The controversy about the nativity display at the Bartlett Library is beginning to look as orchestrated as “The Singing Christmas Tree.” More and more, it appears to be a three-act play co-written by Broadmoor Baptist Church and the Alliance Defense Fund.
Here’s the synopsis:
Act 1, November 29. Joseph, Mary and Joseph are denied a place in the library, and the next day, Broodmoor Baptist Church has a “special called business meeting” where it votes unanimously to fight for the rights of the Holy Family.
Act 2, a couple of days later. The Alliance Defense Fund enters stage right, extreme right. It’s the legal machine that works to protect the U.S. from abortionists, secular humanists, gays, Norman Lear, well, you get the idea. By December 5, Nathan W. Kellum, the ADF’s Memphis lawyer, blisters the Memphis Library and Information Center with a letter about the unlawful discrimination carried out against the Baby Jesus.
Act 3, December 8. A parade of children from Broadmoor Baptist engage in a photo op for an assemblage of media photographers, placing Jesus in the manger over and over, and soon thereafter, the photograph in The Commercial Appeal is posted to the church’s home page, and ADF crows on its website about its victory in Bartlett.
It is a sadly demeaning episode for many Christians who wince when our faith is manipulated for the political purposes of an extremist few. Where do we go for legal relief from being associated as Christians with the type of media circuses that are common with the Alliance Defense Fund’s version of American freedoms writ anew?
If you want just a hint of its purpose, visit the ADF bookstore, with its series of books bearing covers of Christians with their mouths taped shut. The titles certainly seem factual and unbiased: “The Truth About Separation of Church and State”; “The Truth About Faith in the Workplace”; “The Truth Will Set Us Free, But Only If We Can Share It”; “The Truth About Same-Sex ‘Marriage'”; “The Homosexual Agenda: Exposing the Principal Threat to Religious Freedom Today”; “International Law: American Sovereignty Under Attack”; and more.
The first time I heard of the ADF, I was listening to an NPR report about this increasingly influential organization of “Christian lawyers.” Days before, USA Today had written about “Christian opposition” to some government policy, CBS News had featured a “Christian spokesman” commenting on some recent event and someone on radio was identified as a “Christian singer.” It’s enough to file a complaint for violation of truth in advertising.
These people did not represent the array of denominations that make up the mosaic of the Christian faith. Rather, they represent a small fringe of Christianity where comfort is found in setting up mini-dramas where they can claim to be victimized. Their real complaint: they want their brand of Christianity to fill public buildings and the public square.
In pursuing this crusade, the Alliance Defense Fund – which claims to be a religiously-based organization – fights against alleged moves to “eliminate Christian and historic faith symbols from government documents, buildings, and monuments” and to remove the religious speech protected by the First Amendment. In Memphis, the ADF lawyer argued that removal of the nativity scene violated the right to free speech and religious freedom. It’s a disingenuous argument at best, but it was enough to stampede Bartlett city officials into calling Broadmoor Baptist Church and promise to allow the religious display in the library.
“It is blatantly unconstitutional for the government to single out speech from a church for discrimination simply because it is religious,” said Mr. Kellum in his letter to library officials. Of course, putting up a poster about an event at the church is a far cry from insisting on a clearly religious display, but these are lawyers who are adept at forcing a camel through the eye of a legal needle.
Our legal advice to the library: it should feel properly chastised for its lapse of Constitutional behavior, and it now should mail letters to every house of worship in the community – church, cathedral, synagogue, mosque or temple – and invite them to set up nativity scenes, Chanukah menorahs, Islamic symbols and Hindu lingodbhavamurthy.
Let’s just turn our public buildings into a religious flea market. If you think the controversy was heated this year, you haven’t seen anything yet. That’s because in the end, this isn’t about the free expression of religion; it’s about injecting the Christianity of the Religious Right into all facets of American culture, whether it is welcomed or not by the rest of us or not or whether it undermines the basic precepts of our country or not.
In the coming months, look for more of these three-act morality plays to be concocted around the U.S. As the Alliance Defense Fund maintains, there is a war on Christianity in the U.S. and that’s why it was created for its “unique, and we believe, God-given, purpose.”
Meanwhile, back at Broadmoor Baptist Church, they are content with winning this skirmish, and along the way, with being featured on Bill O’Reilly, Washington Times, the Alliance Defense Fund website and seemingly endless coverage by local media.
Here’s a prediction: the culture war in Godless Bartlett was just a training ground for Broadmoor Baptist Church and ADF. Next, they will think of ways to take on the Memphis library system, whose policy wisely precludes displays that promote a specific religion, endorse a political candidate or sell a product or service. These are the kinds of common sense rules that make all of us welcome in a building that the public is paying for.
Maybe next time around, the rest of us Christians should do something unusual. Because the vast majority of us are troubled by our religion being used to divide our people and marginalize certain groups for political gain, it’s time for us to speak out. Until we do, the actions of a few will continue to misrepresent what Christianity is really all about.