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Matthew Sanders: Christmas symbols should stay in the public square (+poll)

Published: Friday, Dec. 21 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

If a picture is worth a thousand words, powerful symbols must be worth millions.

Symbols are vessels of meaning that affect our hearts and minds and help shape our society. Throughout our communities we build, we march, we paint, we sculpt, we write, and we sing about things that move us.

The symbol of the U.S. flag at half staff conveys our nation's feelings of horror, grief, sympathy and resolve. The Statue of Liberty heralds the national virtues of liberty and inclusion. Football players wear pink gloves to remind us of women we love who battle breast cancer. Great cathedrals, temples and houses of worship are symbols intended to raise sights and strengthen hope. These public symbols of our conviction represent beliefs held by a few, by many, or by all.

The First Amendment specifically protects the fundamental right to believe, express belief, associate and assemble with fellow believers without interference from government, institutions or individuals. Yet, there are a growing number of examples where religious symbols of expression are being barred from the public square. According to a Pew Forum study, The Rising Tide of Religious Restrictions, government restrictions and hostilities are on the rise. Recent examples surrounding Christmas include the Santa Monica Nativity display conflict and the Christmas tree prohibition in a rest home.

In twisted irony, secularists often attempt to use the first clause in the Bill of Rights to ban religious symbols, expression, speech and assembly from the public arena, which are clearly protected in subsequent clauses. However, the Supreme Court has ruled that the prohibition of the state establishing a church does not preclude religious expression in the public square. So, antagonists pursue another tactic — fomenting conflict. In what secular activists call “blowing up the forum” they erect competing displays intended to antagonize, stir the pot, and cause enough disruption that civil authorities simply ban everyone. Their strategy is a little like starting a food fight in the school cafeteria in order to get everyone suspended — and it works.

But why? Secularists often justify their abrasiveness toward religion by citing historical examples of hypocrisy, misbehavior and even atrocities committed by professed believers. But this simplistic argument is akin to indicting medical schools for a surgeon’s malpractice, or advocating that we abolish Broadway because a soprano missed a high note. It's shortsighted to dismiss religion as a force for good because belief and behavior aren't always in harmony.

Perhaps we should reframe the debate around something we hold in common, a desire for heightened civic virtue, which I'll define as the cultivation of personal habits and morality that make a good citizen.

Christians, who make up almost 80 percent of the U.S. population and 2 billion worldwide, find joy in celebrating Christmas. It is a time for families and congregations to gather, reflect and celebrate God giving the world his chosen son, born into the humblest circumstances. Jesus was devoted to teaching the virtues of love, kindness, forgiveness, humility, meekness and honesty. For believers, Christmas inspires one to pursue such virtues which benefit communities.

A 2010 study reported in the Wall Street Journal illustrates how belief benefits communities, where, "religious Americans are four times as generous as their secular neighbors, even as they are a little less affluent than secular Americans." If we ban expressions that reinforce such virtues, we risk becoming a society decribed by C.S. Lewis in the "The Abolition of Man": We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise."

So, instead of secularists shaming Christians for their aspirations, they should support them in living their ideals. And Christians should take ever greater care to embody their beliefs through good will toward all without pomp. As a society, we should keep the symbols of Christmas in the the public square, for they represent the virtues which inspire us all to be even better citizens and neighbors.

Matt Sanders studied economics at Brigham Young University and business and political economy at Harvard University. He is a General Manager at Deseret Digital Media where he oversees Deseret Connect and Deseret News Service.

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