An atheist message amidst the Christmas symbols

The state of Washington has agreed to allow an atheist group to include one of their signs along with the Christmas tree and the Menorah at the state capitol building. Here is what it says on the sign: “There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

This is not fair and equal treatment. The atheists get to display a verbal message. The religions of the world just get to display a symbol. The result is that in the whole display the atheist pronouncement reads like a caption–a commentary, a criticism, a judgement–on the whole religious display.

If the atheists have to be represented, let them offer a symbol. (What would be an appropriate symbol for atheism equivalent to the Christmas tree or the Nativity Scene? Strange Herring suggests a guillotine or one of those depressingly ugly Soviet tenements in which communists like to warehouse their citizens [and which, incidentally, is the setting of “The Decalogue”] What would be some other good symbols for atheism? I’d like some that would be acceptable to the true non-believers also, so I hope Michael the Little Boot weighs in.)

Or, let the religions also put up signs that say what they believe and make their case to the world. (What would be a good message that would do that for Christianity, short enough to fit on a sign but that would have an apologetic impact?)

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  • My wife suggests “nothing,” as that is an appropriate symbol for atheism.

  • We lived in communist-era apartment blocs for over five years in Romania. The sterility of these buildings is a good illustration of the emptiness of atheism. In fact, “communist” is now our family adjective for anything that completely lacks architectural or artistic creativity.

    I know that not all atheists are communists, but there are no other societies that we can point to in which atheism was the ruling religion, so they don’t have a very good track record.

  • Symbol for atheism: a one-dimensional graph, as on a number line in math, with black dots on both ends of the line showing there is a beginning and an end and nothing before or beyond.

    Message for Christmas display: However much of 1 John 4:9,10 fits on your signboard:
    “9This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”
    — instead of opening an argument with the atheists on their terms, we proclaim the Gospel in God’s terms.

  • Larry

    Amen to Jeff Samelson’s proposed caption for the Christian symbol. Amy Semple McPherson — of all people — suggests a good symbol and caption for the atheist display. She once addressed an atheist society. She told the story of an atheist who died. There he was in his coffin, nicely decked out. Oh, he looked fine (she went into dramatic detail)! But he was an atheist. He didn’t believe in heaven. He didn’t believe in hell. “All dressed up and nowhere to go!”

  • Peter Leavitt

    A good symbol would be a picture of a surgical instrument piercing the skull of a late term fetus during an abortion, or perhaps a vacuum a bit later in process of evacuating the brain matter. Without a Creator and a moral universe, why should such trifles matter?

  • The Jones

    How about a large crate of TNT: For a really Big Bang, and a Happy New Year.

  • How about the circle with the arrow you get when a website is trying to be pulled up , just going around and around with no seeming end, especially when you are running a certain software manufacturer’s application 😉 Atheism leads to nothingness, just chasing a circle around and around until it’s over–except we know it’s not over–eternity exists for all, it’s just where will spend eternity. It will be a rude awakening for those who thumb their nose at the Almighty. Until then, it’s up to us to preach and live the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.

  • CRB

    I have no suggestions, but I really wonder why the state
    capitol building or any or government building needs to display any religion’s beliefs (or non-belief!) If I were governor, I would say “Down with all the symbols, as we are about the separation of the 2 kingdoms.”!

  • The way I see it, we *get* to put up a symbol, while atheists *have* to use bland English to get their point across. If the atheists were smart they’d prefer the more potent language of symbolism over a rather sterile thesis.

  • JoeS

    How about an hourglass and a pair of dice in honor of the atheist gods Time and Chance?

  • Dan

    I notice that most of the comments opposing the atheists seem to be emotional responses that sound rather childish? I’m not an atheist myself, but not affiliated with any religion so I’m not trying to defend their beliefs. However, the emotional responses would suggest to me that religious followers feel that their faith is threatened. If one truly believes in something, do they need to lash out at all opposing beliefs? Just a thought.

  • Manxman

    Let it be multimedia – a video of Peggy Lee singing her existentialist song “Is that all there is?”

  • D

    “Without a Creator and a moral universe, why should such trifles matter?”

    Exactly! Without a divine creator, I wouldn’t know that genocide and rape can be justified! (Numbers 31:17-18)

  • Booklover

    For Christians:

    He lived among us, and died for us, yet He still lives.

    “Greater love hath no man than this. . .”

  • The Jones

    Dan @12,

    Most Christians do feel that their faith is threatened, not because of a petty instance like this, but because of a very real move away from Religious Pluralism and towards Societal Secularism. The idea is that instead of allowing any and all religions to practice freely, you push out all religions, which ignores the fact that by pushing out RELIGIONS, you support the NON-RELIGIONS like atheism or most brands of agnosticism. “Secular” is being defined by the government as the neutral ground. This has terrible consequences for Christian Churches and has a host of benefits for Atheistic people, worldviews, and religions (yes, there are Atheistic religions).

