News & Politics

Bring Back Old-Time Religion

Why some Christians oppose secularization while engaging in the commercialization of Christmas, I don't understand.
This holiday season we've been given the linguistic gift of ''put Christ back in Christmas'' -- the rallying cry for those Christians who see ''Happy Holiday'' greetings as a secularist threat to their faith, a genuflecting before the altar of ''political correctness'' (whatever that means), and an attack on the very underpinnings of a our ''Christian nation.''

The phrase implies that a conspiracy is unfolding that seeks to remove all vestiges of the Jesus story from a symbolic birthday celebration originally conceived to coincide with a pagan religious event, as if Santa, elves and Bing Crosby are even remotely connected to the essence of the birth of Christ.

The irony here is that those Christians who most loudly lament the secularization of the public square often hold un-Christlike political-ethical views, whether it's defending the use of torture and the promotion of war or remaining silent in the face of usurious money lenders and the commercialization of Christmas, which ultimately leads to its trivialization.

Why some Christians oppose secularization while unapologetically engaging in the commercialization of Christmas, I don't understand. And, while I'm aware of instances of real Christian persecution, the idea that American Christians are an oppressed group simply rings false, especially in light of the history of early Christian martyrdom; to say nothing of the fact that the founders of this Republic, most notably James Madison, warned us of ''the tyranny of the majority'' and the well-documented threat it poses to constitutional democracy.

Theologian John Hicks hits the bull's eye in his observation that ''we today cannot help being conscious of the wider realms of man's relationship to the divine, within which Christianity represents one major historical strand among others.

''Now that the world has become a communicational unity we are moving into a new situation in which it is proper for theological thinking to transcend these cultural-historical boundaries.'' If Hick's description is a bit too academic for you, consider the words of another theologian, Douglas John Hall.

''All Christians today are under a great deal of pressure to declare themselves, to choose one or the other of these alternatives: Will they run the risk of being thought prejudiced and bigoted by opting for the exclusive saviorhood of Jesus? Or will they risk being accused of relativism or indecision, or worse, by assigning Jesus a less exclusive role?''

Hall, however, considers this popular dichotomy to be a false one. He suggests a third way for the modern disciples of Jesus.

''Jesus, if he is for us what he can and should be, does not cut us off from others but, precisely by being there at the center of our confession of faith in God, opens our minds and hearts to others -- including those others who do not name him, as Jesus, as their redeemer, their doorway to the eternal.

''I can say without any doubt that I am far more open to Jews and Muslims and Sikhs and humanists and all kinds of other human beings, including self-declared atheists, because of Jesus than I should ever have been apart from him,'' Hall elaborates.

And he sees this spirit of inclusion as a significant, though not exclusive, part of salvation -- ''being saved from the seemingly 'natural' but ultimately very destructive tendency of human beings to distrust and exclude others, especially those who are obviously 'other'.''

What's even more ironic about the conservative Christian backlash against liberal secularism is their apparent willingness to overlook the instructions of the Apostle Paul in the 9th chapter of I Corinthians.

''To the weak I became weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel's sake...''

This holiday season I'll be singing ''Give me some of that old-time religion.''

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.
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