Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Journal Editorial Report
Front Page
Lead Story
Briefing & Opinion
Tony & Tacky
TV Schedule
For Teachers
About the Series

December 10, 2004



PAUL GIGOT: Welcome to THE JOURNAL EDITORIAL REPORT. Some call it the "December dilemma." Some call it the silly season. Amidst all the holiday cheer, this is also the time of year when the public display of religious symbols can collide with constitutional and legal questions -- or with the comfort levels of people who have different views about religion.

Some examples so far this season: a high school band in New Jersey was not allowed to play Christmas carols at the schools holiday concert, because it might offend Jewish families or others

STUDENT: This is censorship at its most basic level, and political correctness to the extreme.

PAUL GIGOT: In Chicago, they took the words "merry Christmas" out of a song you may still recognize. And in Denver, the annual Parade of Lights banned openly religious themes. Members of a local evangelist Christian church protested nearby when they were told they could not have a parade float with a religious theme and a choir singing hymns.

With me to discuss all this are Dan Henninger, Deputy Editor of the Editorial Page, Dorothy Rabinowitz, a columnist who specializes in cultural commentary, and Rob Pollock, a member of the editorial board. Dan, we live in one of the most religious countries in the world. Our coins say "in God we trust," the Congress starts each session with a prayer. How did we get to this situation where people are substituting in school "a swinging holiday" for "merry Christmas"?

DAN HENNINGER: Well, people must wonder. If there are 10 people in our audience who didnt think that those three examples were ridiculous, I'd be surprised, but that's the law of the land. Look, for nearly 200 years in this country Christmas would come and Christmas would go, like Santa and his reindeer it would arrive and it would depart, families would get together around the dinner table, and probably fight and argue over every issue in the sun. And although we're a nation of maybe ten hundreds of thousands of cities, towns and villages, one like Pawtucket, Rhode Island would annually put a creche on the front of the City Hall lawn, and so somebody decided to sue. Legal philosophy had evolved to that point, mid-1980s, where psychological coercion would become a constitutional issue and so they entertained the law suit. It made its way all the way up to the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court has since issued very abstruse, almost Talmudic regulations on what can be displayed in public and what cant be displayed in public. As a result, every Christmas we have this fight.

PAUL GIGOT: Now Dorothy, as Dan pointed out for the first 160 years of our history we didn't really have these fights, but in the sixties and seventies they started. What changed about the culture and the law in that period?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think that the -- I think there's a sense of liberation, of being able to do everything, and that wasn't just somebody decided to sue, that was the ACLU decided to sue. The chickens, or should I say the reindeer, have come home to roost, because those Talmudic laws and disquisitions by the Court, which ventured ideas like the Christmas tree, the creche, is a secular symbol -- the creche is a secular symbol? Well, if you're trying to get it allowed into the arena as permissible, that's how they will argue. The Justices, having gone into these exquisite disquisitions, ended up avoiding the main truth, which is, indeed, the creche is a Christian symbol. By the way, if they had been forthright they could have said, and there is not the slightest danger of any rational person believing that this was the establishment of the Christian religion and that it would threaten any minority to believe this, that this is the holiday. Instead of which, they declared that this is a secular holiday. What secular holiday? The end of the year?

PAUL GIGOT: So you could only have this religious display, a religious symbol displayed, if it is devoid or stripped of all religious worth.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: And not only stripped, but against a huge embattlement of other figures -- a candy-striped elf, which is what happened, dancing elephants, Christmas carolers, a tree -- all of these things would be said to place the creche in its proper secular context.

DAN HENNINGER: Then, of course, the burden falls back on public officials, who are supposed to try to figure out what's legal and what isn't. What's their solution? They decide nothing is legal. So you have examples like the ones we just saw.

PAUL GIGOT: But Rob, to take the ACLU's position for a second, they say that there is an establishment clause of the First Amendment, and there's the free exercise clause. The establishment clause prevents the establishment of religion. They point to Thomas Jefferson, who said 200 years ago, "There's a wall of separation between church and state." Where have we gone? Have we gone too far in one direction in trying to strike that balance?

