Friday, January 12, 2007

Ben Stein and the holidays, or "Yes, Virginia, there is an Establishment Clause."

Lawyer/actor/game show host/political commentator (not necessarily in that order) Ben Stein delivered a commentary on CBS Sunday Morning, 12/18/05 . Since then, the essay has been copied and emailed by every right-winger, Christian-rights activist, and First Amendment-hater in the country, two Decembers in a row. The original text can be found on Ben's webpage (address above.) My original response, in a slightly different form, first appeared on the comments section of Lance Bass's Myspace blog. (Don't ask.) Here it is:

Yes, Mr. Stein, There Is An Establishment Clause by Christopher Stansfield
In his much spammed and blogged-about commentary on 12/18/05 (yes, this speech is now officially a year old), Lawyer/Character "Actor"/Nixon speechwriter Ben Stein admits, "I have no freaking clue who Nick and Jessica are." This admission is an old speechwriter's trick to get the audience on his side- after all, how can one fail to respect someone who finds the obviously ludicrous...well, ludicrous? Arguing with Mr. Stein about the importance of the former Mr.-and-Mrs.-Lachey would be like wearing a "Don't Support Our Troops," shirt.

Of course, Stein's next confession involves a 180-degree turn: "I am a Jew, and every single one of my ancestors was Jewish. And it does not bother me even a little bit when people call those beautiful lit up, bejeweled trees Christmas trees."

Okay, fair enough- I am not aware of any real textual link between the celebrity publicity machine and the religious significance of Coniferous trees, but the insistence that Christmas trees should be called Christmas trees seems like another unassailable position.
And then he goes on: "It doesn't bother me at all that there is a manger scene on display at a key intersection near my beach house in Malibu. If people want a creche, it's just as fine with me as is the Menorah a few hundred yards away. I don't like getting pushed around for being a Jew and I don't think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can't find it in the Constitution and I don't like it being shoved down my throat."

. Now it seems ol' Ben's getting to his real point: God-loving Americans are abused! They are under continual attack! The atheists are on the march!

I admire and respect Ben Stein- despite our many political differences, he seems to have more common sense than much of his ideological crowd. That said, the concept that this country is somehow being hijacked by atheists or "bashes Christians" should inspire as much incredulous outrage as the concept that "The Jews started all wars" (Mel Gibson, 2006) or that Muhammad only brought the world "evil and inhuman things" (Pope Benedict XVI).

In battles between the atheist, agnostic, or simply irreligious versus the rights of those on "God's side," the winners are, more often than not, the religious. In this country, disputes both semantic and important between Christians versus those who are not often tend to favor Christian causes and beliefs. (If you can't research stem cells, evolution, or the morning-after pill, chances are it's not because of fundamentalist Hindus.)

I too, have no problem with people wishing me a "Merry Christmas" without inquiring whether I celebrate, nor do I find it offensive to receive a Christmas card or see someone's lovingly cared-for creche on his well-manicured lawn. (Though, inexplicably, religious rightists find it horribly offensive to use the religion-neutral phrase "Happy Holidays" when doing business.) I do, however, oppose the historical and continual erosion of the Establishment Clause and Equal-Protection Clause.

Manger scenes on private lawns or in private businesses are fine. Manger scenes on publicly-held land are not- it's as simple as that. To those who think the removal of Christmas trees from government- and common-held spaces is "anti-Christian," there is a simple compromise that can keep them there- celebrate other religions, as well. But this "religious (read: Christian) nation" (founded in a large part by agnostics and deists) simply cannot have that- look to the recent case of Sea-Tac airport, which decided to remove its fifteen Christmas trees because it couldn't stand the notion of putting up a menorah- and then proceeded to use the media to make the complainant (a rabbi) look "anti-Christian."

I'm glad Mr. Stein feels neither discriminated against nor threatened. Living in a metropolitan area with his level of fame and success can help insulate him from such fears. However, those non-Christians living in this country who genuinely are threatened and discriminated against have a right to stand up for themselves, and that does not make them anti-Christian. It simply makes them American.
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." - The Constitution of The United States of America

"Government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion" (emphasis added)"- Justice David Souter, writing for the majority, in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District v. Grumet, 512 U.S. 687.

This article © 2007, Christopher Stansfield. Some rights reserved. This work is licensed to the public under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, and may only be distributed according to the terms of said license. To view a copy of this license, please click here.

1 comment:

  1. Chris, Let me be the first to officially welcome you to the blogosphere. Very much looking forward to reading your forthcoming essays.

    When you get a chance, check out my blog (although it hasn't been updated in ages due to a rather nasty cold).