Something of a mini-Holy War is raging in Palm Beach, Fla. Two residents of the exclusive resort area are suing the city claiming their rights have been violated by city officials. The two plaintiffs are angry because the city, which allows Jewish Menorahs to be displayed in several public locations, will not allow a Christian Nativity scene to be set up in the same locations.
The Thomas More Law Center, a group that defends public displays of Christian religious symbols, filed a legal brief claiming the city has denied their clients right to free speech and equal protection under the Constitution of the United States.
Richard Thompson, chief counsel of the Center, accused the town of Palm Beach of demonstrating hostility towards Christianity during one of its holiest seasons. In a press release Thompson said, “Christian residents of Palm Beach are being denied the right to express their religious message in a public forum that is open to other religious faiths.”
Of course, the bigger question that nobody seems to want to address is why would a religious group, Jewish or Christian, want to use the symbols of their faith to decorate the lawn of a public building in the first place? Do such displays really advance faith? What is the source of this longing for such peculiar public visibility?
There may be a clue in something else Thompson said. He called the town’s actions “another example of the national movement to remove Christ from Christmas.”
National movement? Really?
Obviously, the persecution of faith, any faith, is a serious problem in many parts of the world. But faith is not persecuted in America—not directly anyway. What happens in this country is that faith gets ignored and to people of faith that feels like persecution.
It was different in the past. For centuries religion was an extension of the monarchy. Priest and king walked arm and arm sharing power and wielding influence over the kingdom. But those days are no more. Religion is no longer taken for granted as a source of social influence. Faith must compete in the free market of ideas for an audience—an audience that is free to choose to believe or not believe.
It’s hard for people who are convinced that they possess absolute truth to accept the fact that they are often ignored. The forces which move our world do not need a faith connection. Politics, business, science and technology all function without any reference to God or any deep moral purpose. That explains how we got the hydrogen bomb, separate but equal, tax cuts for the rich, and Enron.
People of faith are convinced that the world would be better if these forces did have a moral purpose, and in this they are probably right. But accomplishing such a cultural conversion calls for monumental commitment and sacrifice—just ask Jesus.
Therefore, rather than really grapple with the powers that be, some faith groups are willing to settle for token acknowledgement. A nativity scene, a Ten Commandments monument, a prayer at the big game, a politician who mentions God—and they feel affirmed.
Unfortunately in settling for token affirmation we sacrifice the authentic power of faith to change things. For it is not in the showy display that God is able to work, but in the earnest practice of faith, in the living out of beliefs, that truth has its positive effect on our world.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.