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Think Twice on Religion in Schools

[Religion News Service, February 6, 1996]

At the local public elementary school, Christian parents are struggling to get Easter into the pre-Spring break celebrations. Where kids’ parties and programs in the past have celebrated daffodils and April showers, parents are urging the school to include depictions of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. Parents suggest that coloring-book worksheets include scenes of Passover, the Easter Bunny, and the empty tomb, and that children sing "Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?" along with "Here Comes Peter Cottontail."

What’s wrong with this picture?

If you find that reading it gave you an uneasy feeling, you’ll be relieved to know that it’s pure fiction. No parents are trying to distribute dot-to-dot puzzles of the Crucifixion in public schools—at least, not to my knowledge. But the unease we feel should prompt some re-thinking. In the Christmas season recently past, many Christians were active in attempts to get elements of Christmas observance into public schools. Why don’t we feel comfortable treating Easter the same way?

There’s an instinctive response that "But Christmas is different!" Is it really?

"Christmas is different because we used to celebrate it at school when I was a kid." Yes, once church and secular cultures co-existed comfortably, a situation for which we may feel nostalgia, but which is certainly gone. Now Christianity stands in ever-more sharp relief, challenging the culture. The push to re-insert Christmas into school announces a false peace, spreading a veneer of symbolism over a materialistic culture. The faith exists to challenge just such a time, not to bless it.

"Christmas is different because it’s not about heavy theological stuff—Christmas is for children." Big trouble here, as should be obvious. As Frederick Buechner says of the Incarnation, "Until we have taken the idea of the God-Man seriously enough to be scandal­ized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken."

"Christmas is different because it’s the most important of all the Christian holidays." Nope, Easter is. From the start, every Sunday was a mini-Easter, and the spring observation was the "Queen of Feasts." The celebration of Jesus’s birth was a quieter event. Big Christmas feels authoritative because we’ve seen it all our lives, but our lives are just a thin slice of history. Devout Jews sometimes complain that the seasonal hoopla about Hannukah unnaturally exaggerates its importance, while the more significant holy days are slighted. Christians could say the same about Christmas.

Christmas outgrew its sister feasts due to its potential for exploitation; it is a gift-sales bonanza the likes of which Easter can never be. This was demonstrated locally in a graphic object-lesson. Parents at the elementary school, pressing for inclusion of religious themes at Christmas, donated an extensive mural. The principal approved it except for one scene: the panel showing the Nativity. This panel was replaced with an image of a shopping bag overflowing with gifts. As a metaphor for the trashing of Christmas this cannot be excelled.

The scene showing a menorah was approved, however; the principal decided that it was not a religious symbol. I don’t know which faith was more insulted.

The unease we feel about bringing Easter into the schools stems from a sense that this holy feast would be cheapened. It would have to be simplified and diminished in order to be palatable. Whatever children learned in this way would be a distortion of the truth, and half-truths absorbed at a tender age do even more damage than silence. We’d rather have that education done by believers who can present it with respect. We love our holy things to much to see them mishandled.

Why don’t we see that Christmas deserves the same treatment?

The best we can win in secular schools is grudging tolerance, and tolerance can be a repressive force that neutralizes our dissent and lulls us into complacency. The narrow issue is reconsidering of whether Christians should be trying to buy a place in secular schools for a watered-down version of Christmas; the larger issue is whether we blend into that secular society, or stand against it as a sign. It something Christmas-in-the-schools activists should think about before going to argue with the school board once again next Novem­ber—and every day in between.

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