    It’s a backdoor assault on the separation of church and state, where the state CAN be an instrument to push forth your belief about the divine as long as your belief about the divine doesn’t believe there’s a God. If you don’t believe there’s a God, you must not be a church (which is not true), so the First Amendment doesn’t apply to you. Quite the legal loophole, if you ask me.

    We were doing fine with Religious Pluralism, I don’t see any good reason to move to Societal Secularism. It violates the First Amendment.

  • Peter Leavitt

    the Jones is right. Hard-edged secularists dominate modern culture through most of the the academy, media, and the arts. Indeed we were doing fine with religious pluralism until the secular fundamentalists mounted a serious campaign to establish their religion.

  • Don S

    As Peter @ 18 states, The Jones nailed it in post 17, as the government is in the process of establishing societal secularism as the state religion, in violation of the 1st Amendment.

    Christians have contibuted to this sorry state of affairs by being intolerant of those who choose to practice minority non-Christian faiths. We need to recognize the two kingdoms, and not worry about the guy who chooses to read from the Koran on the street corner, or the occasional non-Christian faith leader who opens a city council meeting with a prayer to Buddha or some other god. So what? We are better off being tolerant of that and being allowed to also pray in the name of Christ and freely promote Christian values in the public square. Let folks see people practicing their various faiths openly and naturally, and let them see how truly unique it is to serve a living and risen Lord. Let the Holy Spirit move and work. This is much better than raising a generation that has no concept of God because they never see Him acknowledged or consulted by any of the leaders of society.

  • Michael the little boot

    I agree with Dan. I find most of these responses are emotional and childish. Why would any atheists feel welcome here to name a positive symbol which reminds them of this season and what it means to them? I applaud Dan – as well as D @ 14 whose interesting comment has gone unnoticed – for illustrating what most people of faith think of the nonbelievers.

    I’m not going to defend an atheist perspective. I find these debates about “how can there be any morality without God?” too difficult to have here. We have radically different definitions of words like “sin”, “certainty” and “morality”; that, coupled with the problem of communicating subtle or nuanced ideas in a blog comment, without the actual back-and-forth of an in-person dialogue, have convinced me not to argue about such things in these forums.

    Pluralism has failed. I think it’s because of a failure to listen on both sides. It is just as much the fault of the fundamentalist secularists as it is the fundamentalist religious side. The difference I see is there are many more secularists who don’t say anything than do. The religious side, however, weighs in on these matters, fundamentalist or not. It is an imbalance, but one I wonder if we might fix were we to have the moderates of all sides sit down and talk.

    When I first left the church, I remained at the Christian college I was attending, and had the opportunity to take a class on World Religions. I found the variety and depth of many religious practices to be very moving. It seems we have many important religious events occuring at the end of the calendar year (although calendars differ, I admit). Since then, I’ve wondered why we, as a supposedly pluralistic society, didn’t begin to celebrate as many of those as we could.

    I don’t mean each family celebrating all of them – although it would make sense for families made up of different faiths. I think everyone would continue celebrating as is traditional for their culture. But the larger culture – society in general – would acknowledge all the celebrations. I think it would deepen our appreciation of the variety of human life and experience, while making us less likely to be so centered on our own way of seeing things. At least, that would be my hope.

    All that to say, I think the atheists use of words as their symbol is ridiculous, unsophisticated and not in keeping with the season. The symbol I propose is an obvious one, but, I think, an important one: the Earth. A picture taken from space. With no borders. I think it’s powerful and also REAL, which, to nonbelievers, is most important.

  • The Jones

    Well, Michael, you actually gave the first non-comical good response to Veith’s question. That actually is a good symbol, and one that I as a Christian wouldn’t really be bothered by, even if it had a “From the (insert city here) Athiest Society.”

    But Pluralism hasn’t failed. I think what you may be trying to say is “People did not fulfill pluralism.” But if they did not fulfill pluralism, a philosophy that has precepts which offer the greatest amount of freedom for religion, does that justify going to Societal Secularism, a philosophy that does not allow for the free exercise of some peoples religion? That sounds similar to saying “Well, we through our own ineptitude, injustice still exists in our Democratic Republic. Let’s bring back the totalitarian state.” It doesn’t make sense to me.

