By Tom Krattenmaker
If you’re one of the growing number of Americans who are not religious, and if you’re irked by religious holiday displays in public spaces this time of year, here’s an alternative to fighting what you take to be the government’s unconstitutional promotion of religion.
Instead of fighting the Christmas or Hanukkah decorations cherished by many in your community, join them by creating something festive and inspiring that celebrates the season in a secular way.
You can wage peace on Christmas or Whatever You Celebrate this time of year.
“A gift to the community.” This is the phrase my co-conspirators and I at the Yale Humanist Community are using to describe our Green Light Project, an initiative to create a public art piece to complement the Christmas tree and menorah that adorn the iconic New Haven Green during the holidays. We will soon commission an artist to craft an art installation celebrating hope and the human spirit in a non-religious way, with the goal of having it go into the mix on the green for the 2016 holidays.
As a board member of this humanist organization, I leaped at the chance to support the project and join the committee seeing it through. What a refreshing counternarrative to the tired holiday-conflict stories we see each year: litigation to ban mangers from courthouse lawns; complaints about retailers who have the temerity to say “happy holidays” rather than “merry Christmas”; idle talk about boycotting coffeehouse chains that roll out festive red cups for the season without the requisite holiday text or graphics printed on them.
Guess which is more likely to help atheists and other non-religious people overcome the suspicion and unpopularity they face — working to remove religious holiday displays, or gifting something good and beautiful to round out the tableaux?
Some effort is required, of course. An ambitious public art project involves fundraising, requests for proposals, extensive networking and support-building and securing approvals from those with authority over the space in question. (Although “public” in nearly every sense of the word, the New Haven Green, the proposed site for the Yale Humanist Community’s art piece, is overseen not by public officials but a private committee.)
On the other hand, not all non-religious holiday displays need to be so elaborate. People in some communities have prepared “Happy Solstice” signs and the like to go alongside more traditional holiday fare at parks and government buildings. In the Philadelphia area, secular activist Margaret Downey and a committee of volunteers have fashioned a “Tree of Knowledge” for public display. It’s an evergreen, like the kind you’re used to seeing at Christmas, but instead of ornaments, it’s decorated with dust jackets of books about science, philosophy, ethics and other things that secular people tend to hold dear.
Here’s the problem: For several years running, Downey, a Chester County resident, has been rebuffed in her attempts to get the county government’s approval to add the tree of knowledge to the holiday flair in front of the courthouse. There, you’ll find a Christmas tree, menorah, manger, wreath and toy soldiers but, alas, no tree of knowledge. Downey says she is still waiting for a clear answer as to why. My own inquiry to the county spokesperson went unanswered.
Other secular displays have likewise been rejected around the country. One of this season’s holiday downer news stories was a judge’s order to remove a nativity scene from the courthouse in Baxter County, Ark. Before we pin “Scrooge” on the people who filed the lawsuit, however, let us note that a group of residents tried two years ago to augment the courthouse holiday scene with a “Happy Winter Solstice” banner — only to be told “no.”
It takes two to make peace at Christmastime.
A member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors, Tom Krattenmaker is a writer specializing in religion in public life and communications director at Yale Divinity School. His latest book is The Evangelicals You Don’t Know.