Santa Claus crucified

(I strongly recommend NOT OPENING the link that’s included below in the presence of any young children who may still be innocent enough to get a kick out of Santa. – Cranky Man)

A brouhaha erupted in Loudon County, Virginia this week over the content of a holiday display allowed to appear on the courthouse lawn.  As has been happening all over the country for years, various groups protest the mixing of religion and government by targeting the long-standing practice of religious Christmas displays appearing on public lands.

The situation in Loudon County, how it developed; the way it was handled; and the end result, renders the issue interesting on several levels.

Loudon’s solution to the challenge to what should be displayed on the courthouse lawn was an attempt to please everyone by trying to avoid the only sensible decision.  The Loudon County board decided instead to allow anyone who applied and received approval of their holiday display to show it on the courthouse lawn.  (Only 9 display spots were available.) 

As a result displays designed by atheist groups, artists and everyday citizens were included along with a traditional nativity scene and Christmas tree.  The result – I would think - they should have seen coming from a mile away.  This year the displays included one by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, two that promoted atheism and even one celebrating The Constitution.  Last year, there was even a vulgar version of the Twelve days of Christmas

But the one that caused the big stink this year was Santa on a cross (Please check over your shoulder for little Cindy Lou Who before you click!), featuring a skeleton dressed as Santa Claus hung on a cross.  The display – intended to comment on the over-commercialization of Christmas - was promptly vandalized by a woman in the middle of the afternoon in front of news cameras that had come out to report on the controversy.  

What was mind-blowing to me was the reaction of County officials who were shocked when the Santa on a cross display appeared.  Yet the display had been fully explained and described when the application was submitted for approval! 

Who’s been reviewing these applications?!?  The Grinch?

In any case, I believe the situation and the way it was handled should be provided as case study material for municipal leaders everywhere as the way NOT to handle such situations.

It is regrettable that Christmas traditions our generation – and those before it - enjoyed every December are being pushed off the public square due to Political Correctness and the resulting legal appeasals.  But this country is not the same – in cultural demographics and level of diversity – as it was 40-50 years ago, when we were kids and our parents continued the traditions of their generation.  Whether you view that as a good thing or a not-so-good thing, you can’t argue with the fact that it’s simply different now.

My own personal view is that trying to walk that fine line between religion and government only gets more and more perilous the farther you try to toe it, as the Loudon County example illustrates. 

As a born and bred Christian, who admittedly struggles with the concept of Church, I enjoy the meaning, the fellowship and all the trappings of a Christian Christmas.  And though I appreciate the often misunderstood concept of God as integral to the founding  principles of this country, I accept the reality that the judicial concept of separation of church and state (found neither in The Constitution or the Bill of Rights) renders the public display of religious symbols on publicly-owned lands an unwinnable position from which to preserve certain Christmas traditions.  That might be a source of constant irritation at this time of year; but there is no chance of ever going back to those “good old days”.

What would have been the better solution for Loudon?  To allow everyone to speak their mind on whatever level they relate – or react – to Christmas …  all the good, the bad, the preposterous, the blasphemous?  Or would the better solution have been to simply not allow any displays on the courthouse lawn aside from the safe and innocuous “Happy Holidays” sign, as offensive as that might be to their Christian sensibilities?

I would have bitten the bullet and opted for the latter in the belief that it would be better to keep what’s precious at this time of the year safe from the disenchanted, the uber politically-correct, and the wackos.  If Christmas and all those images and icons we associate with it face the risk of corruption and defilement in the public square just because it’s “public”, is it really worth leaving it in the square? 

There are more than enough privately-controlled spaces for us to display our Christian Christmas spirit, on church and private property where we have singular control over what we believe is important to honor with displays.  There’s no need for us to expose our beliefs to what amounts to government-approved public comment and – at times - ridicule all for the sake of making a point.       

Some of the other possibilities are subject for some interesting discussions.

  • Interesting that it would have been “scandalous” to place a cross of any kind on public property, yet it was approved for the crucifixion of Santa Claus.
  • If you cherish the right to free speech, would you be able to stomach the kind of messages that might result from a decision to allow everyone the opportunity to express their Christmas views no matter how offensive or provocative?
  • Was the woman who ripped down the Santa on a cross display a hero, a censor or a criminal?  Was she simply exercising HER right to express herself?
  • What would happen if someone wanted to display a scene disparaging or criticizing the beliefs or concepts of HanukkahKwanzaa or the Muslim equivalent of Christmas, Eid Al-Fitr?
  • How far do you think local officials should go to preserve public displays of Christmas themes? 

Merry Christmas!