    Next, I don’t buy into the fact that the season is exclusive to the Christian Christmas. Decorations get put up in proportion to the way people WANT them to be put up. Let’s make an example:

    Now, I don’t know the actual demographics, but lets pretend that 80% of the country celebrates the Christian Christmas, that 10% of the country celebrates Jewish Hanukkah, 5% of the country celebrates Kwanzaa, and 5% of the country is athiest and either doesn’t celebrate anything or just celebrates the “Winter Season.” How is it injustice if 8 out of 10 seasonal decorations relate to the Christian Christmas, 1 out of 10 seasonal decorations relate to Hanukkah, 1 out of 20 relate to Kwanzaa, and 1 out of 20 are humanist, Winter Season, or Winter Solstice decorations? Sure there are fewer Jewish, Kwanzaa, and Secular Seasonal decorations, but that seems like the way it should be in a free democracy. It certainly seems better than a government mandate that Christian Christmas, Kwanzaa, Ramadan (which changes according to the lunar calendar), Hanukkah, and Secular Seasonal decorations MUST have equal display in all public places. That just seems silly. The 80% Christian population is misrepresented! As long as no one is prohibited from putting up their own decorations, there is no injustice. Just because somebody else puts up more of their own decorations in the town square than you do, that doesn’t mean that your rights have been trampled into the snow-packed winter ground.

    Now, I don’t know about actual numbers, but this general idea of “equal representation” is what Christians get a little peeved about this time of year.

  • Michael the little boot

    The Jones @ 21,

    I didn’t mean to imply the failure of pluralism necessitated a leap to Societal Secularism. I don’t think that at all. Philosophically, I think pluralism is still the best way to go. I mean Pluralism has failed to work in society in general. I didn’t propose an alternative, because I still have hope for pluralism. I love the idea. If people can finally begin to practice it, I think we will all benefit.

    I find your discussion of “equal representation” to be interesting. Where do you shop, Jones? I can’t go anywhere during the holidays without hearing Christmas music. I don’t just mean “Silver Bells” and “Have yourself a merry little Christmas”. I hear “Joy to the World”, “Angels we have heard on high” and “Silent Night” just as often when I am in the mall or at Wal-Mart. I see Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, angels, etc. It’s all part of the celebration of Christmas, and I don’t object to it, nor do I have any problem with it.

    What I find amusing about your characterization is what it says about your perspective. I do not find the representation to be in the hypothetical percentages you suggested at all. In fact, I think the Christian Christmas is the most represented holiday during this season. The others are hardly represented at all. I mean, the Christmas tree was a pagan symbol, but Christians stole it, so that doesn’t even count anymore. Chanukkah is hardly given shelf space, and Kwanzaa is rarely seen. The nonbelieving perspective, while hard to symbolize, is not given nearly the representation 14% of the population would get under your plan.

    I don’t think it’s very cool for everyone to get one-to-one representation when the numbers are so imbalanced, anyway. One would hope the people who talk about “peace on earth, goodwill to men” would be gracious enough to give the minority views enough represention – within reason – to help them feel less like second-class citizens.

    Nonbelievers tend to get a little peeved at this time of year the majority has the temerity to complain they aren’t represented more. I suggest you already have beyond 80% representation during the holidays. All we want is something greater than the infinitesimal amount of representation we’re allowed.

  • The Jones

    Well, looks like your post explains that we agree more than I originally thought we did.

    But if it makes you feel any better about giving minority views enough representation, next to the National Christmas tree at the White House is the National Menorah. Hanukka got Respect, foo’!

  • john

    There was always going to be a response from atheists to the increasing politicalisation of christianity under the Bush administration. Christianity’s standing has been diminished by its assocociation with rightwing politics.

  • Arguing whether or not one’s religion (or non-religion) is represented in a public place is what I call “drama queen” theatrics. At the top of the tree should be a representation of the drama queen. Though perhaps it should be the drama androgenous.

  • Michael the little boot

    The Jones,

    Yeah, I’m actually pretty moderate in general. And I like diversity, so I like the idea of celebrating all the holidays in public.

    I know you probably meant it as a joke, but the end of your comment is telling. Chanukkah being represented is fine, but it’s not really being denied a place. I know I’m Jewish, but I am also a nonbeliever. There are many examples of society rejecting nonbelievers, saying we are evil, communists, pedophiles, drug addicts. I fear people knowing what I believe at work, because I run a couple story-times at the library, and I know most of the parents would pull their children out if they knew I didn’t believe in God – even though what we do in story-time has nothing to do with religious beliefs. The most famous recent example of atheists being rejected publicly is the quote by George H.W. Bush – which I’ve mentioned before – about how we shouldn’t be considered as patriots or citizens. I agree what the atheists put up in the state of Washington was a real Debbie Downer; I do identify with why they did it.

    The majority should expect to be represented with the majority of pulic holiday decorations. That only means greater than 50%, not the one-to-one representation you suggested. That still leaves a good portion left to allow for the under-represented to feel like they are also a part of society. That is pluralism at its best: we’re all here, and we do things differently. Let’s learn from each other. At the very least it would make things more interesting.

