Late Edition: How the ACLU Stole Christmas

The time of year approaches when the nation, for its sins, must suffer the annual Ordeal-by-Manger. Allowing for minor local variation, the ritual has by now acquired a familiarity so practiced in execution, so inevitable in outcome, that even schoolchildren can predict the denouement. Act One opens when the town fathers of Smithville undertake to erect a crèche on the town square or courthouse lawn. In a gesture of inter-faith friendship, they also invite the local council of rabbis to raise a menorah to commemorate Hanukkah.

In Act Two, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and/or Americans United for the Separation of Church and State enter from stage left, protesting the introduction of religion into the public square and conjuring images of Spanish Inquisitors just over the horizon. The town fathers, alternately befuddled and angry, point out that Smithville has publicly commemorated Christmas since the mind of man runneth back. It’s not only good for the citizenry to be symbolically reminded of the nation’s religious roots, they say, but the display has become an occasion of civic pride, uniting citizens despite sectarian differences. Nothing doing, says the ACLU. The crèche must go, or we’ll see you in court.

Act Three introduces us to a federal judge, who, as these things usually go, has learned his constitutional law at the hands of professors who defend every public utterance save those that invoke the name of the Creator. His honor, uttering well-rehearsed lines, offers up a bowdlerized history of the First Amendment with selective stock citations to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, cites a few dozen secular pieties from recent Supreme Court decisions, et voila!, down comes his gavel, the crèche, and the modest religious yearnings of Smithville.

This play, or something close to it, is enacted virtually every year. The result is all perfectly predictable. In the last outing of the Supreme Court on the subject, we were told that crèches are permissible if, and only if, they are surrounded by a sufficient quantity of secular symbols so as to remove even the smallest scintilla of religious association, lest the restive village atheist take offense. Hence, in those towns that still dare to indulge Christmas (make that “Holiday” or “Sparkle Season”) displays, you may find a minuscule Baby Jesus (if at all) tucked away in a far corner, sandwiched between a six-foot Rudolph sporting a 1,000-watt blinking nose and, say, a figurine of a popular NFL quarterback dressed as Santa Claus. The way these things go, we’re only a couple of seasons away from a group of plasticine Saracens sporting raised scimitars, as a gesture of comity to our Muslim brethren. (Anybody for Shiva or Quetzalcoatl?)

It is time to bring this Ordeal-by-Manger to a halt. Despite the worthy intentions of various townships throughout the country, public Nativity displays have long since ceased to inspire even modest religious sentiment. Indeed, under the new constitutional dispensation, they contribute unwittingly to the continuing secularization of Christmastide. Municipal officers ought to nix the idea of “Holiday Season” displays altogether, put their entire stock of figurines in storage, and instead erect billboards to instruct citizens on the religious roots of democratic government. We do not want for suitable textual materials, virtually all of which can be taken from the founding documents of the several states or of the nation itself. Many of these acknowledge the divine origin of our rights and duties in explicit terms.

The first two sentences of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t be bad for openers (“We hold these truths to be self-evident,” etc.), along with, say, relevant excerpts from George Washington’s Farewell Address (“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”). Some clever mayor might even wish to display the text of Washington’s Thanksgiving Day Proclamation of 1789, which not only recommends but is itself a prayer. The more venturesome might quote from Articles II and III of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780. Each of these, and numerous other documents from the founding era, could become the occasion for study and reflection on the part of students and civic organizations. Who knows, thought might actually break out. Let the secular Pecksniffs from the ACLU sue over such displays. The results could be very interesting.

Michael M. Uhlmann


Michael Martin Uhlmann (1939-2019) served as professor of government in the department of politics and policy at Claremont Graduate University and Claremont McKenna College. Prior to teaching at Claremont, Dr. Uhlmann was a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Vice President for Public Policy Research at the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and taught at the George Mason University Law School.

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