The end of October marked a little controversy for the good people of the commonwealth of Kentucky. While sending inquiries about the possibility of someone donating the large evergreen tree used to decorate the state capitol grounds each season, as had been done in the past, the Office of the Secretary for the Finance and Administrative Cabinet called it a “holiday tree” and not a “Christmas tree.” An avalanche of angry calls and public criticisms followed.
An administration spokeswoman for Gov. Steve Beshear responded. The reference of a “holiday tree” was meant to be inclusive of Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year’s. It makes sense, even beyond the potentially sticky church-and-state entanglements.
Why wouldn’t folks living in a civil and diverse community seek to broaden definitions in order to be more inclusive and accommodating to others in the public square? Especially those called Christians seeking to live out graciousness at the heart of the Christmas season.
But this gesture of fairness escaped the many Christians still offended and angered by such a change. One state representative said the governor was putting “political correctness” ahead of “Kentucky values.”
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Others, as reflected by Rabbi Marc Kline of Lexington, were more direct and perceptive, saying that while he appreciated the governor’s attempt at inclusiveness, ultimately we should call things what they are: “It’s a Christmas tree. It’s a Hanukkah menorah, it’s a Kwanzaa candelabra … there are more pressing issues to address.”
The governor took action and put the issue to rest by buckling to the pressure and stating empathically, this is a “Christmas tree.” Christians, such as Martin Cothran of the Family Foundation of Kentucky, turned his jeers to cheers, praising the governor on how his Grinch-like heart previously set on robbing everyone of the true spirit of Christmas had now grown “three sizes.” One Christian congregation even broke out in “thunderous applause” when their pastor announced the governor’s decision.
I wish I could speak of a happy ending and how all the good little boys and girls of Kentucky were now protected from a potentially disastrous slippery slope that might have eroded their Christmas joy for years to come. Instead, another local news story broke about the same time as the “holiday tree” controversy and spoke more disturbingly of their fate.
The Every Child Matters Education Fund, a nonpartisan children’s advocacy and research group based in Washington, ranked Kentucky No. 1 in the nation for child abuse and murder. I just wonder why I haven’t heard of any group, including the Christians, with an avalanche of angry calls to the governor’s office about that.
Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky.