The Wall of Separation Is Good for Religion

December 22, 1993|By LINDA R. MONK

ALEXANDRIA, VIRGINIA. — Alexandria, Virginia -- If Scrooge were religious, he surely would have been a Puritan. ''Humbug'' is a rather mild word to describe what the Puritans thought of Christmas. They condemned Christmas as a pagan and ''popish'' practice that lacked any biblical basis.

After the Puritans came to power during the English Civil War, Parliament banned Christmas in 1647. Riots broke out that same year, and a resolution of 10,000 people in Kent and Canterbury declared that ''if they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the King [Charles I] back on his throne again.'' In 1659, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony also outlawed the celebration of Christmas.

Indeed, many nonconforming Protestant sects in America -- Presbyterians, Congregationalists (the Puritans' progeny), Baptists and Methodists -- refused to celebrate Christmas as late as the 1850s. These same groups were the most adamant supporters of separation of church and state in the late 1700s; they equated Christmas with the established Church of England under British colonial rule. These denominations learned the hard way that the same power that forbade Christmas also could be used to compel its support with tax dollars through an established church.

That's an important lesson to remember when cries are heard to ''put Christ back in Christmas'' by erecting creches in town halls. Or when, as happened recently in my home state of Mississippi, thousands of citizens rally at the state capitol to demand the return of state-sponsored prayer to the public schools. Many of these people are members of the very denominations that fought hardest for separation of church and state to be included in the First Amendment. They have forgotten their own religious -- and civic -- history.

The case in Mississippi arose when a high school principal, Bishop Knox -- an African-American in a predominantly African-American school -- allowed students to read a prayer over the school's intercom at the beginning of classes. The students had voted overwhelmingly in favor of the practice, and Mr. Knox believed such prayers were similar to the student-led prayers at graduation ceremonies approved by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

Mr. Knox's boss disagreed, firing him for insubordination and sparking a mass walkout of students and teachers across the state. The cause is being heralded as the start of a large-scale movement of Southern whites and blacks uniting to openly flout the Supreme Court's school prayer decision.

It's alarming how few religious people today remember that separation of church and state got started because religious people believed it was good for religion. Roger Williams, from whom Thomas Jefferson borrowed the metaphor of a wall separating church and state, was adamant on the subject. Williams founded the colony of Rhode Island as a haven from religious intolerance and helped establish the first Baptist congregation in America.

Williams wrote in 1644: ''The unknowing zeal of Constantine [the first Christian ruler of the Roman empire] and other emperors did more hurt to Christ Jesus . . . than the raging fury of the most bloody Neros.'' Williams argued that Christian emperors, who focused on ''persecuting some erroneous persons . . . and maintaining their religion by the material sword,'' did great damage to the faith.

Williams believed -- as did the early Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, and other sects who were opposed by the established Church of England -- that religion should be an entirely voluntary enterprise, absent any coercion whatsoever from government. He realized that the power of government to support religion inherently involved the power to destroy it -- if not in active opposition then in making believers lazy in their evangelism by relying too much on the persuasive power of the state. Better to leave government out of the question altogether.

As stated in Engel v. Vitale, the 1962 Supreme Court decision which held that official prayers in the pub- lic schools were unconstitutional, ''religion is too personal, too sacred, too holy, to permit its 'unhallowed perversion' by a civil magistrate.'' That's why strict separation between government and religion is necessary. Whenever government tries to decide what sort of religion is acceptable -- in the public square or in the schoolroom -- religion is inevitably compromised.

For instance, on the issue of nativity scenes at Christmas, the Supreme Court ruled in Lynch v. Donnelly (1984) that municipal creches are constitutional if they are exhibited in a secular holiday setting -- such as a talking wishing well and a Santa's house. These settings, according to the court, diminish the religious nature of the creches.

Thus, the holy symbol can be displayed by the state, but only at the cost of its sacredness. As Justice Blackmun noted in his dissent, this decision is a pyrrhic victory for believers: ''The creche has been relegated to the role of a neutral harbinger of the holiday season, useful for commercial purposes, but devoid of any inherent meaning.''

Better to keep the creche where it belongs -- in church. Under the First Amendment, we Americans have chosen to forgo state-sponsored celebrations of Christmas, in exchange for which thousands of churches open wide their doors on Christmas Eve with no Puritans to stop them. We abstain from official prayer in the public arena so that no one can prohibit it in the sanctuary. This religious liberty we enjoy is a precious gift -- and fragile. Ask the Muslims and Catholics of Bosnia.

Linda R. Monk is the author of ''The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide.''

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