We have all seen the stories this Christmas season—they are not new, they are only more so—of the local struggles between what I suppose might be called the forces of modernity versus the forces of faith. Tussles in schools and townships over the Christmas display, the prayer, the T-shirt, the cross, the statue of Mary. It’s all a continuation of what Michael Kinsley once sardonically referred to as the crèche menace. But it has moved beyond the crèche: It is increasingly a movement to ban on all public property—and pretty much in public, period—the signs and symbols of a religious holiday that roughly 90% of Americans celebrate. It doesn’t even have to be Christmas-related. Last week there was the story of the Florida housing group that banned a statue of the Virgin Mary from the front of a house in the community.
They are very busy, The Banners. They seemed to have calmed down after 9/11, when half the country exploded with spontaneously put-forward religious symbols (crosses, votive candles, cards with saints’ faces), and it was somehow . . . allowed. Shock shook The Banners into reasonableness; tragedy concentrated their minds; they retreated. But now they are back, and it is the meaning and actuality of 9/11 that has receded.
* * *
The motives of The Banners are mixed. Some seem to have aesthetic distaste for religious symbolism that is the outward and visible expression of an inner distaste for religion itself—it’s old fashioned, unworldly, very booga booga woo woo, which can’t be helpful, can it? Some of The Banners seem driven by malice and the impulse to bully—your religion is not my religion, so it will not be mentioned in public, bub, no matter what the holiday or how many celebrate it.
But some of The Banners mean well and believe their efforts are constructive. They believe that assertions of religious belief are inherently divisive, that to put forward the symbols of belief is threatening to society’s peace. They believe that the displaying of the symbols of one faith is an implicit denial of the beliefs of another faith. They do not think that faith is part of the answer; they think it is a big part of the problem (see fundamentalist Islam; see the protracted war in Northern Ireland). They think that if only people would stop being religious, we wouldn’t have religion around roiling people’s emotions and making them violent. (If you say to them, “Man is prone to violence, and one of the things that tends to make his heart gentle is faith in God,” their eyes widen in shock: That couldn’t possibly be true!)
* * *
I have witnessed these arguments close up—I suppose everyone in the country has—and I have learned something. And I didn’t want to let the season end without saying it. I learned what I learned by talking to mothers as they debated these issues outside school. This was years ago, when my son was in grade school.
This is what I learned: Censoring doesn’t work. Accommodation does. But a particular kind of accommodation.
The answer is not banning religious symbols. This brings resentment and engenders a quiet seething that does not encourage peace and understanding.
The answer is not to banish religious symbols from the public square. The answer—the pro-peace position if you will—is to fill the public square with the signs and symbols of faith. It is not to banish them from the schools, it is to teach them in the schools.
The answer is not to present in the school’s display case the sorry little compromise of the 1990s—the tired little Santa and the dusty dreidel. The answer is to display a menorah and explain what it is, and its history, and what it means to Jews. The answer is to display a crucifix or a cross and explain what it means to Christians. And, yes, the answer is to show a Koran and explain what it is. The answer is not to ban Christmas carols from the school pageant but to sing them; they are part of our culture and history, and they are beautiful. And there are other religious songs that are not Christian. Sing them too.
The answer is not to banish belief but to bring it in and explain it in loving terms to our hungry-minded children. This will truly teach them appreciation and diversity and respect and regard for others. We, their parents, are limiting them and harming them by hiding the things of faith, or forcing them underground. They deserve light.
* * *
I’ll end with a happy story. A few years back I had a small patch of patio in Manhattan, in an apartment building up in the 90s off Park Avenue. It was a little outdoor area overlooked by scores of apartments. The patio was empty and sad looking when I got there, so I started to put in some flowers and bushes and then I put out a two-foot-high plaster statue of the Blessed Mother. It was as if I’d summoned the forces of hell. Maybe I had. One neighbor started putting flyers under my door explaining that idolatry and Mary-worship consigns its unfortunate devotees to hell. Other neighbors complained about the garden. People got mad.
I was taken aback. I think part of it had to do with class. You can tool the streets of working class Lodi, N.J., and see little Marys in the front and back yards and no one says boo. But you can go from one end of Park Avenue to the other, and never—and I mean never—see a Virgin Mary in a window or a roof garden. I know. I have searched. There are Catholics on Park Avenue, but mostly there are rich people. And believe me the rich of Manhattan seem either not to like religious symbols or they know to keep them to themselves. Display is vulgar (and working-class).
The rich are lucky, but they are also human. Like most humans they think they have what they have only because of their efforts; or, as is often the case in America, they’ve been lucky so long they think they deserve it. They think they got it because they made better decisions and more sober choices. I think they forget God had anything to do with it. Displaying the signs and symbols of faith is just not very . . . Park Avenue.
Anyway, putting Mary out there in a public space engendered resentment. Mary—poor Mary, the most peaceful and loving of women—was causing quite a fuss. So I took Mary into the house, and she lived for three years in a closet. Then I moved to Brooklyn. In Brooklyn there was another patch of land, another patio area. With flowers and bushes it could be beautiful. So I hired a local landscaper, and I showed her Mary. I told her I really wanted to put the statue outside but I didn’t want to cause trouble with the neighbors. I told her of my problems in Manhattan. The landscaper looked at me, perplexed. Finally she spoke. “This is Brooklyn,” she said. “You can do Mary here.” And so I did, and she is out there now.
There’s a big Mary of Fatima across the street at the local church, too, so I am surrounded by Mary. My having her there is my way of saying, “A likeness of the beauty and sweetness of the mother of God is here in my garden and I hope it brings you peace.” No one has complained. No one has said a thing.
When the PC talking points came out in 1985 no one sent Brooklyn the memo. We have mezuzahs and Marys all over the place. We have a vital synagogue and social center just down the block, and the headquarters of the Jehovah’s witnesses down the other; the synagogue is next to a home for Franciscan priests. A few blocks away on Atlantic Avenue the mosques are next to the Baptist churches. One of my neighbors is an ardent Lebanese Maronite, and another is a lover of Buddha. He keeps a statue in the window.
This is actual diversity. Everyone gets to be, we don’t fear faith. May the world in 2004 be more like Brooklyn, and may its arguments over religion and the public square be solved the Brooklyn way.