Christmas Wars Kicked Off… and a Thought About “Neutrality”

The embattled governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has announced that the tree decorated with baubles of various sorts for the upcoming winter season and located on capitol grounds is, in fact, a Christmas tree and not a holiday tree.  Naturally, the move has elicited consternation from some persons (the Freedom From Religion Foundation spokeswoman, for example), who are reported to have complained that the governor’s declaration amounts to a “discourtesy” and a “snub to non-Christians.  Otherwise he wouldn’t do it.”

Apart from the notion that there may well be other reasons to call a pipe a pipe than to injure the feelings of others, this exchange got me thinking about the arguments from religious “neutrality” that are sometimes made to justify the endorsement test in establishment disputes.  The FFRF spokeswoman says that the reason the name of the tree was changed from “Christmas” to “holiday” is “to avoid this connotation that the governor chooses one religion over another.”  That is a standard move in neutrality argumentation: we change the name to avoid even the hint of the suggestion that government is non-neutral when it comes to religion.

Obviously we are not talking about neutrality from the God’s-eye point of view, however.  We can only judge whether a practice is neutral by reference to some base line of social behavior.  Frank Ravitch and Andrew Koppelman (in a forthcoming book), among others, make and turn over these sorts of questions, but consider the following example.  In times of peace, the United States provides non-military aid to the small (and imaginary) country of Blorb.  Blorb now enters into a war with the country of Snorp, and it is very important to the US government that it remain “neutral” between the sides.  What does neutrality demand?  Presumably it would require the US not to begin granting military as well as non-military aid to Blorb (this is part of the reason that I believe neutrality is not an empty concept).  But does it also demand withdrawing non-military aid from Blorb?  Does it require keeping things the same as they were before the conflict?  Does it demand beginning to supply Snorp with non-military aid as well?  Or perhaps with non-military as well as military aid, in order to balance the former aid given to Blorb and withheld from Snorp?

Any one of these answers can be characterized as both neutral and non-neutral — or, as the FFRF rep. put it, as a “discourtesy” or as the public perception of “choosing” this over that.  Calling, as well as not calling, the Christmas tree a Christmas tree is a snub and a discourtesy.  The reason is that the historical base line from which judgments of neutrality operate admit of multiple reasonable interpretations of government action.  Does this mean that neutrality is empty?  I do not think so, as I said above.  If Governor Walker had announced that in addition to the Christmas tree, he was erecting a gigantic golden statue of Jesus right on top of the capitol building, one can quite sensibly speak of that decision as non-neutral.  But though neutrality can do a little bit of work along these lines, its conceptual resources rapidly run out in more difficult cases.  — MOD

3 responses

  1. True neutrality would mean either stripping the federal holiday of all religious representation or taking away christmas’s federal holiday status. As an atheist and a member of FFRF, I take a slightly different approach to it all. Let politicians insist on saying Merry Christmas all they want, considering that the very meaning of the word itself is changing. The common American is doing a fine enough job themselves of making a once pagan then Christian religious celebration into a secular one. Think about it, when was the last time you paid to have your child take a picture with a mall Jesus.

  2. The meaning has changed for Christians over the centuries. The early Christians didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birth. (The birth story is different in Matthew and Luke and the other Gospels didn’t include it at all – obviously not all that important.)

    There was a law against celebrating Christmas in colonial Boston, as they knew the celebration was borrowed from the pagans – Saturnalia, at the time of the winter solstice.

    Some Christians still object to holiday trees, so it would be better if government buildings didn’t have them at all, but of course they should not be called Christmas trees. http://www.religioustolerance.org/xmas_tree.htm

  3. Jeremiah 10: 2 – 4
    Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

    This is from the Old Testament meaning it is at least 2400 years old.

    Using evergreen (and other) trees to celebrate the Winter Solstice, and the return of the sun with longer daylight hours, predates Christianity by centuries. When Christians came to America preachers and local governments routinely outlawed all celebrations of ‘Christmas’ because they knew it was all Pagan, folks were only supposed to go to church to celebrate. It has only been in the last 100 years that Christians have joined in the fun but recently have tried to claim it as their own.

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