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Why Nativity Scenes Don’t Belong in Town Squares

In a slightly less direct way than the “patriotic” worship services around the Fourth of July, the Advent season brings the church/state issue to the table of our thinking.
It provides us with an opportunity to clarify and affirm what a significant protection the First Amendment is to our religious freedom.

How often have you heard the comment that the reason we have so much crime, disrespect and corruption in our culture is that “they” took prayer out of school, and that God is not allowed in so many areas of our public life?

While this is no doubt a genuine and sincere concern for many, it reflects an ongoing need for us to grapple with the relation of particular faith and public policy – the perennial church/state question.

A very clear and thoughtful column last week by Leroy Seat on the importance of the First Amendment’s protections against impositions from a religious majority prompted me to imagine a conversation between neighbors Ann and Tom:

Ann asks, “Don’t you think it’s awful that they won’t let our church put up its traditional manger scene in the town square this year? It’s just another example of how a small minority is dictating what the rest of us can and can’t do.”

“I understand your feelings,” says Tom. “That’s been a tradition for your church to do for some time. By the way, I really like the Christmas decorations you have in your yard. They symbolize the peace and joy of this season beautifully. It’s a real blessing that we are able to express our faith so freely.”

“Except in the town square,” Ann responds. “It seems like everyone’s feelings are being protected except ours.”

“I was thinking about the right we all have to express our faith openly, such as you have done in your beautiful display,” Tom replies. “Would you claim a right to put up Christmas decorations in Ahmed’s yard, or Jacob’s or the Patels’?”

“Of course not,” Ann answers quickly. “I would not presume to put up something in their yards, any more than they would put up something in mine. Part of being a Christian, an American and a good neighbor is respecting other people’s property.”

“I see,” says Tom. “I wonder, is their ownership of the town square the same as yours and mine?”

“Well, yes, I guess so.”

Tom continues, “Maybe the law about religious displays there is just another form of respecting the property we all own together, leaving us free to display anything we want in our own yards.”

“I never thought of it that way,” Ann responds.

“Tell you what,” says Tom. “Let’s go drop in on our neighbors, wish them a happy holiday season and invite them over to your house or mine this weekend for some cookies and hot chocolate. Then we can ask them about the symbols that are meaningful expressions of their faith. We might all learn some important things from each other.”

An imaginary conversation, to be sure, and maybe unrealistic. But I wonder what would happen if we spent a little less time worrying about and claiming rights we think we have and a little more time following the example of the man the Bethlehem child grew up to become, displaying along with our other displays the respect and hospitality that he revealed to be the very nature of God.

He seemed to have a pretty powerful transforming effect on the parts of the world he touched. Didn’t he say something to his followers about doing these kinds of things, and even greater (John 14:12)?

ColinHarris is professor of religious studies at Mercer University and a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Ga.