Over the course of the last few months writing this blog, I have written about the separation of church and state more than any other topic. The separation of powers is the defining characteristic of American Democracy, it indisputably makes our government strong, fair and resilient. And it is a gigantic pain the tush. Here’s a classic example. “Should the Obama’s have a crèche in the East Room this holiday season?” The White House is exactly that little piece of real estate where church and state collide: it is a federally funded, nationally registered publically held piece of property. It is also someone’s home.
When we ask if the President should put a nativity scene in one of its rooms, our concern is, “Will it make America look Christian?” No, it will make the Obama’s look Christian; it will make America look like what it is: a country governed by the people, and for the people. We didn’t write our laws to oppress people, we wrote them to safely set them free – to worship, to speak, and to print their opinions, for starters.
It would be un-American, not to mention profoundly unkind, to tell the people who live in publically funded residences that they can’t put up a religious representation that accurately reflects their beliefs. The East Room has been used for diplomatic purposes, for weddings and for funerals. It is a place that reflects the realities of American and in fact human life: struggle, joy and sorrow.
Our Constitution guarantees us a right to practice religion freely within limits. With its notorious reindeer ruling, our Supreme Court has maintained that tasteful and fair representations of religious belief may be present on public grounds (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1983). We fought a vicious war to defend a Jewish family’s right to place a menorah in their window. Christian scripture tells us to stand up and be counted as Christians. What does the presence of a crèche scene in the East Room say about America? That we’re not afraid to be ourselves and to let our brethren be themselves as well. I’m comfortable with that message.