    I do want to point out, though, that I am only talking about this perspective because it was brought up. I don’t care to make noise about representation in general. I choose to celebrate Christmas and Chanukkah in my way. I leave others to do so in their’s. However, I do find myself wondering what it might feel like if, out of all the other holiday decorations, I could find ONE from a nonreligious view…

  • Michael the little boot

    Random Name,

    I find when people argue for representation in the public place they are often arguing for a place in society. The majority often calls others names like “drama queen” to quiet a reasonable request. I find it funny I can’t go anywhere in December without seeing Christmas in my face, but can’t say “Might we place a single symbol to represent a nonbelieving perspective of peace and joy at this time of year?” without being called a drama queen.

    I do know you were not necessarily speaking to me. But those in the majority should keep in mind, every time they say we should be happy with the bits we get, that they were once in the minority as well, fighting the same denial of representation.

  • Peter Leavitt

    An androgenous [sic] drama Queen atop of of a state Christmas tree would merely symbolize the decadence of a country with profoundly Christian roots. Tocqueville in Democracy in America attributed the success and genius and of America to its Christian roots, which just now are under corrosive attack by hard-edged secularists who despise the Judeo-Christian tradition.

  • Michael,

    Thank you for your reply. I am apparently a bit similar to you in that in that I am of Jewish heritage and I am not a religious believer. I consider non drama queen arguments to be ones involving people’s lives, freedom, and livelihood. In the Soviet Union being a Christian might get you dead or imprisoned. In some Muslim countries being a Christian might bring similar punishments. In Christian countries in the past, being an atheist or a Christian of the wrong denomination might bring similar punishments.

    I don’t think we should say “Under God” in the flag salute or have prayers at the start of public meetings. For me to get all bent out of shape about it is drama queen behavior to my eyes. If I got my way in these regards, for Christians to whine about it would be “drama queen” behavior.

    The business about the public display of religious symbos strikes me as drama queen behavior in that context. Worship or celebration of one’s religious belief should be as much as possible a private matter for individuals or groups in their churches. I am dubious about how much the public government should get involved in these matters.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Random Name is one of the anti-Christian militants over at world MagBlog. A recent post is rather typical of his style:

    Again, I post the awkward phrase: Christianity is a benevolent swindle. Despite the dogged insistence by many here–polite and calm by many, harsh and bitter by others–it is losing its hold on human beings. …

  • Glad to see some of my points have been made.

    I think there is good secularization and bad secularization. Good secularization can happen when there is small government and the government does not own much public property. It will refrain from religious displays, but since most property is owned privately, there will still be lots of religion on display in the society. Bad secularization occurs when the government is everywhere and you can’t get away from it. When you are surrounded by government and it removes religion, then you are in a godless environment.

    But these arguments over who gets to use government land how are more indicative of trying to find political solutions to problems like this than they are of the problems of secularization. When things are decided by voting and yelling, you will have a constant fight. When people own land and are free to do as they please, there is less turmoil. I won’t feel like my neighbor’s display is somehow a message from my government on my behalf. I am much more cheered by a giant Christmas display at a mall than by some dinky politically correct city government display. Better still, non-religious people didn’t have their tax dollars stolen from them for a use they didn’t approve.

    In a city in my county, I have heard James Earl Jones read Luke 2 on Main Street with thousands of people listening. It happened to be Main Street Disneyland. That shows what ownership allows.

  • Don S

    Rick @ 31: Your comment is spot on. If government were small, as it should be, its policy of not permitting any religious expression in order to avoid being perceived as favoring one faith over another would be acceptable, and even desirable, since evidence of faith would still be throughout the private world. However, sadly, the concept of small government is only theoretical, and the massive size of government prevents the faith community from being visible in society at large. That is why I believe we would be better off taking a narrower, proper view of the First Amendment, and permitting pluralistic religious expression even in governmental settings as long as no state religion is being established. Let the political process work to determine when religious expression is overbearing, rather than the courts. Given how afraid even our merchants are to offend the public by referencing faith, I hardly think that we would be inundated with faith references in our society, even with such a policy modification. And, it would have the bonus effect of being constitutional.

  • Don @32: I don’t have a really strong opinion on how to do things under the current arrangement. When deciding where to put my own efforts, I’m more interested in the long term than the short term. But I don’t imagine that the faith community being visible will be accomplished through the political process. Pluralism is a fair solution, but it favors religious positions that don’t see these pragmatic arrangements as statements of unity in faith. (The LCMS, for example, had a major problem when Pastor Benke prayed at the interfaith worship service at Yankee Stadium.) So this makes some people happier but not others.

