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Before Florida Made an Ass of Christmas, Philadelphia Gave Us a Founding Nativity Scene

| December 20, 2013

Geertgen Tot Sin Jans, 'Nativity' (1490), at the National Gallery in London.

Geertgen Tot Sin Jans, ‘Nativity’ (1490), at the National Gallery in London. Click on the image for larger view.

It started with the display of a nativity scene. There’s nothing wrong with nativity scenes. We had one every Christmas in our living room in Beirut, each year more elaborate than the one before because in our homes fathers put together nativity scenes the way mothers put together Christmas dinners. It was a macho thing. My manger is bigger than your manger, and so on. But it was all in god fun and it was private, as all displays of religious flamboyance, like sexual flamboyance, should be. That’s conservatism I can live with.

pierre tristam column flaglerlive.com flaglerlive The problem with the Florida Prayer Network is that it wants to be in our face. Cram its crucifix down our throat. So it proposed putting up a nativity scene the size of a small barn in the Florida Capitol, with Christ already in place no less. In our day, not wanting to upstage Mary’s labor pains, we only placed Christ in his bed of hay at midnight on the 24th. It was inaccuracy enough, considering the real birth’s occurrence in the warmer months of the year.

The state Department of Management Services regulates what may and may not be displayed in the Rotunda’s free-speech zones. It could have said no to the boxy nativity scene. It wouldn’t have infringed on the First Amendment. The display is in clear breach of the separation of church and state, to say nothing of its breach of common sense and religious sensibilities that don’t hew to Baby Jesus mythologies. But like the Florida Prayer Network, Gov. Rick Scott likes to stick it to those who don’t see things his way, and use public venues not his own to do it. Scott and the prayer network could have found a zillion other places, all of them extremely public but not on public ground, to advertise their cult. But insecure believers always need to impose. So for the first time in history, a nativity scene went up in the Capitol.

Mel Brooks and Monty Python together couldn’t have scripted what happened next. First came the Festivus pole, a phallic obscenity made of beer cans stacked on top of each other and rising several feet, its obscenity of course being that it was made of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans instead of more spiritually acceptable beer, like something German or monk-brewed-Belgian. The Festivus holiday is one of the great inventions of Larry David—whose existence is argument enough to make Jews of all of us—as part of his Seinfeld creations, which are as good as the gospel of modern American comedy. Since the state had accepted the nativity scene, it couldn’t exactly refuse the Festivus pole. Up the Rotunda’s arcs it went.

“And see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven,” goes the verse in the Old Testament’s closing book, “and pour out so many displays that there will not be room enough to store them.” Sure enough. Next came the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, which set up a mound of thickish sauceless pasta-looking stuff on a rolling red chair and plunked a pair of bug eyes on it to make it look like a monster, though it looks more like something out of Sesame Street. I’ve lost count of the number of displays from atheist organizations that the state had to accept, though the way Rick Scott has been running this state is enough to make you lose faith in all gods, not just those made of spaghetti. Before long the rotunda started looking like an unintentionally elegant homage to the polytheism of the pre-Christian world, a scenery more Herodotus than New Testament.

Finally came the Satanic Temple with its display. To that, the state said no. Go figure. I don’t mean to be flippant, but there was nothing theologically offensive or inaccurate about the display–inasmuch as theology and accuracy can ever be bedfellows–unless you consider certain passages from the Bible offensive. The Satanic Temple’s devilish nativity scene was the recreation of a verse from Luke, the same Luke who gave us the fictions of Bethlehem and the Virgin birth, and another from Isaiah. It shows an angel’s fall from heaven, rendered no less flamboyantly, or vulgarly if you prefer, than the prayer network’s rendition of Luke’s makeshift NICU verses. As I recall Dante’s Inferno owes its existence to Isaiah’s same literary DNA, and no one is proposing to keep Dante from little children’s stockings this season. (We can dream, can’t we?) Anyway, the state called the Satanic Temple’s display “grossly offensive” and banned it.

What until then had been all good fun, a limitless display of what happens when you open the door to religious idiocy while claiming impartiality, immediately showed up the hypocrisy of the thing, not to mention the state’s biblical illiteracy—a crowning irony to the rules of thorns the state couldn’t stick to. The line it drew against the Satanic Temple was discrimination, pure and simple, unless it had been drawn against the prayer network’s nativity scene to start with, as it should have. It’s all or nothing: allow them all, however extreme or “offensive,” or allow none.


Lost in the salad was the purpose of the First Amendment’s establishment clause. It exists not to turn the state into an arbitrator of cults, but the keep the state from playing that sort of god, a game it cannot win without sooner or later taking sides and making an ass of itself, or worse.

