Richard Reeves

A Merry Faith Based Christmas to All

DALLAS -- In Oklahoma, a northern suburb of this city, voters in a town called Mustang voted down an $11 million school bond issue last week because the superintendent of schools had ordered fifth-graders to take references to Baby Jesus out of their Christmas pageant. If I lived there, I would have voted with the angry Christians.

I have always been amused by the stupidity of school officials, their lawyers and local politicians in Christmases past. But enough is enough, and their old political correctness -- or their fear of lawsuits and demonstrations -- is tearing the country apart for no good reason. A couple of days after the Mustang rumble, I heard that in Maplewood, N.J., a school district lawyer ordered music teachers to prevent students from playing instrumental versions of Christmas carols -- because everyone knew what the words were and that might trigger religious thoughts.

I wish I had done something, or at least written something, about all this 12 years ago when I left a school auditorium in Los Angeles laughing at stuff like this, rather than getting as mad as some folks in Mustang. In 1992, our youngest was a third-grader at Canyon Elementary School, and we trooped down Santa Monica Canyon to watch her play an angel or a wise person in the Christmas program. But there were no angels and no wise people there that night, no Christmas or Christ. No Christmas trees either, as I recall. But on that diverse little stage in Los Angeles there was a lot of Hanukkah, some Kwanza, and a good deal of Spanish I did not understand.

"This is crazy," I thought at the time. (Until then our daughter, now a college sophomore, had gone to Catholic schools.) I did seek out the principal after the show and ask her why she drove Christ from Christmas. It was painful listening to her explain that she did not want trouble from parents and school officials. Better safe or sanitary than sorry.

Well, it has turned out that banishing Christ was not the safe course at all. Principals and officials now have to answer to more religious Christians than me. Traveling around to see children and grandchildren, I noticed in Florida, home to our oldest and her three boys, that the president of the Florida state Senate was in big trouble. He had said it was wrong to use taxpayers' money to subsidize Christian instruction in a new state pre-kindergarten program.

I was with him on that -- his name is Tom Lee, and he is a Republican -- for three hours. That's how long it took him to reverse himself and come out for the subsidy in the form of state vouchers to "faith-based" schools. The reason he gave for switching sides was that if there was too much fuss about the program, initiated in 2002, it might draw the attention of the Supreme Court or others who had read the Constitution of the United States.

The Founding Fathers, who were nowhere near as religious as advertised these days, wrote the First Amendment to that document not only to guarantee freedom of religion but also freedom from religion. You pay your money, you make your choice. But there was nothing said about pretending there was no such thing as religion. They knew, and we know, that religion is important, and knowing the story of Christianity is essential to understanding the history of Western civilization -- or the war in Iraq.

James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and the boys did not foresee, and neither did I 12 years ago, that this was going to lead to the election of George W. Bush as president and all that praying and preaching in the White House.

The old political correctness of no offense, or stupid legal advice making hurt feelings a casus belli, inevitably created a powerful new minority in the country. And aroused minorities drive political policy. The majority of people in the audience at Canyon Elementary probably agreed that there was something very wrong that night in 1992. Most of us, though, went home and forgot about it. The ones who did not forget are running the country now. Even in Mustang, the champions of Baby Jesus were a minority of the people who voted. Fifty-four percent of the voters endorsed the bond issue. But under Oklahoma law, school bonds must win 60 percent approval.

Aggrieved and aroused Christian conservatives, minority or majority, made a revolution here, providing the energy of a religious populism that is now in the process of creating its own faith-based political correctness: Have faith! Or shut up and pray!

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