How plastic reindeer tarnish sacred symbols

Sunday, December 12, 1999

When do the créche and menorah — sacred to millions of people — become mere secular symbols? When the government erects holiday displays every December.

In a convoluted series of rulings, the Supreme Court has declared that while the state can't put up a free-standing crèche, it can erect holiday displays that include religious images as long as they are mixed in with lots of other “seasonal” messages.

Translation: Surround the baby Jesus with Santa, reindeer and flashing lights and presto, you get a secular crèche (and a constitutional display). Lawyers have dubbed this the “plastic reindeer test.”

Surely this is a “lose-lose” outcome. People who don't want the government putting up religious displays aren't happy. And neither are religious people who resent seeing their sacred symbols trivialized.

As silly as this solution may sound, it still has plenty of adherents. Many city councils continue to fight to put up a crèche and menorah each December. And they go to absurd lengths to make it legal. In Somerset, Mass., an 18-foot Santa, glow in the dark reindeer and a sign that flashes “Season's Greetings” dwarf the poor baby Jesus.

Now some religious voices are speaking up. Last week religious leaders in Somerset finally said, “enough is enough.” The Boston Herald reports that a coalition of Christian and Jewish leaders have asked town officials to remove the Nativity scene and menorah from the gaudy exhibit, calling the display “degrading” to Christianity and Judaism.

They have a point. Both symbols have a special place in Christian and Jewish history. The crèche display at Christmastime dates back at least to the 13th century when St. Francis and the townspeople of Assisi celebrated the holiday by re-creating the scene of Jesus, Mary and Joseph in a manger. For most Christians through the centuries, the Nativity scene isn't about Santa or trees; it evokes the holiest of events in the Christian faith.

The menorah is also part of a miracle story. When the Jews rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem after a victory over religious persecution in 165 B.C., they only had enough oil for one day. But miraculously, the oil stayed burning for eight days. To commemorate that event, a candle of the menorah is lit each night for the eight days of Hanukkah. The menorah isn't a secular symbol; it commemorates a sacred event.

The religious leaders in Somerset are reclaiming these stories. They've called for people of faith to take back their symbols from the civil religion found in front of city hall. Crèches and menorahs don't belong in government displays — they belong in churches, synagogues and other places where their sacred meaning can be honored and preserved.

Others cities and towns have resolved this by making some public space available to any private group to put up its message — religious or secular. That keeps the government out of religion, and allows citizens to erect crèches and menorahs (and anything else) in public areas during the holiday season. But it also creates a crowded space with all sorts of messages competing to be seen and heard. Here again, religious meaning could easily get lost.

What is the lesson in all of this? Efforts to promote a kind of civil religion — a peculiar mix of Santas, créches, trees and menorahs — have proved to be self-defeating. Religion does best when it is free and independent of governmental interference and entanglement. Government protects this freedom; religious communities keep the faith.