The blessing of the First Amendment’s establishment clause, when it’s respected, is that it keeps us from degenerating into state-sponsored sectarian madness (the sort of madness I came from), the sort of madness that’s had that poor Holy Land—the same Holy Land of Hallmark cards and Midnight Mass—soaking in blood because its accursed trinity of Christians, Muslims and Jews haven’t learned in thousands of years what the founders between one tavern trip and another figured out in a matter of weeks in Philadelphia that summer of 1787: that you can believe all you want, anywhere you want, whenever you like. Just leave the state out of it. Even in Bunnell. The state isn’t and never should be in the business of beliefs, whatever they are. Beliefs certainly don’t need the blessings of the state to thrive.

With those 16 words (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) the founders did more for peace on earth than all the words of the Bible, the Koran and other best-selling worship manuals combined. Those 16 words have generally worked out beautifully, except when the likes of our governor want to play Lord and Savior to their favorite religious clique, opening floodgates to imbecility they cannot close. The founders could only contain arrogance, not eliminate it.

The state made a mess of Christmas in the Rotunda. Let’s not make a mess of it here. So let me wish my readers a very merry Christmas and a merrier new year, along with the happiest of holidays under the sun, whatever those may be—as long as you believe responsibly, and choose your beer wisely.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here. A version of this piece was broadcast on WNZF.

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25 Responses for “Before Florida Made an Ass of Christmas, Philadelphia Gave Us a Founding Nativity Scene”

  1. Seinfan says:

    Festivus was not invented by Larry David. It was invented by The Strike episode writer Dan O’Keefe’s father. Larry David left Seinfeld 1.5 years earlier.

  2. Mark says:

    Beware of that little baby he will get you! He will cause the government to rule over your every thought!

  3. Seminole Pride says:

    Pierre, Welcome to the Celebration of Christmas. Florida Style !!

  4. Dolorosa says:

    The Virgin Mary had no labor pains. She is sinless and the Immaculate Conception. God made man, Jesus Christ, was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary but it wasn’t a birth like regular women.

    • Smartazz says:

      That’s a good one, Dolorosa. Now can you tell us the one about the Three Bears? (I love a good fairy tale.)

      • NortonSmitty says:

        I don’t know if it’s really Delarosa’s Religion on display or just great Smirking Sarcasm from her post. Of course, the same could be said about the words of any fundamentalist of any Religion. Except of course the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster ( May we all be touched by His Noodley Appendage) and maybe Buddhism.

        But I think what people really have been fascinated with lo these two millennium isn’t the birth process the Holy Mother went through, but the impregnation. In the back of everyone’s mind all these years is :Jesus Christ, getting screwed by a God, that had to be one hell of an orgasm!”

        Whatever invisible Sky-God you pray to, Happy Holidays and sweet God-Screwing dreams.

  5. Robert H says:

    Pierre,
    Very well put. I like your article ( though you were plenty flippant). Happy Christmas-R

  6. Anonymous says:

    I suppose it would seem inconceivable (no pun intended) to “Dolorosa” that her “explanation” just sounds weird to people not raised in the same belief system as herself. The point is to respect everyone’s right to worship (or not worship) as they choose, WITHOUT infringing on the rights of others around them. If you give too much sway to a group of people who worship in a particular way, you poltically, can no longer hide Thank the Goddess.)

  7. Stardust says:

    I want my ALIEN nativity scene. The one were the extra-terrestrials come down, impregnate the white chick and BOOM…We get a HYBRID HUMAN—-Jesus Christ !!!!

  8. Enlightened says:

    This country was found on religion. Remember “in Gold we trust”? The absence of religion is what is the matter with this country. We Christians are made to bow down to the non-believers even though we are the majority. When are we going to stand up for our rights?

    • Anonymous says:

      @Enlightened says–This country was founded on the basis that human beings should be free…and that includes being free from the tendency of some to demand that others worship as they do, due to their own unfortunate belief that their religion is the one and only one that should matter. THAT egocentric and prejudicial kind of thinking is what leads to wholesale persecution and injustice.

    • Reaganomicon says:

      “In Gold we trust”? What is that, ron paul’s new campaign slogan?

  9. Sherry Epley says:

    Excellent article Pierre! I am a very spiritual person. . . who believes that all religions that advocate peace and love raise the evolution of human civilization and culture.

    However, it is quite clear that there should be NO symbol of any religion or sect displayed on the property of any “government” building, period! The separation of church and state in our constitution mandates this. Why? Too many restrictions to freedoms and even atrocities have been committed throughout the history of the human race, in the name of “MY God is better than YOUR God!’

    Respectfully, religious symbols and teachings need to be kept inside religious properties. In addition, politics should not be preached from the pulpit. We need our religious leaders to “guide” us with lessons of morality that build character, not to tell us which candidate to choose.

  10. ohmy says:

    For the record:

    The Constitution prohibits the “Establishment” of a religion not the display thereof.

    We are a Christian nation regardless of the detractors.

