The explosion of spiritual warfare here in the United States over the legality of Christmas displays on public property has the religious and secular tearing the nation asunder. The division over Bush-Kerry, it seems, is child’s-play compared to the division over “Merry Christmas” vs. “Happy Holidays.”

At the root of the dispute is a ferocious battle on the part of America’s religious Christian community to stop what they see as a secular assault on Christianity. Buoyed by President Bush’s victory in November, religious Christians wish to bring back the religious nature of Christmas to public life after its steady and successful marginalization.

Some of the well-publicized stories that highlight the trend include the assault on the very words “Merry Christmas,” which are being replaced with “Happy Holidays” in city halls and public schools. The Federated Department Stores, which includes Macy’s, told their managers to avoid displaying “Merry Christmas” banners in their stores, a growing trend in American retailing.

In Denver, a church was banned from the city’s Festival of Lights parade because it wanted a Christian religious theme to its float. In Maplewood, N.J., a school board banned the singing of “Silent Night, Holy Night” from a school choir performance. And Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York insisted that the lighted tree outside City Hall is not a Christmas tree, but a “Holiday” tree.

But the biggest story of all was the decision of federal Judge Charles Sift banning Nativity scenes from New York public schools, ruling that while Christmas trees, menorahs, and the Islamic crescent were secular – and therefore permitted – Nativity scenes were religious and had thus no place in classrooms.

I empathize with my Christian brethren’s outrage at the attempted banning of Christmas from American public life. America needs more of God, not less. Secularism was tried in America over the past half century. It failed miserably, leading to a 50 percent divorce rate, out-of-control teen sexuality and pregnancy, rampant drug abuse and a nihilistic culture that worships money and materialism. Furthermore, as a Jew, I have to object to a menorah being allowed in public property, but not a Nativity scene.

But that having been said, America is not a Christian country. The United States has no official state religion and my Christian brothers and sisters err when they forget that the Pilgrims came to America to escape a country that did have a state religion.

What makes religion in America so particularly successful is that, in the United States, religion is an act of choice rather force, personal conviction rather than collective coercion. Because faith in this country requires heartfelt affirmation, it embeds itself more deeply in the human consciousness.

In countries like England where Christianity is state-sponsored and automatic, it is taken for granted, which is why the Church of England has become a rotting corpse, with empty pews and a host of vicars who are not even sure they believe in God. Americans, by contrast, must affirm their faith as an intimate testimonial, and that’s what makes American religion so passionate.

So how should the United States address this controversy over Christmas? The best approach is to allow passive religious displays – such as Nativity scenes and Hanukkah menorahs – in public places, but ban active religious exhibitions which are coercive to participants. A simple case in point is the singing of “Silent Night” in that New Jersey school.

It is grossly unfair to force a Jewish or Muslim child to sing Christian spirituals if they wish to participate in the school choir. That kind of active coercion is anathema to everything the United States stands for and causes grievous offense to non-Christians who have no interest in participating in Christian ritual. But what possible offense could a Nativity scene cause in a city square? If you don’t like it, don’t look. Walk on the other side of the road.

The same is true of banners reading “Merry Christmas.” As long as there are other banners reading “Happy Hanukkah,” or “Happy Holidays,” why should anyone take offense? Why should Christians have to suffer the conscious purging of their religion from public life, especially in a country founded on Judeo-Christian values? We dare not become a fanatically secular country like France, whose idea of liberty is banning overtly religious symbols like headscarves and Yarmulkes from schools.

But I do lament one development in the religious wars on the part of the religious themselves, namely, a propensity for highlighting the trivial and symbolic, while ignoring the substantive and meaningful – thereby portraying religious people as unnecessarily cantankerous and hypocritical.

America’s Christians seem more offended by not seeing a “Merry Christmas” sign in a shopping mall than the wholesale commercial exploitation of Christmas as it is celebrated in a department store rather than a church. Did Jesus and his followers really celebrate his birthday with Santa and his reindeer? Rather than prayer and acts of charity, did Matthew and Peter commemorate Christmas by leaving each other DVD players under a tree?

While I cannot claim to know the mind of Jesus, something tells me that if He were to come back and see Christmas on Fifth Avenue in New York City, the last thing on his mind would be that there was no “Merry Christmas” banner in Bloomingdales.

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