    My own view of the First Amendment has changed. I now think we have to consider first how the structure of Constitutional Law changed after the Civil War. Before the Civil War, the Bill of Rights bound the Federal Government. It recognized that people had unenumerated rights, and did not see the Supreme Court as the guarantor of all the individual’s rights over against the states. While the individuals had these rights, the Federal Government didn’t have jurisdiction to enforce them. The Fourteenth Amendment municipalized the Bill of Rights, and ever since, there are varying theories as to which rights can be cited against state and local governments. Now, the question is not (or shouldn’t be) so much whether these rights exist or not. The question is whether the Constitution gives the Court jurisdiction over state and local governments in a given dispute.

    That said, appeals to the original intention are problematic, since we are talking about an amended Constitution with a different understanding of how rights are defended.

    My own view is more Jeffersonian, even if I have a different hope for where that will lead over the long haul than Jefferson did. I don’t think people should have to pay for causes they don’t believe in. And I want my state constitution to be an even stronger guarantor of religious freedom than the Federal Constitution.

    Your last argument about not being inundated takes away from the rest of your argument. I don’t see how this can be important on the one hand and innocuous on the other. A manger, if understood, means that a king has been born. A king who was persecuted by a state. I don’t really expect the government to help me spreading that message. If I can manage to, then I think the salt has lost its savor.

  • Peter Leavitt

    A big problem we have with these First Amendment matters is that the militant secularists assume that the Constitution demands a separation of the religion including the predominant Christian one.

    The Founders made sure that the Constitution did not favor any one religion, though all of them understood that we are a predominantly Christian nation. They would be appalled at the anti-Christian tone of the militant secularists of our time.

    John Marshall, regarded by many scholars as the greatest of Supreme Court justices, wrote in an 1833 letter to Jasper Adams that:

    “The American population was entirely [sic] Christian and with us Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity and did not often refer to it and exhibit relations to it.”

    Justice Joseph Story, another great Supreme Court justice, 1811-45, gave what is regarded by many as the most authoritative explanation of the First Amendment as follows:

    “The general if not universal sentiment in America was that Christians ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. The real object of the First Amendment … was to exclude all rivalry among christian sects and to preven any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”

    I would argue that the disapprobation and indignation that Justice Story refers to, while not universal, has indeed come about due to some rather poor recent Supreme Court decision making along with the corrosive anti-Christian/religion attitude of activist secularists.

  • Michael the little boot

    Don @ 32,

    “That is why I believe we would be better off taking a narrower, proper view of the First Amendment, and permitting pluralistic religious expression even in governmental settings as long as no state religion is being established.”

    This is not necessarily the “proper” view of the First Amendment. In fact, it is considered by the majority to be an incorrect interpretation.

  • Michael the little boot

    Random Name @ 29,

    Sorry I misunderstood your comment. I am of Jewish and Christian heritage, so I’ve got my genetic and religious fingers in all sorts of pies.

    I like your definition of non-drama queen arguments. As I said, I tend not to get angry if a non-religious perspective is not represented somewhere. I

    “I don’t think we should say ‘Under God’ in the flag salute or have prayers at the start of public meetings. For me to get all bent out of shape about it is drama queen behavior to my eyes.” That’s a cool statement. I agree with the sentiment about saying “Under God” in the flag salute (I don’t personally like the salute at all, but especially that portion), and opening meetings with prayer. I find it funny many people think the Pledge of Allegiance was a founding document of the United States. I also find it ridiculous so many people fight to keep “Under God” in the pledge, even though it wasn’t added until 1954. You probably already know all this…

    “Worship or celebration of one’s religious belief should be as much as possible a private matter for individuals or groups in their churches.” Also agreed. If I had a sign outside my house posting my opinions, much like many churches have, I would not be very popular with my neighbors.

    “I am dubious about how much the public government should get involved in these matters.” Mmmm. As am I.

    Off to check out your blog!

  • Trey

    The Constitution allows for public profession of faith. The government may not establish a religion, but they may allow religions to display their symbols. Veith is correct why are the atheist displaying a banner that attacks other religions. Why not just display the devil 🙂 I find it quite ironic that they allow atheists to display something in a religious setting. Perhaps atheism is a religion.

    Some mentioned the 2 kingdoms principle to why religion should not be in the state, but you miss the full version of the 2 kingdoms principle. The secular kingdom acknowledges God as the one who confers the moral law and inalienable rights to all people (born and unborn). Without God do these exist? No. Thus, God is necessary for the 2 kingdoms doctrine to exist. That is not to say that the government should be used to convert people or spread the Gospel, but only to punish the evil doer with the Law.