ROBERT POLLOCK: We've gone way too far. I mean, just actually read what the First Amendment actually says. It says, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." What does that mean? It means we can't have a state church in the United States. It means we can't prevent people from worshipping freely. Any judge who looks at that and says it has anything to say about whether local government can use public moneys or public lands to celebrate a holiday is reading his own preferences into the constitution.

PAUL GIGOT: I want to call up something, because we have a poll showing just how religious Americans are. It is the one on beliefs, and it shows that 90 percent of the American people say they believe in God. Only 70 percent -- but still a lot -- stay they believe in hell and the devil. I wonder if that isnt classic American optimism working? But in any event, it shows just how religious the American society is. Yet we dont really impose that. This is not the kind of a culture, Dorothy, where religion is imposed on anybody, is it?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: It is certainly not imposed. And I have a feeling, though, oddly enough, that many people don't tell the truth to the people who are conducting these polls.

PAUL GIGOT: You mean they don't believe? We really don't believe?

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: I think its very hard for -- this is just a side issue -- I think it's very hard for people to say, "That's right. I dont believe in God."


DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: It's not all that easy. I think theres a strong strain of something else -- nevertheless, the great respect for religion is what prevails. And to enlarge on Dan's point just a bit, what do you expect of ordinary principals in high schools when they see rulings by these Supreme Justices come down to discussions about whether a Christmas tree demeans the religious meaning of a Menorah? And there are huge disquisitions on this.

PAUL GIGOT: I should point out that the case youre talking about involving the Christmas creche, a 1984 case, Lynch versus Donnelly, was a five to four decision, and the court itself had multiple opinions. It was really kind of divided.

Now coming up in another case, the 10 Commandments, whether they can hang in a public building. And we have another recent poll that we can put up showing that something like 72 percent of the American public believes it is just fine to hang the 10 Commandments in a government building. Rob, how do you think that case is going to turn out?

ROBERT POLLOCK: I dont want to make a prediction on how the case is going to turn out, but I would like to note -- you made an excellent point earlier when you said that the idea of a wall of separation between church and state is not in the Constitution. That's in a letter from Thomas Jefferson. People who think that that metaphor is somehow a legal and binding thing are just not correct.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: But you know -- Im sorry --

PAUL GIGOT: Go ahead.

DOROTHY RABINOWITZ: The 10 Commandments thing also tells you the irrationality of the Supreme Court decision. You can, according to these decisions, not hang the 10 Commandments on the wall if it is there alone. But if you have it in a setting of all of the sources of law, the Code of Hammurabi would make it perfect if you wanted to do that.

PAUL GIGOT: We've only got a couple of minutes left. Lets talk about the politics, Dan, and the reaction to these kinds of decisions. We now have a phenomena called the religious right, which a lot of people -- some people worry about, particularly people of a secular mindset. And it's having a big role in our politics. Is their activism in part a response to these kinds of decisions?

DAN HENNINGER: I think it's absolutely a response. Let's use the example you just cited. Seventy-two percent of the pollsters say that it would be okay to put the 10 Commandments in a public place. Let's say that decision goes against them. This will enrage 70 percent of the country, just as these. So the proponents of this idea must think that if they win, the majority of the country is just supposed to go, "Oh, we lose. We dont care about this any more." That's not the way life works. They do become enraged, they do crack back. And you turn religion and Christmas into a red state/blue state issue.

No one can be surprised at the rise of the religious right in trying to fight back against this sort of thing.

PAUL GIGOT: In partisan terms, as recently as 1976 Jimmy Carter carried the majority of the Evangelical vote. They had some fights over tax-exempt, taking away tax exemption for private school, because in his term, his only term, and in 1980 he lost that vote in a very big way. So now it's really largely a Republican vote. We're going to have to leave it right there. Thanks to all of you. Next subject.