The apostle Paul saw genuine freedom not as the right to do what I want to do, but the responsibility to seek the well-being of others. Self-indulgence is the opposite of freedom.
One of the claims by those upset by the generic greeting is that this nation began as a Christian nation. It is true, of course, that many of the first settlers were Christians who came for freedom of religion and that most of the colonies had official colony churches. Many other settlers, however, came to escape poverty and debtors prison. Unfortunately, some of the colonialists who came for freedom of religion were as intolerant of the religious views of others as British officials had been of theirs. Some of the Puritans even made it a crime to celebrate Christmas.
Because of the experience of religious intolerance, both in England and in the colonies, the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibited any religion from defining the nation. Christians, Jews and Muslims (then referred to as "Turks") were to be on equal footing. Once the Bill of Rights was ratified, it was no longer possible to speak of the republic as a Christian republic or nation.
Nevertheless, until fairly recently the dominant cultural influence in this country was white, Protestant Christianity. Businesses closed on Sunday—not on Saturday; high schools and colleges preceded graduation with religious ceremonies; federal, state and local laws reflected Protestant ethics. The U.S. Postal Service, for example, still reflects this orientation by not closing for Passover or Rosh Hashanah.
Over the last few decades, however, that consensus has begun to dissipate. The prohibition of Congress making any laws regarding religion, which has been interpreted ever more broadly over the years, has now been interpreted as implying that public officials—including school teachers—may not lead or prescribe religious ceremonies in the course of their official duties and that public property may not be used for religious ceremonies or activities as part of official school functions.
In that context, it is true that until recent Supreme Court decisions, there had been an increasingly effective effort to remove Christian symbols from public places. Christian symbols in public places reflect the power that Christianity has exercised over public affairs in a nation that, by the Constitution, is to be neutral in matters of religion. What we have been seeing is an effort not to destroy Christianity but to remove Christianity from illegally exercised positions of power in venues that properly belong to all the people, not primarily to Christians.
Most of the current heat was generated initially by the charge that the substitution of generic holiday greetings for Christmas greetings is part of a culture-wide assault on Christianity. A major weapon in the arsenal of those making this charge has been an economic one: "Watch where you shop! Shop only with merchants who use explicitly Christian greetings!" Ironically, this effort embraces and promotes consumerism—a mind-set that not only has robbed Christmas of its true meaning, but has corrupted the very soul of the church itself. Although the words may be "Merry Christmas," the underlying message is "Merry Mammontide!"
As for the proper greeting, most of my Jewish friends are unperturbed by Christmas greetings. But why should their courtesy be used as an excuse for insensitivity by Christians? Moreover, there are also Muslims and Buddhists among us. Should freedom of religion mean that we are free to insult Muslims by wishing them a merry Christmas? The apostle Paul saw genuine freedom not as the right to do what I want to do, but the responsibility to seek the well-being of others. Self-indulgence is the opposite of freedom.
I grew up in a small Southern town in which you were taught and were expected—whatever your age—to exercise good manners. Historically, one of the functions of manners is to be considerate of others. When I was about to go somewhere, my mother frequently would say, "Don't forget to mind your manners." That might not be a bad way this time of year to approach the whole issue of how to greet others.
Gene Davenport is professor emeritus of religion at Lambuth University and theologian-in-residence at St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Jackson, Tenn. A collection of his essays will be published in 2009 by Wipf and Stock Publishers. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers. www.wipfandstock.com