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.
But while no one gets upset about state trees and birds, the hatred directed at religion can be vicious. It seems for every pushy Bible-thumper there is always some Christophobic twit to match, whose obnoxious enthusiasm for his unbelief knows no bounds. The activist atheist who’s upset that he’s surrounded by Christians deserves to be accommodated about as much as the religious fundamentalist who’s upset he’s surrounded by heathens. Both unquestionably have a right to their own opinion, but should also have the judgment to temper their personal beliefs with common sense and good manners.
Imagine a dinner party in which one guest continuously insults the others, trashes the menu, and berates the host. Most would consider him a real jerk, and rightfully so, as most ladies and gentlemen gracefully adapt to situations out of simple courtesy. During the election, I honestly thought most passionate McCain or Obama supporters were partisan suckers, but I did not spend every waking hour harassing my neighbors about it. Despite what I personally think about our two-party system, I must concede as a practical matter — every day — that I live in what remains a primarily Republican vs. Democrat political culture.
And South Carolinians of any faith or unfaith belong to a primarily Christian culture. Religious symbolism today is handled in a way that would be considered unacceptable if applied to any other cultural facet. Imagine a court denying New York the option of issuing Statue of Liberty license plates because not every New Yorker subscribes to the idea of liberty? No self-respecting New Yorker would stand for this. And Lord knows, any grown-up who would waste his time standing before a court to argue against allowing South Carolinians the same right to the same sort of simple cultural expressions is worse than a bad American — he’s a bad neighbor.
Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the “Morning Buzz with Richard Todd” on 1250 AM WTMA.
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