Here at SoundRoots we've watched askance as loud people on both sides express their outrage at the offense they've felt over various approaches to seasonal greetings. Should store employees be allowed/required to say "season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? We've stayed out of the fray until now, largely because we prefer to address more pressing and, frankly, more important issues. (Our local newspaper today ran an editorial entitled "Racism is a serious issue" - to this and the people that find it breaking news, we say "duh!")
Divided by God, a new book by Noah Feldman, helps clarify this, among other issues. Subtitled "America's church-state problem--and what we should do about it," Feldman's book helps shed some light onto this and other heated issues involving faith in the public sphere in the United States.
Unlike constitutionally secular France or Islam-based governments, the United States' founders enshrined the notion that while it emerged in part from their religious beliefs, the government should not promote one religion over another. This has led to various political battles, and Feldman categorizes the two dominant sides today as "values evangelicals" and "legal secularists."
Feldman's prose is sometimes engaging, and elsewhere as dense and dry as your aunt's Christmas fruitcake. But his conclusions deserve widespread discussion. The USA is increasingly a multi-religious nation, and people want to express their faith. Yet most agree that the separation between church and state should be upheld, in some manner. To address these realities, Feldman suggests loosening up on public expressions of faith, while cutting government funding for faith-based initiatives. He calls this the "no coercion, no money" approach.
The core insight is that citizens speak as individuals or as groups, and so long as all citizens have the same right to do so, no one group or person should be threatened or excluded by the symbolic political speech of others, as much as them may disagree. ... Talk can always be reinterpreted, and more talk can always be added, so religious speech and symbols need not exclude. Cold cash, by contrast, is concrete and finite, and thus subject to divisive competition of a different order.
I tend to agree with Feldman that a multicultural approach is better than strict secularism. I'd rather see multi-faith prayer at the National Cathedral, than for the US to sell off the building to the highest bidder. It reflects the national identity to give voice to diverse faiths, as was done at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance on Sept. 14, 2001, which included prayers by various Christians, a rabbi, and an imam. And such public events are a chance for people of diverse faiths to emerge from their own places of worship and come together with others who have similar values, if a different faith.
One final note on holiday greetings: Rather than focusing on what offends you, why not think about what others might like to hear? If you are Christian and your neighbors are Jewish, what will it cost you to wish them a Happy Hanukkah? If they're dedicated atheists, why antagonize them? Use this as an opportunity to get to know your neighbors, the woman at the checkout stand, the guy on the street. Ask: "Do you celebrate the holidays?" and then greet them appropriately. You might learn something about them, and the world. Or, just use an all-purpose greeting with some substance: "Peace on Earth!"