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Book Review: American Gospel by Jon Meacham

When I saw Jon Meacham‘s book, American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation,  I put it on my reading list.  I was looking for a book that would provide a layman’s perspective of how the relationship between God and government developed in this country.  Having read Meacham’s work on Andrew Jackson (American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House), I was hoping it would be another concise and enjoyable read. 

Meacham  is executive editor and executive vice president at Random House,  former editor of Newsweek and a Pulitzer Prize winning author.  I’m most familiar with Meacham as a guest political commentator on MSNBC’s Morning Joe (weekdays, 6-9 am), a show I usually watch while getting ready for work in the morning. 

Meacham starts off by highlighting the theme that’s consistently drawn upon throughout the book, the difference between Public religion and Private religion as the Founding Fathers had envisioned.  The concept of Public religion recognizes faith in God (in all forms in which He exists and is worshipped) as a unifying influence, one that unites “the virtue of the populace”.  In this regard, the concept and belief in God takes on whatever religious form is meaningful to an individual, be they Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. 

Private religion seems a concept that is self-explanatory.  That all people have the right to worship – or not worship – God in whatever manner they choose.  This was the antithesis of the religious atmosphere in Europe which led to the founding and colonization of America, which Meacham covers in the first chapter, God and Mammon.  The American experiment provided that no individual would be prevented from worshiping God - if so inclined – in whatever form they should choose, a direct result of what drove the early pilgrims to hazard the perilous Atlantic crossing.

From the beginning, the thinkers among the Founders recognized the importance of religion.  Although they were almost all Christian, almost all Protestant (Several deists, such as Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, were also prominent players.), they recognized the importance of religious tolerance.  Yet they also appreciated the threat to religion that government could pose should the two become too close and become intertwined.  These principles hold true regardless of who you worship or how you worship them. 

(This is why I find The Founding period in our country’s history so fascinating!  The timelessness of The Founders wisdom and foresight is amazing.  The Founders were far from perfect.  Their failure to resolve issues such as slavery and women’s rights – among others – would complicate the road ahead; but the foundation and framework were sound and have survived multiple tests throughout our history. Despite their shortcomings, The Founders were incredibly prescient.)       

Meacham’s greatest accomplishment here is his discussion of the concept most commonly referred to as The Wall between church and state.  A common theme throughout the book, Meacham subscribes to the concept that The Wall was intended more to protect religion from the state as opposed to the other way around.  This is why he finds no contradiction in expressions of God in the public sphere, including mentions of God on our money or in the Pledge of Allegiance.   

As he explores the role of Public religion in America, Meacham takes us through many of the nation’s struggles and accomplishments where Public religion served to unite the country behind the causes that defined the nation, such as the fight for Liberty; the struggle to end slavery and Jim Crow laws; the Great Depression, and the defeat of both Nazi and Communist suppressions in Europe.  In these instances as well as others, Meacham illustrates how American Presidents, political and social leaders invoked the concept of God and the values that flowed from that belief as a compelling, uniting influence for the country.

The book reads much shorter than it looks, running only 250 pages in narrative length.  The rest of the book is a compendium of extensive source notes and bibliography, references to historical letters and documents, even excerpts of presidential inauguration speeches where religious themes were integral. 

Meacham’s effort here is not intended to be taken as an in-depth, historical essay.  He attempts only to provide a historical perspective to the questions “What part did religion play in the founding of the American experiment?” and “How has religion affected the moral development and success of the country?”  Regardless of where you stand on – or know of - the relationship of religion to the American experiment and American governance, you will enjoy Meacham’s perspective on how that relationship came to be.

A case of priest sexual abuse too close to home

I am sickened and disgusted … again.

News broke last night and was prominently reported in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer on a new sexual abuse case linked to children attending an Archdiocese of Philadelphia school.  In this case several individuals, including two priests and a sixth-grade lay teacher were indicted by a grand jury for the abuse of two male students – ages 10 and 14 at the time of the assaults – at St. Jerome Church and School in Northeast Philadelphia.

This is the same parish both my wife and I attended as a children during the late ’60s and early ’70s.  I graduated in 1970 … Carol in 1972, along with my brother and several other friends.  Almost everyone I grew up with was associated with St. Jerome.  And many of us have friends and family still living there.  Carol and I were married in the church.  And both my parents and Carol’s mother were buried after funeral Masses at St. Jerome. 

I think having so many personal connections to that parish - its neighborhoods and its people – makes this more personal.

I left St. Jerome in 1985, when Carol and I were married.  We then attended St. Martha’s, also in NE Philly.  Currently, we live in Horsham, PA and I have been an on-again, off-again member of St. Catherine of Siena.  More off-again – than on – for several years, mostly due to my failed faith.

