Obama upsets Catholic right - again

  • December 17, 2009
{mosimage}Whatever you think of the current U.S. president, one thing is beyond dispute: Barack Obama certainly makes life interesting for the Catholic right.

The latest kafuffle started with the appearance in early December of a New York Times profile of White House social secretary Desirée Rogers. In this piece, we learned that the Obama family had toyed with the idea of breaking with White House tradition and not putting up an antique manger scene in the East Room of the executive mansion. (A White House official later confirmed that there had indeed been a discussion of whether to make Christmas more “inclusive” — apparently by excluding the crèche.)

In the end, nothing came of these musings, the Times reported, and the manger went on display in its usual place.

But this brief episode of doubt was quite enough to put right-wing Catholic knickers in a knot.

A Toronto Catholic blogger, for example, wrote in response to a LifeSiteNews piece about the affair: “Of course, (Obama)’s an Islamist… Embryonic stem cell research, medical funding for the murdering of babies in their mothers’ wombs, U.S. tax money for abortions in foreign countries; why should he be a hypocrite?” (I take this to mean that the “Islamist” Obama would be a “hypocrite” if he installed the overtly Christian manger scene in his home.)

Meanwhile, Catholic League president Bill Donohue weighed in on the issue at his web site the day after the Times article was printed. “Unlike almost all Americans — including atheists — the Obamas do not give their children Christmas gifts,” Donohue grumbled. “We know this because Barack bragged about this last year to People magazine. So it should come as no big surprise that he and his wife would like to neuter Christmas in the White House. That’s their natural step — to ban the public display of Christian symbols.”

Such over-the-top reaction obscures the fact that there was certainly something arguable going on in those internal White House deliberations.

It could be argued, for example, that there is indeed no place for a Christian symbol in the official home of the chief executive of the world’s first and oldest purely secular state. I’m no mind-reader, but I suspect that a notion of presidential responsibility in such a state was behind the question about the manger. Barack Obama, after all, swore an oath to defend the U.S. Constitution, which forbids the establishment of any religion at the federal level. Displaying a crèche on U.S. government property is not an establishment of religion, but it gives pride of place to one religion, which is against federal law.

If Catholic bloggers don’t like the secular character of the American republic, they should make efforts to change its Constitution — not criticize Obama for a momentary attack of conscience about his role as upholder of the separation of church and state.

Turning the tables, it could also be argued that what was worrying Obama is beside the point, since displaying a manger scene in the White House, or anywhere, is a matter of no importance in any case. Depictions of the Holy Family long ago ceased to have religious meaning for society at large, becoming just bits of sentimental holiday decoration, like Santa Claus.

But this is an opinion the First Family obviously does not share with the general culture. For believing Christians like the Obamas, the crèche is a powerful icon of the Incarnation of God, the most momentous event in human history. In briefly thinking of eliminating the manger scene from their White House decorations, the Obamas showed their awareness of this image’s power as a sign of contradiction to everything non-Christians believe — hence its potential as a cause of division in a highly sectarian society.

That said, I don’t think they need to have worried, since unbelievers are immune, by and large, to Christian symbols of every kind. But the White House incident will have some usefulness if it makes us stop and think about what it means to be Christian in a secular culture. Does it mean publicly displaying our sacred images in a routine holiday fashion? I think not, especially when those images, such as the crèche, have been debased into so many mass-cultural seasonal symbols for good-fellowship and happy times.

Minds and hearts will not be changed by such pictures, but only by Christ working in His people and in society through active love and communion.

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