It was only natural, probably written in the stars: the Christian spirit of giving, the tradition started by the three wise men bringing gifts to the newborn Christ, expanded to include making one’s own personal wish list: gifts you would like to receive. And since the spirit-tradition does not begrudge anyone from participating in the routine, but in fact encourages every one, of every faith or no faith to participate, because it is good for the economy whose wheels don’t turn without the happy masses buying lots of things, it’s a win-win.
For that reason—the universal spirit of giving and getting—I am not even slightly embarrassed about publicly posting my personal little wish list (or sharing the news that I have bought stuff to give to others in the coming days), even though I am not a Christian or a member of any other faith.
My experience with the Christmas gifting tradition is probably like most others in Middle Class America. There would be a “big”thing (toy, bicycle, jewelry, or, in more recent decades, electronic devices–iPad, or phone, or XBox or 55” flatscreen–and several smaller, less expensive gewgaws and novelties tucked in large ornamental stockings, sometimes hung from a fireplace mantel. My wish list this year is just one big thing from which several small goodies can be gleaned. The only way this is possible is what I am asking for is not something material, or store-bought, or even the thoughtful love-labor of some talented artisanal acquaintance; but a recognition, understanding, appreciation, and sharing of a concept in scheme of human relations, how people join together to make agencies and governments for maintaining order and improving the general well-being of their populations, theoretically, toward maximum freedom for individual citizens along with the greatest flourishing for the greatest number of them.
This progressive and positive form of politics was born in the 17th Century, the time of the Reformation and Enlightenment, when the avant-garde began breaking free from Middle Age traditions of feudalism and Scholastic thought, and began pioneering new ways to observe the world from new empirical scientific and philosophically rational perspectives.
Religious influence, once domineering all phases of public and private life, began a slow and steady decline. The rise of capitalism may have also contributed to this decline, as its driving force of profit-making was not a good fit with a fundamental anti-materialism message at the core of Christianity.
On the matter of formulating principle for the new, democratic, and liberal body politic, philosopher Richard Rorty, in the essay “Religion as Conversation-stopper”, points out what he call a “Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious…This compromise consists in privatizing religion–keeping it out of the public square..” and
Contemporary liberal philosophers think that we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty…(1)
The wisdom of this trade-off becomes apparent when Rorty explains how interjecting religion, as a moral or scriptural foundation for making or discussing policy becomes, at miniumum, a “conversation-stopper”, or worse, an “argument-starter.” The interlocutor with religion tries to have the last word and seal his position against possible challenges. But this easily invites an opposing foundational and equally irreproachable retort, be it from a different religious a or secular/rational viewpoint, and thus a new argument emerges over principles rather than the issue at hand. The principle “to limit the conversation t0 premises held in common” ends up as the only pragmatic alternative.
This is just another way to look at the “Wall of Separation” between the State and Religion that Jefferson and his fellow founders had the foresight to build into the law of the land. Allowing the foundational dogma of one religion to underlie legislation favors one privately held belief (it could as easily be a private “hobby”, says Rorty) over another, and undermines the guiding goal of pluralism. Adherence to pluralism also helps prevent a “tyranny of the majority,” be it religion or other non-common premiss. The pie graph representing a theoretical total amount of political influence, with the center point as a hub for spokes radiating from it at different angles results in different sizes of opinion-influence in a majority-rule-all diagram, where the 49% would control all:
And the same amount of influence represented in the pie divided by chords, criss-crossing and intersecting; representing differences and similarities at the areas of overlapping. This is a better representation of the idea of pluralism:
That would be my big thing under the tree. Good old-fashioned classic liberal pluralism (and maybe the end of capitalism). Non-material, no-cost, no exploited Global South labor, and no carbon footprint. It’s just a matter of education. Free also would be the smaller stuffers in my tinseled-out red stocking, including, among things yet dreamed of,
- The end of laws permitting discrimination based on fundamentalist religious scripture
- Repeal laws giving religiously-based theories of the origins and development of life on Earth equal stature with academically accepted scientific theory in public schools
- The elimination of well-funded and influential webs of lobby groups such as the Louisiana Family Forum in this state, and the huge semi-clandestine American-based organization but internationally powerful International Christian Leadership, a.k.a. The Family.
- Revisit federal and state tax code relating to churches and ministries and statutes concerning non-profits v. beneficent non-profits, administrator and pastoral salaries.
- Require no religious tests for admission into the United States, strict interpretation of the 14th Amendment.
- Have the United Nations enter into discussions with the Holy See of the Roman Catholic Church with the purpose of affecting major changes in its policy on contraception. It is currently an impediment to reducing STDs and slowing the population explosion, particularly in Africa.
As I lay down the night before Christmas, and just before visions of sugarplums danced in my head, I was startled back to wakefulness with the thought of the young woman, the tired Syrian refugee, turned away at the shore of the American Inn, pregnant, and….did it….could it be…did our fearful, mostly Christian leaders just turn away…who?
(1) Richard Rorty, “Religion as Conversation-stopper,” Philosophy and Social Hope. ( London: Penguin Books, 1999)