The General Assembly may not have started its new legislative session yet, but political discourse is already heating up in the Ocean State. It’s the time of the year when people are supposed to be joyful and gracious, so just what is driving Gov. Lincoln Chafee up a wall these days? You might attribute it to the state of Rhode Island having the second highest unemployment rate in the nation or one of the highest debts per capita among the states. Perhaps rumors dispersed that someone was going to place a lump of coal in the stocking of this adamant supporter of taxpayer-subsidized green energy. All of these assumptions are plausible, but they are not the cause of the governor’s blood boiling. These days, the governor‘s tiff has been the honorary title of the tree standing in the State House rotunda. Chafee has sought to singlehandedly rewrite five centuries of history by replacing the title of “Christmas tree” with “holiday tree,” citing the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution as his justification for doing so. The governor has not only misinterpreted the meaning of this pivotal piece of the Bill of Rights, but his actions go against the principles of religious freedom and exemplify a stark intolerance to the history and traditions of a world religion.
The Enlightenment of the late 18th century marked a time in history when the term “religious toleration” became a popular concept. Whether it was the French philosophe Voltaire vehemently opposing the state-run Roman Catholic Church in France or Thomas Jefferson identifying the flaws of the Church of England, this new breed of intellectualism began to oppose religious tyranny and endorse religious liberty. Their belief held that every human being should be able to define their own religious beliefs, even if it meant that they chose not to possess any. James Madison authored the Establishment Clause of the US Constitution in order to ensure that the United States never established a state-run church as had been the norm in the Motherland. However, Madison and Jefferson never believed that religious freedom had to mean religious intolerance. They never intended for Americans to have to hide their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, but rather that no individual should be forced by law to practice a certain religion. Therefore, is it not reasonable to say that honoring a Christmas tradition is a far cry from forcing every citizen in the State of Rhode Island to believe in the Christian interpretation of Christmas?
Contrary to the governor’s views, not referring to the Christmas tree for what it truly is shows intolerance to religious history. The term “Christmas tree” began in the 16th century in Germany and ever since has been a symbol for the Christmas holiday. Ignoring the symbolic significance of the Christmas tree to Christmas does a disservice to our understanding of religiosity and our emphasis on diverse religious traditions. However, following Gov. Chafee’s logic, perhaps we should start referring to the menorah in the State House as an “object that holds nine candles.” Gone would be the days of the widely celebrated Valentine’s Day, named for St. Valentine, perhaps to be replaced with “Heart Day” or something else that has no religious affiliation whatsoever. Does this sound practical to you?
As Americans, we must show respect for people of all creeds, including those who don’t possess a belief in a divine power. Religious toleration must be defined not as running fear-stricken from beliefs we disagree with and demanding that they be covertly adjusted, but rather embracing religious diversity and our understanding of different faiths. Those are not just the founding principles of America; they are the founding principles of Rhode Island as well. Merry Christmas, Gov. Chafee.
Justin Braga is a member of the Brown University Republicans.