for these types. They insist that public schools, city halls, state governments, courts and other government institutions meant to serve all adopt symbols and language that reflect their narrow understanding of this holiday.
And let’s be clear, they look down upon not just those who don’t celebrate Christmas but anyone who celebrates it in a way they deem not authentic or serious. Some Americans who were raised in churches and grew up with Christmas are less religious now but still enjoy aspects of the holiday. They see no reason to discard it. Others celebrate it essentially as a secular holiday. Some honor the Pagan features that are still so pronounced in it. Others mark the holiday of another faith.
December holidays tend to share certain features: ideas of birth or rebirth, hope and light – a light that may seem to leave us for a time but that always returns. Because humans are social creatures, we invest great meaning in ritual.
Thanks to religious liberty, each of us is free to determine the parameters of those rituals. We can choose to regard religious texts as literal truth, maintain that they contain a mixture of truth and metaphor or disregard them entirely. We can make inquiries, explore numerous faiths and philosophies and share our view with others. We can change our minds.
We are fortunate to live in a country where we are free to ask questions about religion, challenge assumptions and strongly (but respectfully) disagree with one another. We are free to acknowledge, worship or interpret God as we see fit.
It was not always so. It is today because some very wise men recognized religious liberty as a fundamental human right and acknowledged that in our Constitution. The gift they gave us, religious freedom, is one of the best you’ll ever get – and best of all, if you work to preserve it, it will always fit, never expire or won't go out of style.
Enjoy that gift, whether you’re celebrating a holiday during this time or not.