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Courthouse Nativity

I've resisted commenting, up until now, about the latest tempest in a teapot in our community: the controversy over what, if any, kind of displays should be allowed on the Loudoun County Courthouse lawn.

When we first moved to Leesburg in 1999, I was stunned to see a nativity set erected on the courthouse lawn.

The reason I say that is, we'd lived in Washington D.C., Alexandria, and Arlington prior to moving here. In those places, such a display on public land, even if allowed by government authorities, would likely be challenged by the ACLU within minutes.

So seeing Joseph and Mary bowing down before baby Jesus on the courthouse lawn was a kind of culture shock. Not an entirely unpleasant one...just a shock, that an overtly religious display would first be allowed, and then go unchallenged.

But each year since, I've been kind of holding my breath, wondering when this controversy would come to Leesburg.

Well, here it is.

First, (several years ago) there was the fumbling attempt to prohibit all displays on the Courthouse lawn in order to "preserve the grass." But people saw through that strategy for what it was -- an excuse. So then someone tried to play the "safety and security concerns" card. Problem was, there were no safety or security concerns. And so that excuse fell through.

More recently, we've had this clumsy "first come, first served" application process, with various people and various causes lining up to compete for the best spots to put their various signs and displays. And so the competition was on, if you will, for the prime real estate of the corner of Loudoun and Market, that most visible spot where Jesus, Joseph and Mary had their monopoly for years.

And that's just it.

Yes, some of the displays are upsetting to look at. (A crucified, death-mask Santa? Someone deserves coal in their stocking this year!)

But what's really upsetting most people, I suspect, is something deeper.

And that's the realization that we (Christians) are NOT entitled to have a monopoly in the public square.

We never were entitled to that monopoly (even if we had it anyway.) And that's by design, according to the wisdom of our founding fathers, who were insistent that no one religion, no matter how popular, be established in the United States, while all religious beliefs, no matter how unpopular, have free expression.

And yes, some of the displays put up by some of the atheists are sophomoric in their argument and petulant in their tone (so much so, that, were I an atheist, I'd give God a second chance just based on reading those signs alone!)

But what's really upsetting most people, I suspect, is something deeper.

And that's the realization that we (Leesburg, Loudoun County) do NOT live in an isolated time capsule from the 1950s; we're not some gated Norman Rockwell community keeping out the riffraff of Change and Growth.

Yes, the courthouse display controversy is upsetting. But what's really upsetting most people, I think, is more general.

And that's a bewildering frustration over "how much things have changed" in recent years.

This frustration comes out in other ways, year round. You hear it in comments like, "They never used to schedule soccer games on Sunday morning; now it's almost no different than Saturday."

"Got the schedule from the public school today: there it is again, 'Winter Holiday' instead of 'Christmas Vacation.' What's wrong with calling Christmas 'Christmas' -- and why can't kids can't sing any of the Christmas songs anymore?"

"Can you believe they want to remove prayer from schools and the Ten Commandments from public buildings? Who could possibly be against prayer or the Ten Commandments?"

What these comments reflect is a sense that a seismic shift is going on in American culture. We are, in fact, eyewitnesses to an astonishing historical change -- the end of the age of our being able to think of this as a "Christian Nation."

That's why it's important to remember that we are a pluralistic nation, not a Christian nation.

When we say that "we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," that is an admirable religious claim, but it is not a specifically Christian one.

The moral foundations of this country may be religious, and even Christian-based, but that is not the same thing as saying that we are a "Christian nation."

Let me spell this out: If we really were a "Christian nation" as such, government would be -- at the very least -- characterized by official, public-sponsored efforts to carry out the Great Commission. In other words, local, state, and federal governments would be charged with making disciples of all nations, baptizing people in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teaching people to obey all that Jesus Christ taught.

That would have had tremendous implications on our social, military, and political policies.

Socially, a Christian government would be responsible for seeing that every child is baptized and educated in Christian schools, and society in general would view itself as obligated to take care of widows and orphans, and to serve the poor in Christ's name.

Militarily, policy at the Pentagon would be focused on defending Christians around the world who are being persecuted.

And politically, our government would come closer to a theocracy than a democracy -- or at the very least there would be a clear religious test before taking office, a codified prerequisite of not just of belonging to a Christian church, but of practicing the Christian faith.

So here's what I want to say to my fellow Christians who are heartbroken over the loss of the monopoly the crèche had on the lawn:

We are not, and never have been, a Christian Nation. We are a pluralistic nation. That means all voices on the lawn, or none. Deal with it.

And here's what I want to say to you atheists putting up displays on the lawn:

Christian principles have informed and enriched our republic, and they have played a tremendous role in establishing and maintaining the moral foundation of this country. While it is painfully true that throughout history, Christians have fought on both sides of the struggle for equality and freedom, whether it was the battle against slavery during the Civil War, the battle against tyranny during World War II, or more recent battles for civil and gay rights, those Christians who fought for freedom and equality have done so with a secure knowledge that God is a God who sides with the poor and oppressed, and whose nature it is to act in history to deliver people from bondage.

That God does not insist on his own way, but comes in great humility.

That's the God born in a manger, far from his poor unwed mother's home.

That's God who, in the person of Jesus, proclaimed good news, and practiced boundless compassion.

That's the God who dislikes everything you dislike about organized religion and religious people. And who loved them...us...and you...anyway.

That Jesus doesn't have a monopoly on the courthouse lawn anymore, but he's got a huge claim to the hearts of those at St. James', and we're looking forward to celebrating his birthday later this month. You're welcome to come join us.

Comments

  1. Good thoughts - I concur, this is not about religion but politics, and the pundits relish this opportunity to take potshots at whatever axe they are grinding. We Christians enjoyed this "free publicity" about the birth of Christ, but it's time to give it up. We do God's work in many other more meaningful ways - with humility!

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  2. I so agree, John. Thanks for speaking plainly.

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  3. Thanks John... agree that we sometimes need reminding that "One nation under God" means more than the Christian religion... one other comment: you mentioned that God sides with the poor and oppressed... it is equally true that God is the God of the oppressors too... a shocking lesson the Israelites had to learn the hard way...

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  4. John -
    Thank you so much for this thoughtful piece. And were I not acolyting at the 11:00 p.m. service at St. Mark's, Highland, MD, I *would* be joining you at St. James.
    Peace, and Merry Christmas,
    Nancy

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