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Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Yule Tied

There are things that happen around Christmas time that make me as giddy as a seven-year-old. For example, for the third year running, the BBC will air on Christmas evening a brand-new, never-before-seen special episode of Doctor Who. This inspires all kinds of joy in me—even if I may not actually get around to actually viewing the episode for several days. The joy is tempered only by the fact that we will have to wait three or four months for the next new episode. Also inspiring joy is the news that Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema have apparently patched up their differences enough so that he can go ahead and produce, if not direct, two new movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—essentially a two-part prequel to his magnificent Lord of the Rings film trilogy. Tidings of joy indeed!

Christmas is such a spiritual time of the year. It’s the time of year when people feel free to share their innermost religious sentiments with everyone. For example, just last week I heard U.S. presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking about his Mormon faith. And that nice Mike Huckabee, also running for president, was proclaiming his Christian faith in advertisements. And then there are all the people who are demonstrating their religious faith by trying to get people not to see the movie The Golden Compass. And let’s not forget all the people, often AM radio hosts, but sometimes mere freelance pundits, who testify to their personal faith by decrying every removal of a Christmas tree or a manger display from a public place.

Now, it would be easy to dismiss these various activities as, in the case of the candidates, bald political calculations or, in the case of the others, people trying to throw their weight around and impose their views on others. And, since I rarely do the easy thing—even when it would actually be the right thing—I am trying to look at all of this in another way. One thing that Romney said in his speech caught my attention: “Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom.” Now, if you are an atheist or an agnostic or just a very liberal Christian, that may make you bridle. It sounds as though he is saying that, if you are not a follower of one or more certain religions, you are not entitled to freedom. But in his subsequent elaboration on Sunday’s Meet The Press, it became clear that he didn’t mean it so narrowly. In fact, he seemed to be saying something that has become increasingly apparent to me over the past few years.

In his Sunday morning comments, he attributed his statement on religion as being a paraphrase of something said by John Adams, who pointed out that a nation needs a strong moral basis. Now, this is something that most people can probably agree on. Even most people who do not consider themselves religious do have a concrete set of moral principles, a definite sense of what is right and what is wrong. To be a cohesive country, we need to have a general consensus on what our common values are. Most of us can agree that murder is wrong. Beyond that, it can get tricky—especially when dealing with issues such as abortion or even “aggressive interrogation methods.” So why bring religion into it at all? Why not just speak of our national moral principles? The fact is that for long ages—all but the past few seconds, if that, in the grand scheme of human history—religion was the vessel that preserved a culture’s values. What may seem like rigid intolerance to some liberated observers was the necessary discipline that allowed the wisdom discerned in the earliest days of mankind to prevail through the shifting winds of history and conflict. What sometimes seems like backwardness and superstition frequently turns out to have a valid basis in our genetics and our nature. Values like abstinence and monogamy may seem hopelessly old-fashioned in today’s world of economic comfort and reliable birth control, but occasionally something like AIDS comes along to remind us that the old values probably made the difference between survival and extinction in mankind’s early days.

Many people who are concerned with civil liberties focus on our Constitution and its Bill of Rights. They fight passionately over various bits of legislation or court rulings. In essence, their faith is in pieces of paper to protect us from our own government and other powers that be. But the point made by Adams and Romney is that, while codified rights are important, they are only as good as the culture that backs them up—just as the piece of paper called the dollar bill is only as good as the financial system that supports it. This point came home to me years ago with a comparison made to me by my journalism professor Paul Underwood. He pointed out that the constitution of the Soviet Union enumerated a lengthy list of citizen rights and concluded the list with the assertion that Soviet citizens also enjoyed all further rights not specifically mentioned in the constitution. The British constitution, on the other hand, did not contain any list of citizen’s rights and, in fact, was not even written down. It was all based on common law and precedent and piecemeal legislation. If you wanted to live in a country with a strong guarantee of human rights and had to choose between the USSR and the UK, knowing nothing about either except what was in their respective constitutions, you would easily choose the Soviet Union. But, in reality, which country would you really want to live in? For the vast majority of us in the West, the answer was clear. And that is when it dawned on me that our culture and its values are, at the end of the day, really more important that the specific wording in the Bill of Rights. The actual rights we enjoy in real life have as much or more to do with judicial interpretations and the ever-present threat of revolt of the masses. In other words, they have everything to do with our common values. And, the entire history of Western civilization—including the religious component—is what has determined that culture.

And it’s not such a bad culture, with its Judeo-Christian heritage and all. Sure, it is easy to point to excesses in some quarters and bullying in others. But for every person appalled at what they saw in the documentary Jesus Camp, there is someone on the other side of the political/religious spectrum appalled at what gets taught in major universities. We shouldn’t forget that many key players in such progressive movements as the ones to end slavery or to secure civil rights were motivated by values that came from their Christian or other religious values. People whose main familiarity with religion comes from watching the evening news can be forgiven for having a limited view of how diverse political thought is among myriad religious sects. Journalists have a habit of always going to certain conservative religious leaders to present them as spokespeople for all of Christianity in general. Christians and adherents of other religions, of course, run the gamut from liberal to conservative, just like any other Americans. And, in a strange paradox, Western/Judeo-Christian culture largely promotes tolerance for all ideas—even the ones that are potentially fatal to the culture’s very existence. This is why, in the end, there is no real conflict between the fact that the Declaration of Independence attributes human rights to the Creator and the Bill of Rights bans the idea of a national church. (It also explains my own personal paradox: that six of my eight great-grandparents emigrated to America specifically for greater religious freedom and that, by the time I came along, my parents were not going to church at all.) In Western countries, teachers are not arrested for giving the wrong name to a teddy bear. Indeed, in most places, blaspheming the religious symbols of Christianity is protected speech. And that is what makes the culture so strong. It appeals to the natural human desire for liberty. But it is vulnerable to the violence prompted strains of thought that are intolerant to the point of physical repression.

That is why I think the people who are campaigning against The Golden Compass, for fear that it will lead impressionable young minds into author Philip Pullman’s atheist ideas, are well within their rights but totally wrong-headed. Similarly, those who expressed concern about The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe because they thought it was a tool for proselytizing were well within their rights but also wrong-headed. Our culture is not based on suppressing ideas thought to be dangerous but airing them openly and letting them compete for primacy. The amazing thing is that literature aimed at undermining the foundations of Judeo-Christian culture inevitably seems to sabotage itself. I cannot speak about Pullman’s books because I haven’t read them. But the movie The Golden Compass is replete with Christian themes. I’m not sure that any writer nurtured in our culture can avoid it.

In the end, Judeo-Christianity keeps surviving because its very nature enables it to co-opt other cultures. Just as Christmas was based on pagan festivals but became absorbed to become a Christian feast, I suspect that, in the course of time, the cultural influences on Pullman’s books will overshadow any intent he might have had to dissuade readers from any or all religions.

As a holiday, Christmas is really like marriage. It has a religious component, but it is also a general social and cultural rite. We shouldn’t be too quick to marginalize the festival—even its most religious aspects—out of a supposed sense of tolerance. Like all traditions, Christmas is as much, if not more, about where we have been than about where we are or where we are headed. And that is a good thing to pay attention to.

Merry Christmas.

-S.L., 20 December 2007

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