It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like … Winter Holiday

Lord Alfred Douglas, in a poem from the 1890s, euphemistically branded homosexual behavior as “the love that dare not speak its name.” In recent years, homosexual behavior has gotten quite vocal about itself, causing confusion over “love” and even “marriage.” Religion in general, however, and Judaism and especially Christianity in particular, have been muted—gagged might be a better term—in the public square.

Case-in-point: the decision by the Montgomery County (Maryland) Board of Education to drop all religion references in next year’s school calendar. (In their general disregard for holidays, the Board’s decision occurred on November 11, which should be a federal holiday honoring America’s veterans).

The suburban Washington, D.C. county has closed schools on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish High Holy Days, since the 1970s. It has been closing a lot longer for Christmas.

Local Muslim activists asked that the school board also close on Eid-al-Adha. The conundrum was that the Muslim holiday falls next year on September 23, the same day as Yom Kippur. Montgomery County schools would have closed on Yom Kippur. But how, in a county that prides itself on its “diversity” and “tolerance” could one close on Yom Kippur but not on Eid-al-Adha?

 

In some sense, the problem is both in 2015 and afterwards. The 2015 issue: how to “honor” one day without “dishonoring” another. One could have simply put both Jewish and Muslim names on the calendar. But that would create a precedent and that raises the post-2015 problem: because both the Jewish and Muslim religious calendars are lunar-based, Yom Kippur and Eid-al-Adha would diverge. Each holiday would have to stand by itself.

Montgomery’s 2015 solution? Just strip off the name.

One argument for closing on the Jewish High Holiday days was that absenteeism among Montgomery’s Jewish staff and students would be high; missing Muslims would be much fewer. (Local Muslims began a campaign in 2013 to keep kids home on the Eid al-Adha holiday, in the hope of driving absenteeism up to a critical mass to garner Board attention.)

Montgomery County school officials maintained they close on these holidays, not necessarily for these holidays. The decision to close is dictated by “secular, operational reasons”—too high an absenteeism rate makes holding classes self-defeating. Closure is not dictated, they stress, by observing the holiday: “we cannot close school for religious reasons.”

The practical outcome of the decision means that schools will remain closed on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Christmas … but those holidays will be anonymous or, more accurately, pseudonymous.

Board member Rebbeca Smondrowski, who offered the amendment to strip the names, branded the 7-1 decision “the most equitable option.” In some sense, she’s correct: in the best secularist tradition, the Board managed to offend all three religions of the Book. Equity obviously means religion gets short shrift. Diversity means everything diverse about the day should be suppressed under a homogenized, secular pseudo-label.

Christians have already grown used to being muzzled in public space. The “war on Christmas” has already been underway for some time and, in the name of being “inoffensive,” Christians have been subjected so long to “happy holidays” that some have even adopted the euphemism. Secular ears clearly cannot be burdened by the sound of “C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.” Christian throats, on the other hand, are deemed to suffer nothing from subjection to an annual semantic tracheotomy. (There is, of course, the further secular mishmash imposed on Nativity scenes where, in the name of a “diversity” devoid of any historical foundation, Jesus lies in the manger beneath a Star of David while shepherds romp with Frosty the Snowman and Magi pull up on camels alongside Santa’s sled.)

A similar fate now apparently awaits other Peoples of the Book. Reading the comments to the Washington Post story reporting on the Board decision, one was struck by the numbers of respondents who clearly regarded any acknowledgement in Board policy that students and staff might be “clinging to religion,” and guiding their behavior (including their attendance) by it, as Constitutional mauvaise foi.

A truly “tolerant” and “diverse” community would be one that admits that its members have other commitments they regard as more important, and takes account of them in welcoming ways that acknowledge them not just because they are religious (which is important in itself) but because they honor the right of their fellow citizens to free public exercise of those ultimate commitments. As the Polish philosopher Zbigniew Stawrowski has argued, it is only a pseudo-tolerant community that installs a rigid secularist dogmatism hounding any trace of religion out of public life as a test of supposed Constitutional fidelity and then demands, in the name of its one approved dogma, that reality be renamed to expunge any religious identification.  Love of neighbor means celebrating with one’s neighbor, not searching for purely utilitarian justifications (too many kids will be absent) to concede begrudgingly acknowledgement that religion shapes some (American) neighbors’ lives. That love, now, had apparently better not speak its name … at least in Montgomery County, Maryland.

(Photo credit: Sarah L. Voisin / The Washington Post)

John M. Grondelski

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Dr. John M. Grondelski is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

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