Recently a federal judge decided that South Carolina’s plans to issue a license plate featuring a cross and the words “I Believe” amounted to government sponsorship of religion. If consistent, this judge will now spend her Christmas not at home with her family, but challenging the legality of a federal holiday that gives government preference to followers of the Christian faith.
Though not mentioned anywhere in the Constitution, the alleged “separation of church and state” that is now considered an integral part of American law has to be one of the most misunderstood and misused phrases in this nation’s history. Originally mentioned by Thomas Jefferson, the Founding Fathers genuinely feared the toxic results of mixing church and state, given their recent experience with the Church of England.
Even though the framers of the Constitution chose not to endorse a “Church of America,” that did not mean they failed to acknowledge that the overwhelming majority of their countrymen were Christians. Our forefathers didn’t fear a faithful populace, but they were afraid of theology and church politics informing policy. James Madison believed that a representative republic was impossible if not for a religious people. The very notion that one day Americans would no longer have the freedom to express their religious convictions through public institutions would not have given the Founding Fathers reason to celebrate — but cause to revolt.
Christianity is so deeply woven into the cultural fabric of the West that it’s impossible to imagine an America without it, from our calendar, to our wedding and funeral rituals, and even the popular lexicon, where slang like “good Lord” and “geez” refer to the same savior. I have even heard agnostics and atheists say both, not because they changed their minds, but because they use the same American vernacular we all do. In trying to run from religion, even politically-correct pressure to substitute “holiday” for Christmas is futile, as the word is derived from “holy day.” And in less PC-times, that a man like Irving Berlin was Jewish, yet would write an American classic like “White Christmas,” wasn’t the least bit odd to earlier generations at ease with their country’s historical identity.
More cultural fact than theological intrusion, the Christian-based traditions that litter our national culture should be no more offensive to sensible and mature Americans — believers or not — than Mom, baseball, or apple pie. That S.C. has somehow, just now, violated the separation of church and state by issuing Christian-themed license plates is a bizarre court decision, as if the government has finally stepped over some arbitrary line that has been at least blurred, since this country’s inception. And the notion that not offering the state’s Hindus, Muslims, and Satanists their own license plates amounts to a violation of their rights, is as silly as saying newcomers from New Jersey and California have the right not to be subjected to palmetto trees or the Carolina wren.
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