December 11, 2008
For the past nineteen years, the Washington State Capitol has displayed a Christmas tree. This year, something new is on view. On one side of the State dome stands a Nativity scene with a 3 1/2-foot-tall statue of Joseph and Mary with baby Jesus in a manger. On the other side, a 4 1/2-foot-tall sign that reads “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell…Religion is but myth and superstition.” The nativity scene depicts the Christian message of God’s love for all, even non-believers. The atheists’ billboard denies the very existence of God. The first is a message of hope. The second, a statement emptied of reason and hope.
The atheist group, ‘The Freedom From Religion Foundation,’ placed the anti-Christmas message in the Washington State Capitol. Yet another group has launched a similar attack on Christmas in Washington, D.C. Pumping $40,000 into a holiday ad campaign, ‘The American Humanist Association’ has placed its own anti-religion message on more than 200 buses in our nation’s capital. At a time when even non-churchgoing Christians thrill to hear in song and see in displays the gospel message that God sent his only Son born of a woman to be our Savior, this group of non-believers is rudely questioning people of good will, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake.” From east to west, the message of Christmas is attacked.
Now there is more here than the Grinch who stole Christmas. There is a deep-seated antagonism against the place of religious expression in the public forum. We began as a land to which people fled in order to practice their religion
openly. However, for some, the remembrance of our nation’s religious patrimony is anathema.
Our Founding Fathers believed in God. In fact, 51 of these 55 men who shaped the political foundations of our nation were Christians. When they spoke of our inalienable Rights being endowed by a Creator, they
de facto set us in the direction of bringing religious and spiritual truths into public life. They knew that the new nation would quickly collapse without the recognition of God.
Our Founding Fathers would hardly have understood the illogical argument of atheists who today are proclaiming, “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Belief in God and morality cannot be separated. Every rational person knows in the inner sanctuary of conscience that good should be done and evil avoided. But, if there is no objective standard for goodness, there is no way of judging what is moral and immoral. By the very fact that conscience directs us to do good, conscience acts as a moral compass that points ultimately to God, the
summum bonum, and implicitly argues for his existence. We are “good for goodness’ sake,” because God is goodness itself and our ultimate destiny.
Any attempt to build a nation without a recognition of God lacks the surest foundation necessary for its citizens to live in justice and peace with each other. A godless nation is doomed to failure. There is never a morality to the exclusion of religious principle. In his
Farewell Address as President, Washington described religion and morality as the “great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens.”
The First Amendment prohibits our government from making one religion the State religion. But the same First Amendment also prohibits the government from limiting the “free exercise" of religion.” Atheistic billboards and ads are certainly an exercise of our common freedom of speech. Nonetheless, they are also attempts to limit and, in the end, deny the free exercise of religion itself. Banning religious symbols from public places is symptomatic of the zeal to exorcise religious truth from public life and, ultimately, to remove God from his world.
But God will not let himself be exiled from our life, public or private. The Christmas story is all about God entering into the whole of our human life. Nativity scenes are not sentimental memories of a past event. They are the reminder that, in the details of human life, in families struggling to find a place in this world, God is present. Because of the birth of Christ, all that touches us now touches God who in his freedom loves us and calls us to share his life.
Christmas, therefore, is about freedom, the freedom to believe in a God who stoops from the hidden recesses of eternity and enters time to be one with us. Against the darkness of unbelief, Christmas is the glad tidings of great joy that life has a purpose. Christmas is about the freedom of religion to cast the light of truth on life, on all life, as valued and loved by God.