Friday, December 11, 2009

Removing 'Christ' from Christmas

I read recently that the White House toyed with the notion of removing “Christ” from “Christmas” this year. That is to say, the idea was passed around that the Christmas nativity scene, traditionally displayed in the East Room of the White House, would not be brought out this year. In the words of the President’s secretary, Desiree Rogers, the Obamas would be celebrating a “nonreligious Christmas.” As faithful Christians across the country raised eyebrows over this breach of tradition and former Presidential secretaries literally “gasped” at the thought, those responsible for White House decorating and event planning have since changed their minds. The crèche will now be displayed as it is every year.

[For more on this story click here.]

Some might ask: Why should it matter whether the First Family celebrates a religious or a secular Christmas? Is it any business of ours to pry into the religious devotion (or lack of devotion) of the First Family?

Certainly a person’s religious beliefs are a private affair. It is a matter of one’s own conscience to decide what one believes about the Deity, if one believes at all. In a free, pluralistic society no one is required to believe anything against their will, nor are we required to share our personal beliefs in the public square if we choose not to do so. But Barack Obama has in the past put his faith front and center, especially when courting Christian voters during his Presidential campaign. In July of 2008, he addressed a gathering of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in these words: “In my own life, it's been a journey that began decades ago on the South Side of Chicago, when, working as a community organizer, helping to build struggling neighborhoods, I let Jesus Christ into my life. I learned that my sins could be redeemed and that if I placed my trust in Christ, that he could set me on the path to eternal life when I submitted myself to his will and I dedicated myself to discovering his truth and carrying out his works.”

On many occasions Obama has referred to his religious faith as a Christian, and many people, rightly or wrongly, voted for him on the assumption that his faith shaped his understanding of human frailty and suffering. He framed in religious terms his work among the poor and disenfranchised, and made it clear that Jesus’ call to help those in need was a defining element of his own call to public service. In other words, Obama made his faith a matter of public debate. He took a private matter and brought it into the public square. He chose to do this himself – no one dragged the issue out of the closet against his will. It was his decision to make his faith public. Many, if not most, politicians have done likewise in the past, and when that is the case it is perfectly legitimate for their constituents to question a sudden change in that elected official’s stance toward their faith.

Obviously the Obamas have every right to celebrate a secular Christmas - or Winter Solstice - if the wish. No one is suggesting that we should pass a law requiring the President to celebrate a Christian holy day against his will. Indeed if Obama had always publically professed to be an atheist or an agnostic, then it would make perfect sense that he would reject the religious side of Christmas. If he were a Muslim or a Jew or any other non-Christian then of course we would expect him to celebrate Christmas in a secular way or even not at all.

But the fact is that Barack Obama has on numerous occasions referred to his Christian faith and to his Christian pastor as great influences in his life. He has attended church and been a member of Christian congregations in the past, and professed publically a belief in Jesus. He was married in a church, was baptized as a Christian, and had his children baptized. As President he publically celebrated Easter this year at an Episcopal church.

If this new “secular Christmas” is some kind of politically correct ploy designed to appeal to the atheistic Left, then I must question his sincerity as a Christian. I wonder whether he is using the Christian faith as a political tool. If that is the case then I am offended as a Christian. (Though, I am not surprised.)

If, on the other hand, he truly believes that Jesus’ birth - God becoming incarnate to live among us - is not an important event in his Christian faith, then his religious statements up to this point are either disingenuous (he has been lying about his Christian convictions) or he has reached some new understanding about God that constitutes a sharp break from what he has professed before…in other words he has suddenly rejected Christianity in the form he has embraced it before, for what alternative belief system, I do not know.

Now obviously, there are some Christian sects and denominations that do not observe holidays and feast days. These Christians reject setting aside days for special religious celebrations. Some Christian fundamentalists do not celebrate Christmas or Easter or other Christian holidays. But I doubt that this is the case for the Obamas. In the past, Obama has always attended these services (Easter this year, for instance). He has never shown any sign of gravitating to this brand of Christianity. But if this is the case, if he has chosen a new faith tradition, then this would mark some new spiritual understanding that Obama has acquired. And such a religious shift should be noted publicly since he has made his faith so public in the past. How does this new spiritual awakening affect Obama’s outlook on policy? If his Christian faith has shaped his motivations in the past, then what are his new motivations?

There are those who say that religion should not affect a person’s politics in this way. To those people I say, you are flat out wrong. A person’s faith affects their understanding of human worth and dignity, the value of life, the purpose of our created world, the meaning of history, the origins of our rights, and so much more. If a person holding public office cannot be honest and forthright about his or her convictions on these issues then I must hold them suspect. If they falter or even lie about their deepest beliefs, then how can I trust their judgment on other issues? It becomes a question of personal character and integrity.

If the nation had elected an atheist, then so be it. Christmas at the White House would be secular, and that would be that. If we elected a Jew, then I would expect a menorah. But we elected a man who spoke highly of his Christian convictions, a man who claims to have been greatly influenced by a faith which drove a personal quest for truth. If his convictions are wavering on this most important of issues, or his quest for truth has been a farce, then I have great reason to distrust him as my President.

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