by Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser
Editor’s note: the photo of this sculpture being discussed can be seen at Bruce’s site.
“Tis the season for Christians to be upset over things that they feel profane the “true” meaning of Christmas — the birth of Jesus Christ. A recent scuffle in Boca Raton is case in point. CBS News reports:
A 300-pound metal sculpture of a satanic pentagram, erected as an atheist protest to a public park’s Nativity scene, was severely damaged on Tuesday when it was pulled to the ground by vandals.
Atheist Preston Smith’s 10-foot tall sculpture lay broken in Sanborn Square at noon. Tire tracks led from the twisted metal to the street.
It appeared vandals had attached a chain from a vehicle to the sculpture and yanked it down, dragging it several feet. As local television reporters prepared live broadcasts, two passersby stopped and pushed the sculpture back onto its base before walking away.
The sculpture sits about 20 feet from a traditional Nativity scene of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus, and is backed by a banner from an atheist group reading “Keep Saturn in Saturnalias,” a reference to the belief that the early Christian church substituted Christmas for a Roman pagan holiday.
It is the latest Florida protest against manger scenes on public property, mirroring earlier battles inside the state capitol in Tallahassee.
Boca Raton police officer Sandra Boonenberg said the overnight strike was the third attack on Smith’s sculpture and its explanatory banner since he erected the display earlier this month. Someone painted the once-red sculpture black on Monday. Earlier, someone damaged the banner. Detectives are investigating.
Smith, a middle school English teacher, said that as an atheist, he does not believe in God nor Satan, but is using a symbol often associated with devil worship to highlight his belief that religious displays have no place on public property, because they make non-believers “feel like second-class citizens.”
“We are here to call out Christian hypocrisy and theistic bias in taxpayer-funded public arenas while advocating for the separation of church and state,” he told The Associated Press Monday night, before the latest act of vandalism. “Our ultimate goal is to return the government to its viewpoint neutral stance so that when an atheist takes a stroll through the park we aren’t assaulted by Bronze Age mythology.”
He could not be immediately reached Tuesday, but called the earlier acts of vandalism “examples of mob mentality toward minority faiths.”
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that government agencies can allow religious displays on public property, but if they do, they cannot discriminate. Both the Nativity scene and the Pentagram were installed with city permits.
A group of local religious leaders — 14 ministers, two rabbis and the president of the local mosque — placed a banner next to Smith’s sculpture criticizing its placement.
“The use of satanic symbols is offensive and harmful to our community’s well-being,” the banner reads. “We find it a shameful and hypocritical way to advocate for freedom from religion.”
The city issued a statement saying that while it respects Smith’s free-speech rights, it doesn’t support his message.
“In years past, the seasonal, religious displays in Sanborn Square have contained messages projecting the themes of peace, forgiveness and harmony,” it said. “This display appears to be more about shock value, attention and challenging our commitment to constitutionally protected free speech rather than promoting goodwill, respect and tolerance during the holiday season.”
Passerby Judy Hill, a retired information technology worker, decried the vandalism but didn’t think Smith should have erected his sculpture next to the Nativity scene.
“I know there is freedom of speech, but there is a time and place for everything,” said Hill, a Methodist. “He just wanted to get publicity and he got it.”
Tina Yeager agreed.
“It is a very precious season and for someone to come and almost make fun of that, to just really negate the time of year, it’s inappropriate,” she told CBS Miami.
In 2013 and 2014, atheists erected protest displays in the Florida capitol after a Christian group placed a manger there. Those displays included a Festivus pole made of beer cans, a depiction of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a mock god popular among non-believers, and one showing an angel falling into flames with the message “Happy Holidays from the Satanic Temple.” The latter was damaged by a vandal.
The quotes in this story reveal what I have known for a long time: that most Christians do not understand the freedom of speech and freedom of religion protections afforded to Americans by the U.S. Constitution. Most Christians wrongly think that their beliefs and practices should be protected from attack, ridicule, and mockery. This is why Christians get upset over things such as secular, atheist, or Satanist Christmas displays. Thinking that Christianity deserves protected, preferential treatment, followers of Jesus expect non-believers to defer to and respect their beliefs and practices. When non-Christians refuse to genuflect before the One True Faith, Christians often become what millennials call “butt hurt.” How dare atheists mock Jesus, Christians say. How dare Satanists put up a sacrilegious display right next to a crèche. How dare you heathens offend the sweet baby Jesus.
How dare we indeed.
