The creche has gone on display at the Warren County Courthouse in Front Royal, Virginia. There we see the figures we might expect—Mary, Joseph, the newborn in the manger, the Magi, and several animals. Beside the creche stands a plain white wooden cross about four feet high. The statues are a bit timeworn, and to my eye, too small for the broad lawn. These days, however, that they are there at all is a wonder.
Posted next to this display is a large sign, a credo of sorts compliments of the local American Humanist Association, “The Ten Commitments: Guiding Principles for Teaching Values in American Schools.” Here’s a sampling of these commitments: “Altruism: We will help others without hoping for regard,” “Ethical Development: I will try to be truthful, kind and fair,” “Human Rights: I will stand up for everyone’s right to be themselves, and to find their own happiness,” and “Responsibility: I will tell the truth, help others, keep my promises, obey the law and be a good citizen. This will give me a better life.”
No quarrel from me with these principles or any of the others on that list. In fact, they are to be applauded.
To the right of “The Ten Commitments” are two more signs. Courtesy of the Shenandoah Area Secular Humanists, one is decorated with some pictures of holiday ornaments and announces “This season, no matter what you celebrate or why, Happy Holidays!”
The last sign, placed by the Washington Area Secular Humanists, asks three questions: “Do you find religion unfulfilling? Do you value freedom of thought, expression and conscience? Are you looking for a place to speak your mind on issues affecting our world?”
This juxtaposition of creche and signs makes some points perhaps unintended by the humanists.
First is that the creche needs no words of explanation. The scene speaks for itself. Whatever we may think of that infant in the manger, we know his name and the names of his parents.
Next, with one exception, I know of virtually no Christian who would take issue with the information and questions spelled out by the secularists on their signs. All of the principles stated in “The Ten Commitments” line up with Western values that were hammered out and refined over centuries. Indeed, all of these “commitments” and questions are rooted in Judeo-Christian teaching. Christians do value freedom of expression. These days, especially, they are looking, often in vain, for a place where they might speak on issues from the standpoint of their faith.
Even the question, “Do you find religion unfulfilling?” applies at times to most Christians, though not in the sense implied by the sign. After all, few believers are saints. They often fall victim to one or more of the seven deadly sins, such as pride, lust, and gluttony. Like so many in our culture, believers fail to live up to their values and abuse their flesh with drugs and drink, indulge in pornography, cheat on their exams, and commit a hundred other sins. Were they truly fulfilled in their faith, these transgressions would never occur.
The aforementioned “one exception” in the words on these placards with which Christians and many others might disagree are “This season, no matter what you celebrate or why, Happy Holidays!” No matter what you celebrate or why? This sloppy sentiment stands in marked contrast with the precise language of the other signage. I can think of plenty of things other people might celebrate that would win no “Happy Holidays!” from me.
That objection aside, this collocation of the nativity scene and the secular humanist signage, particularly “The Ten Commitments,” inadvertently displays a partnership of long standing between Christian faith and human reason. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, Pascal, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis: These thinkers and hundreds more down through the centuries married theology and philosophy in their writings. In his 2021 article “Ten World-Class Philosophers Who Defend Christianity,” Cody Mitchell notes a now-decades-long trend of Christian philosophers who have blended faith and reason in their writings and in what they have taught, and teach, their students.
The courthouse behind this display is built from stone and concrete block, but at its core are the Constitution and the laws of our land.
For 50 years, we Americans have witnessed attacks on Christianity and its coerced exile from public life. More recently, we have witnessed the assault on reason, logic, and just laws as well, in our classrooms, our streets, and our very government.
The creche and credo erected in front of a courthouse are emblematic of the faith, reason, laws, and liberties that serve as the pillars of Western civilization and the American nation. As we travel through this season and enter into a new year, we as individuals and as a country should resolve to remember, restore, and celebrate these foundation stones in whatever way we can.
Image credit: Unsplash