    • Anonymous says:

      @ohmy says–Semantics, semantics! According to your own interpretation of the law, that would mean that anyone should be able to put their religion on display anywhere they choose, however they choose. Thanks for opening the door.

  11. My Daily Rant says:

    People who come here from other countries should leave OUR ways alone, if you don’t like them GO HOME. To all you Liberals remember this country was built on the Christian Faith.Maybe if you had some kind of Faith in something your Daughters wouldn’t be having babies at 16.But always remember
    LIVE AND LET LIVE…..PEACE

    • Pierre Tristam says:

      Daily Ranter, just a friendly reminder that whether you’ve lived in the United States five years or five generations, you have no more right to call this land “yours” than does the immigrant who got her Green Card this morning. You are factually dead wrong about the link between liberalism and teen pregnancies or childbirth, since it’s demonstrably proven that so-called conservative states (or red states, if you prefer) have a higher rate of teen pregnancies than do blue states. Not so coincidentally, there is a direct link between those higher rates and the higher proportion of people who consider themselves driven by faith. No doubt if they focused a little less on faith a bit more on enlightened common sense, they’d be less judgmental about sex, and less likely to be faced with the consequences, though few conservatives can ever be accused of giving a damn about protecting children after they’re born. I might address your equally specious fairy tale about America being built on the Christian faith (if it’s what lies beneath that you’re referring to, the blood and bones of Indians and blacks might sing a few Te Deums to those Christian notions of yours) but it’s Christmas, and it sounds like you need a gift a bit stiffer than a good whiskey.

    • Anonymous says:

      You throw out that garbage and then end “your daily rant” with the word “peace?” Talk about hypocritical! I wonder what Jesus what have to say about “your daily rant!”

    • Out of Curiosity says:

      I wonder if the native Americans felt the that way too…?

  12. Sherry Epley says:

    There is a substantial reason why the next generations are becoming less religious. Read carefully the last part of the excerpt from the following article of Oct 2012 from the PEW Research Center:

    “Nones” on the Rise

    The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling.

    In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).3

    No religious affiliation in America has grown to 19.6%

    This large and growing group of Americans is less religious than the public at large on many conventional measures, including frequency of attendance at religious services and the degree of importance they attach to religion in their lives.

    However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, finds that many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are religious or spiritual in some way. Two-thirds of them say they believe in God (68%). More than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one-in-five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans think that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.

    With few exceptions, though, the unaffiliated say they are not looking for a religion that would be right for them. Overwhelmingly, they think that religious organizations are too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.”

    • Bruce Paulk says:

      Let me tell you a story about a young man who felt the “call” to go into the ministry. I graduated from Seminary shortly after the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. I served for more than 15 years as a chaplain in both a hospital setting and in a state institution for severely mentally disabled persons.

      After my divorce, my “loving church family” and denomination turned their backs on me even though I was not the “cause” of my divorce. I was cast out of my church, my profession, my life. I moved back to Florida to be close to my family and to get a fresh start. I was never able to feel comfortable in any church I visited, ultimately feeling like a different species than the good Christians inhabiting their comfortable little churches.

      I have COMPLETELY rejected any and all organized religions as a complete bastardization of any of the tenets upon which they were founded. If you read the Gospels closely and then observe the actions of today’s Christian churches, you will see the complete disconnect that has happened. And while I came from a Christian background, my studies and research into the belief systems of other major religions do not lead me to believe they fare any better.

      I will take my personal beliefs and spirituality with me to the grave. They are mine. I really don’t care if anyone else shares them; I don’t care to share them with anyone else. They are not better than yours, just as yours are not better than mine.

      The state has no right to force me to “appreciate” any particular variety of religion. Keep the rotunda clean of such displays; it only shows your ignorance. And on a side note, I can’t believe the Satanic Church’s display would have been any more obscene than that of the Florida Prayer Network.

      Thanks Pierre for an enlightening editorial. Keep up the good work.

  13. Dank Mac says:

    It blows my mind that some people don’t have the reading comprehension skills to understand the ideology behind the separation of church and state. Our founding father specifically stated in our founding documents that government would not be dictated or influenced by theological beliefs in any capacity. Dinosaurs will die!

  14. Sherry Epley says:

    Anyone who is not pure blood native American Indian had ancestors who “came here from another country.”

    We should never forget that the ORIGINAL religion/spirituality practiced in this country was one born of the awe and respect for all things in nature and the universe. . . NOT Christianity. Certainly not the Christianity whose “missionaries” condoned the taking of tribal lands and the murder/torture/incarceration of the true Native Americans. All in the name of God?

    While I enjoy the practice of love, peace and fellowship in this season. . . my heart is in pain for all those who are tortured and twisted by their fear and hate of their fellow human beings. . . while they hide behind their shield of any religion.

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