In the aforementioned article, a Methodist woman by the name of Judy Hill stated, “I know there is freedom of speech, but there is a time and place for everything.” What Hill really means is that there is a time and place for displays of Christianity — anywhere, any time. Other expressions of faith or godlessness? Only when Christians say it is okay. I wonder if Hill has bothered to consider that perhaps there is a time and place for expressions of Christianity too. Atheists – and indeed, all Americans – live in a culture where Christianity is frequently shoved in their faces everywhere they go. Atheists endure these public displays of Christianity because that’s the price of admission for living in a country that values freedom of religion and speech. If Hill truly wants public discourse regulated by “time and place for everything,” then how about Christians restricting their overt displays of love for Jesus to their homes and houses of worship. If Christians want atheists to stop hurting their feelings, then shouldn’t non-believers received reciprocal treatment? After all, the inerrant words of the sweet baby Jesus say, do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
The faulty premise of Boca Raton Christians is that Christmas is a sacred Christian holiday. It isn’t. Take a drive through any American community and what you’ll primarily find are Christmas light displays celebrating Santa Claus and generic winter holiday scenes. Yes, there will be crèches here and there, but most displays are secular in nature. Based on the evidence at hand, it is clear that Christmas is mostly a secular (capitalistic) holiday. Christians are certainly free, on their own properties and private spaces, to set up displays that scream to all who will listen, JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON! Ironically, most Santa displays are put up by Christians themselves. It seems that it is really only a small percentage of Christians (mostly Evangelicals and other religious conservatives) who think there is some sort War on Christmas® or concerted attacks on religious freedom.
Secularists want governments to strictly enforce the separation of church and state. This means NO sectarian religious endorsement. If government entities are going to have invocations, benedictions, and public displays, they MUST — according to the U.S. Supreme Court — allow non-Christian groups to participate. This is why Satanists put up Christmas displays and humanists give invocations at government meetings. This is also why Satanists and secular groups are helping students to set up after-school meetings.
The goal is to expose hypocrisy and the preferential treatment given to Christianity. If Christians don’t want secular holiday displays next to their crèches, then all they need to do is take down their displays. Don’t want prayers to Satan or Mother Earth at council meetings? Stop having Christian ministers offer prayers to Jesus. Let’s all agree that government meetings and schools are no place for prayers of any kind, and that government property should be free of ANY displays of religion.
The separation of church and state means just that….a walled separation between government and religion. While government officials may freely live according to their religious beliefs, when it comes time to do the work of the people, religion has no part. President John F. Kennedy said it best:
These are the real issues which should decide this campaign. And they are not religious issues — for war and hunger and ignorance and despair know no religious barriers.
But because I am a Catholic, and no Catholic has ever been elected president, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured — perhaps deliberately, in some quarters less responsible than this. So it is apparently necessary for me to state once again not what kind of church I believe in — for that should be important only to me — but what kind of America I believe in.I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish; where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source; where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials; and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.
For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew— or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist. It was Virginia’s harassment of Baptist preachers, for example, that helped lead to Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom. Today I may be the victim, but tomorrow it may be you — until the whole fabric of our harmonious society is ripped at a time of great national peril.
Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end; where all men and all churches are treated as equal; where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice; where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind; and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe — a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
I would not look with favor upon a president working to subvert the First Amendment’s guarantees of religious liberty. Nor would our system of checks and balances permit him to do so. And neither do I look with favor upon those who would work to subvert Article VI of the Constitution by requiring a religious test — even by indirection — for it. If they disagree with that safeguard, they should be out openly working to repeal it.
I want a chief executive whose public acts are responsible to all groups and obligated to none; who can attend any ceremony, service or dinner his office may appropriately require of him; and whose fulfillment of his presidential oath is not limited or conditioned by any religious oath, ritual or obligation.
But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
Whatever issue may come before me as president — on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject — I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.
But if the time should ever come — and I do not concede any conflict to be even remotely possible — when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office; and I hope any conscientious public servant would do the same.
But I do not intend to apologize for these views to my critics of either Catholic or Protestant faith, nor do I intend to disavow either my views or my church in order to win this election.
Christians also need to understand that America is not a Muslim country where freedom of speech is limited, nor do we have religious blasphemy laws as do some European countries. Americans have the right to hold beliefs that others might find silly, stupid, ignorant, profane, or hateful. Some Americans believe that the Moon landing was a hoax, the earth is flat, and the sun revolves around the earth. Other Americans believe that aliens have visited earth, global climate change is a myth, and Caucasians are a superior race. And still others believe the earth is 6,021 years old, the earth was destroyed by a flood 4,000 years ago, and giant angel-human beings once roamed the earth. Throw in Christian beliefs about the virgin birth of Jesus, his miracles and resurrection from the dead – why, if some were so inclined, they could spend their waking hours doing nothing but mocking fantastical, ignorant beliefs.
As long as the U.S. Constitution stands, non-Christians have the freedom to mock, ridicule, and disparage Christian beliefs. They also have the freedom to attack, critique, and discredit such beliefs. While most non-Christians would never violate Christian homes or places of worship (unlike Evangelicals who invade homes to proselytize non-believers), once followers of Jesus engage in public speech (and crèches are public speech) then they should expect their utterances to be challenged. If Christians don’t like people saying things about their beliefs, then they should keep their religion to themselves. As long as Christians continue to demand preferential treatment and attempt to bulldoze the wall of separation of church and state, they should expect pushback from secularists, skeptics, atheists, humanists and those who value freedom of religion and speech.
Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Bruce Gerencser blogs at The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser He writes from the unique perspective of having been a pastor for many years and having seen it all in churches. His journey out of being a true believer and pastor has been an interesting and informative one.
Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Life and Times of Bruce Gerencser blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have six children, and eleven grandchildren.
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