If true, the report about the Obamas wanting a "non-religious Christmas" is troubling.
Like Ricky Bobby in "Talladega Nights," many Christians adore Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, wise men bearing gifts, shepherds searching and angels singing, Parham observes. (Photo: Sony Pictures)
Desiree Rogers, the White House's social secretary, disclosed the Obamas' desire, according to a New York Times story. A White House official also said that an internal discussion had been had about whether to display the Christmas manger scene and how to make Christmas more inclusive.
The problem with the story is that it feeds the fear among too many conservatives who doubt the president's profession of faith as a Christian. It fuels the suspicion that liberal Democrats want to sanitize the public square of all things religious, especially anything to do with Christianity. It focuses public attention toward the false war on Christmas and away from the substantive matters of the day.
Writing for Fox News, Eric Metaxas said that "the idea of keeping Jesus out of 'the people's house' at Christmas evokes disturbing images of the Holy Family being turned away from the Inn, or worse yet, images of Herod. But to a super-secular White House afraid to offend anyone—except for average Americans—it probably just seemed like another fab 'progressive' innovation."
Metaxas added, "If President Obama wanted to fuel the fears of every serious Christian in America and actually prove that he is every bad thing they've ever heard about him on every crazy Web site, the idea of symbolically taking Jesus out of the White House at Christmas would be just the ticket!"
Catholic League president Bill Donohue declared that the Obamas "would like to neuter Christmas in the White House."
While the White House ended up with a crèche on display in the East Room, Pam Meister, editor of FamilySecurityMatters.org, wondered how long this tradition would continue and managed to work the word Muslim into her post.
If the always acerbic atheist Christopher Hitchens had his way, the crèche would not be in the White House. He claimed that it is not the business of the president to have anything to do with the manger.
As a Christian, I think Christmas without the Christ-child isn't really Christmas. As a Baptist Christian, I doubt that a White House crèche will cause the collapse of the needed wall of separation between church and state. Nor do I think the public square ought to be scrubbed clean of Christianity.
Albeit important, the religious symbolism of a nativity scene in the nation's most sacred public space is secondary to a more substantive conundrum. The real problem for too many American Christians is that they want to keep Jesus in the manger—all year long.
We love little baby Jesus, as NASCAR champion Ricky Bobby, in the movie "Talladega Nights," reminds us. We adore Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, wise men bearing gifts, shepherds searching, angels singing. We love baby Jesus because he makes no moral claims on us. Instead, we get to project our hopes for the impossible possibility—that all things will be made right.
Yet the biblical story moves quickly from the manger to the man who makes moral claims on people of faith.
The Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount calls Christians to be peacemakers, challenging those who want more war in Afghanistan. The Jesus of "render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and God what is God's" challenges Christians to do the hard work of moral discernment in a pluralistic country and drop plans for an American theocracy. The Jesus of "love your neighbor" confronts lawmakers to rethink their commitment to the corporate greed of the health insurance industry and ideologues to abandon their social Darwinism. The Jesus of the Golden Rule calls into question Wall Street's deceitfulness and unmerited bonuses.
If we are going to have a crèche in the White House—along with other faith symbols—let's remember the moral claims that come from the man Jesus.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. This editorial appeared originally on the Washington Post's "On Faith" Web page in a shorter and different version.