Monday, December 20, 2010

But some are more equal than others

I apparently need to get out more often, because it turns out that right under my own nose was proof that I spoke too soon the other day when I cautiously marveled that the conservative bloviation machine seemed to have tired this year of its annual fear-mongering story about "the war on Christmas."

None other than my very own Burgville, Virginia, is in fact Ground Zero in this year's sinister seasonal assault upon traditional values. This time, carrying on their true war against Christianity under the clever guise of "free speech" (I quote from a letter writer in our local newspaper, if you can still call that collection of legal notices and barely rewritten press releases a newspaper), the opponents of Christmas have infiltrated the local courthouse lawn where one of those extremely tasteful displays of the plastic Holy Family in colorful garb used to preside in unchallenged splendor each year, just in the shadow of the extremely tasteful monument of the Confederate soldier.

Earlier this year the local political authorities sensibly adopted a policy recommended by a citizens' advisory board that the courthouse lawn ought to be left alone, ostensibly to protect the shrubbery but presumably in truth because (a) the business of the courts being to dispense justice equally without fear or favor, religious displays promoting one or another belief were out of place there and (b) there is not exactly a shortage of private homes, church properties, businesses, which also possess lawns upon which people may erect whatever tasteful personal expressions of their religious faith they desire.

This led to a storm of outrage over the "attack on Christmas," and the authorities' promptly reversing their decision.

When the issue first came up several years ago, however, the court administration, which even in Burgville apparently can read the Constitution, realized that there was no way on earth to maintain a policy allowing one private group of citizens to erect a religious display on public property without providing an equal opportunity to any other group of private citizens, so they set up a first-come-first-served system by which any interested parties could claim various spots on the courthouse lawn for their tasteful seasonal displays come December with no restrictions on content other than they be a reasonable size.

Back in July, the atheists, fired with the true zeal of the non-believer, stole a march on everyone and grabbed up the prime spots. So along with the baby Jesus we have signs lauding the separation of church and state, denouncing religion as "myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds," and one beseeching "the force" to be with our troops.

The result has been amusing to those who like to see the sputtering of those actually confronted with the simple rational implications of their previously unquestioned claims to superior privilege and infuriating to those who have not progressed beyond what developmental psychologists refer to as Stage 0 of moral development in children. (This is also known as the "egocentric judgment" stage, defined as seeing what is good as what they themselves like or is helpful to them.)

To give him his due, the conservative Christian member of our board of supervisors whom I featured the other day for his allegations of gay gropers in the TSA, defended the free-for-all on the courthouse lawn, telling the Washington Post, "I don't call it a circus. I call it a free-speech forum." But most of his fellow conservative Christians have been displaying their usual Stage 0 cluelessness, genuinely incomprehending why anyone would object to their customary tasteful display or why "negative" messages should be permitted alongside "positive" messages celebrating religion.

I don't really have much sympathy with in-your-face atheism, but I think this assertion of an equal right to a piece of the courthouse lawn is a great public service in reminding the comfortable members of the majority faith how it feels to be subjected to their own in-your-face triumphalism and commandeering of civic space — and I have the ever-so-slight hope that a few minds might be thus opened to the problems that inevitably arise when religion is injected into the public arena.

But the grandstanding by politicians over religion has always been to me a stronger reason to keep politics and religion each where they belong. There is nothing more reliably comical than the unctuous sanctimoniousness of a politician donning the mantle of piety. ''I just don't like what's going on in America today, all over the country, with the aversion some people seem to have toward Christ,'' declared that great theologian Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma the other day, who vowed that he would refuse to ride his horse in any December-seasonal parade that did not have the word "Christmas" as part of its official name.

As usual, the great H. L. Mencken knew how to respond to such two-bit political piety. The occasion was another one of his over-the-top jeremiads about Arkansas, a state he declared to be so bereft of intelligence that not even the efficient mercies of the Red Cross could prevent its inhabitants from starving to death from sheer stupidity. This led to the inevitable wails of wounded protest from the state's boosters. The state legislature duly passed a resolution censuring Mencken for his calumnies, thereby arguably confirming his judgment — and indeed when called by the AP for a comment Mencken observed, "My only defense is that I didn't make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did it."

This of course (as Mencken's biographer William Manchester relates) only "set the yokels to hollering louder," though this time one legislator hoped to strike a pose of Christian forbearance and asked the members of the body to stand for a few moments of prayer for the soul of H. L. Mencken, which was solemnly done.

Again reached by the AP for a comment, Mencken replied: "I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves, and the sound of many things in my ears, and I knew the House of Representatives of Arkansas was praying for me again."

Have a joyous holiday of your choice, and since I know all of you only read this blog at work when you should be enriching your employer instead and that you'll be on your own time the next week or so and thus have better things to do, so will I.

See you back in the new year.