    Ultimately, what we see in Seattle is an encroachment against Christianity in the public square. We must be on guard, lest we loosen our views to the enemies. There is no middle ground on this issue. We must proclaim Christ no matter who we offend.

  • Michael the little boot


    “Why not just display the devil?”

    Way to bring things full circle. Nice and childish.

  • Michael the little boot


    Why are all your experts from the 19th century? Hasn’t the country changed since that time? Why can’t we be more open, have true religious freedom, rather than freedom to either a) belong to one of many Christian sects which will now and forever be considered the dominant religion in the U.S., or b) practice what we wish to in private, while we have Christianity thrust in our faces? Can’t we allow our laws to become enlightened as we become enlightened?

  • Peter Leavitt

    Michael, we actually at present have exemplary religious freedom in the America, except that many militant secular religious folk are on a campaign to exile other religions from the public square.

    Justices Marshall and Story helped lay the foundation of religious freedom in America, though they never envisioned a rigid wall of separation between religion and the state. They, also, like most of the founders viewed Christianity to be the rock upon which the nation was founded and which preserves it. They understood that a democracy needs a spiritual and moral basis and that as a practical matter Christianity is the predominant American religion, which is not to denigrate other ones.

  • kerner

    Peter Leavitt:

    The founders and Justices Marshall and Story might not have envisioned the historical developments that have brought us to where we are, and they might well have been appalled. But our situation today is largely the result of applying their stated principles in the first amendment to demographics which are different from their unstated assumptions (that almost all Americans would be Christians of some kind).

    If that underlying assumption is no longer true, it is not because there is anything wrong with the 1st Amendment principle of religious freedom. Nor is modifying the principle to use government authority to mildly establish religion the solution to our no-longer-so-Christian culture.

    Ultimately, Christianity is established in a culture by the working of the Holy Spirit, through the preaching of the Gospel in God’s Word and the administration of the sacraments. If our culture is less Christian than it was 200 years ago, then it is the Church, and only the Church, that has the ability to preach and baptize. It seems to me a waste of time and effort to be constantly fighting to put some kind of governmental stamp of approval on Christianity, even as an historical aside. I am afraid I must respectfully disagree with Justice Story. Encouragement from the state is utterly without effect on the working of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit doesn’t need it, the Church doesn’t need it, therefore it would be best for the Church to stop obsessing over it.

    However, the other side of this coin is that under the 1st Amendment we have the liberty to practice our religion, and that includes carrying out the great commission. Alas, MIchael, @39, that means we will, in fact, be thrusting Christianity at you from time to time. (Welcome back, Michael; I have missed you.)

    Where we as Christians must be hyper-vigilant is when the government interferes, even in subtle ways, with our ability to practice our religion (as individuals or as bodies of believers) in public. There is not, nor must there ever be, any such thing as a God free zone. But again, it will be the Body of Christ that brings God to every part of our culture, not the body politic.

  • Don S

    Rick @ 33: Your post is very thoughtful and thought-provoking.

    I think your understanding of my last argument is off, no doubt because of my failure to adequately express my point. I do not want any kind of governmental imprimatur on any religion. By no means. However, I don’t want government squelching religious expression, even if that expression happens to be by a public official. Just because a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, etc. etc.) takes a public office, they do not lose their first amendment right to free exercise. In today’s world, there are many who think that a person of faith should be excluded from public office because their faith is too important to them to be put aside during their service time. Well, it shouldn’t have to be put aside! The first amendment doesn’t stop just because you have taken a job as a public school administrator, judge, councilperson, president, etc. You still enjoy the right of free exercise, as long as you do not establish your faith as a favored, state religion.

    Kerner @ 41, I assume that you don’t see the practicing of one’s faith by a person in public office as the “mild” establishment of religion? And what would constitute such a mild establishment? It’s either established, or it isn’t.

  • Don@42 Ok. Now I follow, and agree. There are all kinds of situations that get lumped under the broad heading of secularization. I fall on one side of the line or the other depending on whether I see someone’s rights being infringed upon. Yes, I think a public official has a right to appropriate expressions of his own faith, even while performing his office. (e.g. Reagan in Russia. I approve of what he said and did there, even as an American President. On the other hand if someone’s statement involves someone else in worship when they thought they were attending a secular public event, that’s not so good.) There are many factors to take into consideration.

    And I have run into over-secularization, too. When I was in high school the movie The Prodigal was put out by Billy Graham. I was given posters to put up. I made an attempt to put one up at my high school. It was refused as the poster mentioned God. Now I could follow the argument that the high school should not promote the movie. But if a particular bulletin board was understood as student expression, this was not an establishment of religion to allow me to put up the poster there, so long as people of other persuasions were free to use the board as well. But that was back in 1984, and not enough challenges had been made at that point.

