Most U.S. citizens are familiar with the Constitution’s First Amendment provisions both prohibiting government from establishing religion and from infringing upon its free exercise. Perhaps the difficulties inherent in striking a balance between the two provisions are no more apparent than at Christmastime.
Many argue that the Constitution’s framers understood the establishment clause simply to mean that the government could not establish an official state religion, such as Roman Catholicism. Whatever the differences among the various stripes of Christianity, perhaps this understanding made sense in an overwhelmingly Christian country.
In more recent times, courts — particularly the U.S. Supreme Court — have struggled to arrive at an acceptable understanding of the establishment clause. Such an undertaking is fraught with challenges in a country that has become both more religiously diverse and more secular, as many of its inhabitants today proclaim adherence both to many non-Christian religions and to no organized religion at all.
Increasing religious pluralism and the non-religious have complicated courts’ attempts to answer establishment and free-exercise questions. In recent times, courts have attempted to navigate that seemingly fuzzy line by allowing displays and activities that incorporate symbols from Christian traditions, symbols from non-Christian traditions and secular symbols.
Still, whatever one’s religious (or irreligious) leanings, there’s no escaping the contribution which religion has made to such fields as art, music, drama, philosophy, and others. A world without religion would be one which lacks such cultural enrichments as Michelangelo’s magnificent art, Handel’s majestic compositions, drama such as Bolt’s fearless “A Man for All Seasons,” and Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy.
It is no historical accident that — in haste to reinvent government in the name of “the people” — so many “revolutions” have sought to obliterate both religion and culture from society. Wherever else culture springs from, there is no denying that the two are inextricably linked.
Whether one recognizes their religious significance or not, Christmas — and other religiously-rooted celebrations that happen to occur this time of year — are important for cultural reasons even if for no others. However you feel about religion, a world without it would be culturally (if not morally) impoverished.
If you are an honest, upright, decent, moral, caring human being who happens to derive your morality from a source other than religion, more power to you. Likewise, if you possess those traits and you derive your morality from a religion which differs from mine, more power to you.
Efforts to navigate the line between permissible free exercise of religion and impermissible government establishment thereof, along with the questions and conflicts these efforts attempt to confront, are not likely to be resolved anytime soon. Trends toward increasing religious diversity and non-religiousness are likely to continue. On a personal level, patience and tolerance will be needed.
It’s said that if two people have the same opinion on absolutely everything, one of them is unnecessary. However we might disagree, I certainly don’t think you’re unnecessary. Please don’t take offense at any visible manifestation of religion which I happen to find significant this time of year. I’ll return the favor, and wish you a happy holiday season.
Ken Gourdin, a Tooele resident, graduated from Weber State University with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is a certified paralegal.