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With holiday season comes a question of faith
By ERICA HALL
'Tis the season to celebrate light and hope, but as America's cultural minority communities become more vocal, 'tis also the season to argue over who owns the cultural meaning of the season, who's forcing what on whom and who in turn is ruining everyone else's fun.
Some of those who celebrate Christmas want to celebrate everywhere at home, in school, at work and around town. And until fairly recently, they were able to do so with little outcry.
Since everyone presumably celebrated the same holiday, no one batted an eye if the teacher at the elementary school set out green and red construction paper for art period, or if city hall lit a Christmas tree in the foyer and entertained Christmas carolers singing hymns celebrating the birth of Jesus during a public meeting.
But those who don't celebrate Christmas for reasons both religious and secular say they're tired of being subjected in the public square to the celebration of the birth of a child they don't believe was the messiah, and they don't appreciate local government's tacit approval of national religion.
"For me, it's part of the issue that people in this country don't seem to respect the fact there's supposed to be a separation of church and state. Agencies of the state should not be biased toward one religion," said Rabbi Zari Weiss, the new part-time rabbi at Bet Chaverim Community Synagogue of South King County, located in Des Moines. "Many people think this is a Christian country, and it's not."
She pointed out the United States is supposed to be a pluralistic society where people of all religious backgrounds can practice.
"No one religion should be the traditional religion of the state," she said. "It really isn't appropriate for a school or city hall or the state Legislature to say 'Merry Christmas' to its members."
Douglas Chamberlain, pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Federal Way, noted the Christmas discussion exposes a struggle Christians have had since the early days of this country. He said it's difficult to strike the proper attitude and relationship between faith and culture and to find the appropriate sphere of activity between church and state.
"Constitutionally, we're opposed to establishing one religion," he said.
The U.S. has followed a course in which citizens recognize there exists a plurality of religious beliefs which inform individuals' values. But, at the same time, those individuals have to come together to define themselves as a people. "That's been tough," Chamberlain said.
Some Christians might be concerned that with all this plurality, Christmas eventually will become marginalized and they'll be disallowed from observing or even publicly acknowledging a holiday that means so much to them. Non-Christians are out to ruin their fun, some have said, while others have noted society is becoming so politically correct, no one will be allowed to do anything before long.
But that's not even an issue, Weiss said. Everybody has the right to practice their religious faiths and traditions.
"We're not trying to steal Christmas," she said. "We're trying to make sure the public domain is a place where all citizens feel comfortable, safe and at home.
"Part of the reason people react so strongly is out of fear. Their world is being challenged. But you have to think of what are the real principles on which this country is based. One is religious freedom. We do not have a national religion. That's partly why minority groups are fighting so hard."
Weiss noted it would be absurd not to acknowledge that Christmas exists, or that the vast majority of Americans observe Christmas in some way. The challenge, she said, is to recognize that while most people celebrate the holiday, others don't for a variety of reasons, and the state should remain free of endorsing one religious group's observance.
Chamberlain said that throughout their history, Lutherans have managed to be faithful in their personal lives while interacting in a society or culture that doesn't purport to champion that faith. "Lutherans have historically understood it's okay to be a believer in a culture that doesn't," he said.
Crisis in faith?
Underneath it all, Americans of different stripes might be slinging barbs this holiday season for a deeper reason: It's been a tough couple years, and people are experiencing a sense of anxiety, a lack of security and a crisis of faith that leads them to want to protect comforting traditions.
"These folks who are clamoring to get Christ back in Christmas have a crisis of faith," Chamberlain said. "They're looking to culture to support their faith. Insisting that people say 'Merry Christmas' is not going to connect people with faith.
"Approaching it theologically, from the standpoint of faith, if I find myself looking to culture to carry my faith, I'd need to take a few steps back and realize faith comes from the Word. We live out our calling to be believers in our jobs, our daily lives and as citizens, but we know where God will be found. We don't need the culture to validate us."
Religious leaders say Americans can try to get past the bickering, hurt feelings and failure to recognize the validity of each others' beliefs and traditions by utilizing some basic kindergarten precepts: Patience, respectfulness, and understanding.
"Part of what is involved in opening up to change is education, (but) education takes time, work, patience and acceptance that people move at their own pace," Weiss said. "Ideally, we'd all be trying to work together toward the same goal. But the reality is, we're not. People are fighting for their own survival, and their own right to exist. People don't have the patience to take baby steps with someone."
Chamberlain identified some steps that might help people of all faiths get along during the holidays.
"Number one, become confident in your own faith," he said. He counseled against people defining themselves negatively by what they're not.
"Then, recognize anybody you encounter could be your neighbor," he said. "Treat them with honor, hospitality and understanding. That's not a political ideology."
He added, "Don't be afraid to talk about your faith, but honor and understand that someone else might believe something differently, and don't impose. Be confident God is just as active in your neighbor's life as he is in yours."
As for the "war" on Christmas, Chamberlain said, "There's never a war if a people aren't pushing their own side. I think the worst thing we can do is push back. Say 'Merry Christmas,' but don't use it as a weapon."
Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, firstname.lastname@example.org