  • Michael the little boot


    “I could follow the argument that the high school should not promote the movie. But if a particular bulletin board was understood as student expression, this was not an establishment of religion to allow me to put up the poster there, so long as people of other persuasions were free to use the board as well.”

    Might it also have been since the bulletin board was on campus, the administration was trying to avoid causing confusion? I’m not defending them, just wondering if they were trying to cover themselves. I seem to remember a lot of litigation to these ends happening in the ’80s. The school might have been scared, which is another unfortunate side-effect of over-secularization.

    I must admit, though, I question how appropriate the poster would have been in this context. It is really confusing to kids when they can’t differentiate between what the school is promoting as education, and what may be the opinion of another student.

    I have noticed this may be a problem of our society’s fast pace. No one has the time to sit and talk about these things, only to rant and rave in quick bursts. It’s unfortunate. Coupled with a litigous public, this makes everyone hold their opinions tightly. It makes people simply choose sides, rather than listening to other people who may have not only their own best interest, but our own in mind, as well.

  • Michael the little boot

    kerner @ 41,

    I have no problem with your thrusting Christianity in my face as long as I have an equal right to do so with my beliefs. 🙂 I think we agree on that. I’m not talking about equal time, since we are in a democracy, and equal time is not a part of our system. I just want a little chance to say my piece. So, thrust away! (Hopefully that doesn’t go too far for this site…)

    And thanks. Missed you, too, pal.

  • Michael the little boot

    Don @ 42,

    “In today’s world, there are many who think that a person of faith should be excluded from public office because their faith is too important to them to be put aside during their service time. Well, it shouldn’t have to be put aside!”

    Actually, yes, it should. While they are in their private lives, no problem. But if they are saying anything from their religious point-of-view while in a public capacity, they have the responsibility to represent those whom they represent. Since not everyone in the country is of one religious persuasion, it is not correct that a public employee should, in their official capacity, promote any religious – or nonreligious, although that’s harder to define – beliefs or agenda.

    I am a government employee. I deal with this every day.

  • kerner

    Don S @ 42:

    I realize that this is one of the few areas in which we may disagree. When I suggest that there is such a thing as “mildly” establishing religion, I refer to the usually roundabout ways in which Christians (who clearly miss the good old days when almost everyone in America WAS a Christian) try to get government officials, acting in their official capacity, to do Christian or ecumenically religious things. Another example is when Christians try to place religious documents or symbols, at public expense, in government venues for allegedly non-religious purposes.

    To me, the status of “acting in their official capacity” and “at public expense” are key considerations, and I realize they can sometimes be gray areas. I also understand that Christianity, and other religions as well, may promote a civil piety that is helpful to the state in maintaining an organized and peaceful society. So, there is some overlap (for example)between God’s commandment that we shall not steal and the state code punishing theft.

    But I still think that it establishes religion when government officials promote it officially in small ways.
    Now, for a public official to be a Christian (or something else) in his/her personal life, in such a way that most people know he/she practices his/her religion is not only fine, it is a protected right under the 1st Amendment. George Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Joe Lieberman and Barack Obama all have privately practiced their religions in ways that became publicly known, as have alot of other politicians. That’s the American way, if you will.

  • Michael the little boot

    Why is it The Jones is the only person to comment on the symbol I proposed for nonbelievers? I thought this thread was about THAT most of all.

  • Michael the little boot

    From kerner: “Now, for a public official to be a Christian (or something else) in his/her personal life, in such a way that most people know he/she practices his/her religion is not only fine, it is a protected right under the 1st Amendment.” Exactly. No one should promote their own religious beliefs when they are in an official capacity. They can still go to church, be a prominant figure in that church, etc. I think it’s healthy in a pluralist democracy for the public to be aware their elected officials have private lives, as well as beliefs which they are able to keep out of their public duties.

    I know nothing – other than what I read here – about the doctrine of the two kingdoms; but does the above get sorta close to a part of it? Maybe not. I think those who are not of the same religious persuasion as their government employees and/or elected officials find it very respectful when said employees/officials carefully stay away from promoting what we know they believe. We know it’s difficult for them, and appreciate it.

  • Michael@44
    “Might it also have been since the bulletin board was on campus, the administration was trying to avoid causing confusion? I’m not defending them, just wondering if they were trying to cover themselves. I seem to remember a lot of litigation to these ends happening in the ’80s. The school might have been scared, which is another unfortunate side-effect of over-secularization.”

    To some extent I bought that argument at the time. At least in the sense that I knew it was the stronger pragmatic argument. The funny thing was, in our Government class, we went through Supreme Court case after Supreme Court case, the purpose often being to get us to think in a principled fashion, not mostly focusing on immediate results, but on what principles were involved. Yet in some of these areas, pragmatic arguments were good enough.