But not my failed faith in God, or in the belief that His Son, Jesus Christ came to us as Savior.  No, it’s much more my failed faith in what the Church has become in its quest to minimize liability in cases of sexual abuse of children by members of its clergy. 

The Church’s reactions to these assaults is simply incomprehensible, unless it is placed in the context of a very wealthy plaintiff desperately scrambling to protect financial assets from victims’ need for closure and their righteous desire for justice.  In any other context offered by The Church, it makes absolutely no sense. 

I have failed long ago in trying to comprehend the need of some adults to prey on the trust, innocence, and vulnerability of children.  If this was the extent of the problem, I could live with my sense of disgust and the compelling urge to clamor for state-sponsored castration in these cases.

Unfortunately, it goes way, way beyond my tolerance level to witness the continuing actions of The Church when confronted with priests (and now a teacher) who prey on kids.  How is that The Church can claim that its people ARE The Church when they consistently refuse to protect their flock from the wolves that abuse?!?  How many times can you transfer an individual, against whom credible accusations of abuse exist, from church to church, from and to positions of authority and trust, without performing the only decent actions required … turning the accusations over to law enforcement for investigation and getting the abusers out of The Church and away from children?!?           

The grand jury report, resulting from the Philadelphia D.A.’s investigation,  states that one of the accused, serving as Secretary for Clergy, “… was acutely interested in shielding abusive clergy from criminal detection … and … the Archdiocese from financial liability.”  

This is the crux of the problem, a church more interested in protecting assets than in protecting the true Church - the people who worship there. 

I have made two attempts since turning 40 to return to The Church.  In one attempt I even went beyond my usual apathetic attitude towards spiritual involvement in a way that made me feel good about myself and what The Lord meant – and could mean - in my life.  But in each attempt, renewed allegations of clergy abuse of children and the more infuriating revelations of inaction or outright cover-up by the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. has smothered whatever flickering flames my attempts rekindled.

It is no longer worth the effort.

Roots

(I hereby pledge – despite this blog’s name – to keep the lawn references to an absolute minimum.  Having said that, I think “Roots” best describes a discussion of where one comes from … a sort of “from the ground up” perspective.  Apologies to Alex Haley!)

Product of lower-middle-to-middle class, blue-collar Irish-American parentage … More American than Irish in a time when most adults in my version of the ’60s and ’70s more readily identified themselves with their hyphenated semi-European ethnicity.  Fact is, they were probably the last generation that relied so heavily on hyphenated Americanism to describe who they were.  But back then in Philly, it was still easy to identify sections of the city as having been at one time predominantly German, Polish, Italian, etc.

Dad was a World War II vet and worked in a steel processing plant – not in one of those huge, imposing steel mills that dotted much of Pennsylvania, making steel from raw ores.  It was more a facility processing steel into finished industrial products (wire, sheet metal, washers, fasteners, etc.).  He worked very hard in a dirty, sweaty environment.  But despite working in a union shop, it often seemed he could barely keep our financial heads above water.  He was a strongly committed and active Roman Catholic, insisting on maintaining his tithe to The Church even when he had trouble making ends meet.  Dad had his faults, but being anything other than a good father wasn’t one of them. 

Mom was a mom, and solely a mom.  Nothing other than wife and homemaker was necessary in describing her.  She stayed at home.  She never held outside employment.  Didn’t have much of an outside life period.  Never even drove a car.  Relied on Dad for everything.  It was remarkable in a way you NEVER see today.  But in the end, it was extremely limiting to her sense of self outside the family.  I never really appreciated what she gave up until Dad passed away, and she was left with no way to do anything for herself.  But as a mom, she was always there.  We always had that presence in the house.  And I honestly can’t recall more than a day here or there when she wasn’t there for us.  It was a sacrifice that’s impossible for me to adequately put to words.

Both Mom and Dad came from HUGE families … the Irish-Catholic way!  It mattered not which side of the family was involved; extended family gatherings were incredibly loud and crowded affairs.  To a kid it was both intimidating and wondrous. Who were all these people?!?

Of course, my parents were also products of The Great Depression (These stories alone could shape a few posts here!) and World War II, which had to be extremely difficult circumstances for large families.  So I often wonder whether that was why – despite their standing as “good Irish-Catholics” - there was only me, my brother Patrick, and my sister Joanne.  But I sure do remember many references to “the rhythm method”!

There is so much more I could go into here … some other time perhaps.  But going only this far, serves my purposes for the moment.