For forty years, the city of Pawtucket, Rhode Island sponsored a downtown Christmas display. The exhibit featured a traditional nativity scene surrounded by secular symbols of the season. The shepherds and wise men were flanked by plastic reindeer, candy striped canes, a Christmas tree, and Santa Claus.
In the early eighties, a group of local citizens filed a lawsuit, claiming the display violated the “Establishment Clause” of the U. S. Constitution. The case of Lynch v. Donnelly went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1984, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of the city. Pawtucket could continue to sponsor the nativity scene.
Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote the majority opinion. The decision declared that the Christmas display recognized “the historical origins of this traditional event long (celebrated) as a National Holiday,” and that its primary effect was not to advance religion. “The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday. These are legitimate secular purposes.” The benefit to religion was called “indirect, remote, and incidental.”
The court decision derisively became known as “The Plastic Reindeer Rule.” Secular decorations diluted the nativity scene enough to make it “acceptable” for worldly purposes. Chief Justice Warren Burger’s opinion revealed a keen insight into American culture. Our society tolerates religion in small amounts. Religious displays are socially acceptable only when counterbalanced by secular symbols.
The world continually attempts to dilute the Christmas and Christian message. During the past four decades, we have witnessed a sea change in the United States. Educators dare not mention the C word of “Christmas” in class. Our children go on “Winter Break.” On many town squares, a “Holiday Tree” adorns the downtown plaza.
Merchants wish their customers a generic “Happy Holidays.” The Salvation Army is banned from stores. Manger scenes on public property must blend into secular displays. And the baby Jesus lying in the manger has the same significance as a plastic Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer.
Since Christ’s coming, there have been regular, repeated attempts to water down Christianity into a tasteless gruel. Compromise, tolerance, and political correctness seek to create a faith that is palatable and acceptable to all while offending none.
Public displays of the manger scene have become the lightning rod for such sentiment. If crèches cannot be eliminated entirely, then the world will dilute the message with secular symbols. Ultimately, the Lynch v. Donnelly decision proved to be a hollow victory for the church, equating the Son of God with an artificial woodland animal.
For the animal lovers among us, let me assure you that I have nothing against plastic reindeer. Like any good redneck, I have featured a couple of lighted deer adorning my side yard in the past. However, they cannot take the place of the Manger Scene.
The Christian faith IS offensive. It offends the sensibilities of a society hell-bent on destruction. It offends the tolerance of political correctness that gives equal value to mangers and reindeer. It offends the sinfulness inherent in every human by calling us to change. Little wonder the world is offended by the manger scene. The reaction to a seemingly innocuous display reveals God’s power to save!
We should not be surprised that the world fears the manger scene. “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.” During Advent and Christmas, reindeer don’t rule—Emmanuel, God with us, does.
Happy Holy Days!