    I think we have to be principled here. Especially when students spend so many hours in school. While the school must not do things that communicate an establishment of religion, I don’t think they should be quelling student speech because other students may not know who is doing the speaking. You are not guilty of establishing a religion when you allow others to speak freely.

  • Michael the little boot

    Rick @ 50,

    “You are not guilty of establishing a religion when you allow others to speak freely.” I agree in principle. Would you say the same thing if there was a poster for a party celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species? Or a poster about Planned Parenthood, or the local abortion clinic? I’m just saying, people are easily confused, and kids are easily influenced. I agree kids are at school for many hours a day. I’d like to limit the amount of confusion they experience.

    When I was in high school we were allowed to start a Christian club. It had to be student-run. We had no connection to the school other than we were students there and we met on campus. There was a Federation of Christian Athletes, as well. And this in “liberal” California. Since these things are all available, why do we need to clutter the halls with posters students might associate with being a position the school takes?

  • “Would you say the same thing if there was a poster for a party celebrating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species? Or a poster about Planned Parenthood, or the local abortion clinic?”


    “When I was in high school we were allowed to start a Christian club. It had to be student-run. We had no connection to the school other than we were students there and we met on campus. There was a Federation of Christian Athletes, as well. And this in “liberal” California. Since these things are all available, why do we need to clutter the halls with posters students might associate with being a position the school takes?”

    Well, in my area of liberal California, having either the posters or the club were both understood to be forbidden so it wasn’t a matter of requesting both.

    I’m not talking about cluttering all the halls. I’m talking about putting a poster on a bulletin board that was set aside for student use.

    I don’t think confusion is a valid category here when the issue is free speech and establishment of religion. To stifle only religious speech in a venue where other speech is free is an establishment of unreligion. Plus, in a case like this, if confusion is possible, a disclaimer is easy enough to post. Something like, “Messages on this board are not the opinions of this school, but represent those students who posted them.” Television networks make this kind of disclaimer all the time.

  • Don S

    Rick: I think we do agree. Your post at 52 is very clear. If the bulletin board is set aside for student speech, and other students are expressing their viewpoints or promoting their favored events, a student should have every bit as much right to express his viewpoint or promote his favored event on that board, even if it is religious. And, yes, even if that religion isn’t Christianity. You can’t squelch legitimate student speech in its proper venue because it might cause confusion that the school is sponsoring that speech. Do your job, school administrator! Educate your students so that they understand this basic distinction. 🙂

  • Don S

    Kerner @ 47: Actually, I think we probably substantially agree, even in this area, after reading your post. I am really talking about private expressions of faith being Constitutionally permissible, not using public funds and valuable governmental resources to put up monuments or plaques for the purpose of getting around restrictions on governmental religious expression. Yes, I know we disagreed when we discussed the Summum monument case, but that was an instance of privately funded monuments in a public park. Moreover, I didn’t say I approved of the city’s decision, just that I didn’t think it was unconstitutional.

    I suspect that if we relaxed, and took a more limited (and proper, in my opinion) view of the establishment clause, permitting and tolerating (and maybe even enjoying) a reasonable level of public religious discourse, the issue of folks desperately trying to circumvent “separation of church and state” restrictions by putting up “non-religious” historical symbols of Christian practice would resolve itself.

  • Don S

    Michael @ 46: We just disagree. You, as a public employee, have every right to practice your faith (or lack of faith, whatever the case may be). There are restrictions on that, which are that you need to perform your job and serve your employer well. Because your employer is paying you, and you are serving a diverse public, your employer has the right to place reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on your religious expression (in other words, you can’t continually annoy people by proselytizing them, or telling them there is no God, etc., etc.). I am not suggesting otherwise. The important thing is that these restrictions be generally applied, without regard to the employee’s particular faith or ideology. In other words, it is probably unconstitutional for the employer to prohibit the wearing of jewelry bearing a particular religious symbol (Star of David, cross, etc.), if the employee works in a library. It certainly is unconstitutional if the employer prohibits the Star of David, but permits the cross. The employee should be permitted to place a discreet sign or plaque or the like in his/her workspace that encourages him/her spiritually, especially if other non-religious articles of a similar nature are permitted, but can be prohibited from singing spiritual songs, because they could disrupt other workers or customers. A public official should be able to offer an invocation according to his/her faith tradition at an appropriate event, but cannot discriminate against or otherwise differently treat a constituent because they do not share his faith. Rules of civility and reasonableness, as well as political expediency, apply, but we shouldn’t make constitutional cases out of these types of things. If we are to truly be a free people, we have to tolerate the activities of our fellow free citizens, and not be so quick to offense.

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