The Gift of ChristmasJENNIFER ROBACK MORSE
Dear Concerned Citizen:
Material comfort does not satisfy the deepest longings of the human heart. This might sound strange coming from the lips of a libertarian economist from the Hoover Institution at Stanford. But we all know it, especially at Christmas, because most of us have at least a vague dissatisfaction with the commercialism of the season.
curious question is, why would we even be tempted to think that money and material
goods are everything? Particularly at Christmastime, we wonder how we get so caught
up in it all.
Here is a part of the answer: we don't allow ourselves to speak
in public about the things that really do satisfy the deepest longings of the
human heart. Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going? What do we stand
for? What won't we stand for? These are fundamentally religious and theological
questions. The Western world has developed a reticence about discussing these
topics since the Reformation.
One theological principle of the Reformation
was that "every man is his own interpreter of scripture," or "every man is his
own pope." This idea was crucial to many of the more anti-hierarchiacal forms
of Protestantism. But today, we are living with one of its cultural corollaries:
namely, you can't argue with anybody's interpretation of Scripture, and by extension,
anybody's interpretation of what is moral. Anyone who thinks he has an inside
line on the Truth with a capital T, is accused of trying to reopen the Thirty
This idea, of course, does not follow logically from the theological
proposition that every person is entitled to interpret Scripture for himself.
Nothing in the idea of individual interpretation says that every interpretation
is equally correct. Nor does it preclude a vigorous debate about competing interpretations
of Scripture and ideas about morality. In fact, many of the great thinkers of
the post-Reformation, modern world argued that open debate about ideas would improve
everyone's understanding of religious truth.
However, this is the position
to which we have evolved in modern America. We aren't allowed to say out loud
that God has anything to do with the moral law. It is considered bad manners,
and a sign of arrogance to even make this suggestion. In parts of the country,
it is even considered poor taste to wish someone a Merry Christmas. We are supposed
to say, "Happy Holiday," as if we had no idea what that holiday might be.
This leaves us with nothing to say about the questions that matter most.
We aren't allowed to say that going to heaven or doing God's will is our purpose
in life, since not everyone agrees with that. People have talked themselves into
believing that even bringing up the subject is to take the first step toward a
Crusade to force people to want to go to heaven. So, we are only allowed to talk
about the lowest common denominator of human purposes: the seeking of pleasure
and the avoidance of pain. Surely everyone can agree on these things at least.
We all want to be more comfortable, live longer, and endure less suffering. Of
course, some religious traditions place limits on those goals. There are higher
reasons for which one would be willing to sacrifice one's life, health, and comfort.
But, being religious reasons, we don't talk about those in public either.
So what is left? Only the material. Most Americans are quite religious. But
because we don't have permission to talk about it in public, we end up talking
only about money and comfort in public. Since we aren't allowed to "keep Christ
in Christmas," all we have left is an extended binge of spending and eating.
I believe that this is part of the West's Public Relations problem. Other
people see only what we talk about in public, which is money and comfort. This
is the sort of thing that makes the Muslim world think we are the great Satan.
I also think it is part of Capitalism's Public Relations problem. Capitalism doesn't
present itself as a substitute religion, claiming that material comfort will provide
purpose and meaning to one's life. But with religion pushed out of the public
square, commerce fills in the blanks. This may be why so many children of well-to-do,
but not particularly religious parents, deride American society as nothing but
Who are we? Why are we here and where are we going?
What do we stand for? What won't we stand for? These questions do not simply disappear,
even if everyone supports a tacit agreement that it is bad manners to talk about
them in public. The American Religion of Perpetual Progress can not adequately
answer these questions. We would be better off if we could get over our fear of
religion. Then we could allow religion to do what religion does, namely, help
people to face life's biggest questions.
So go ahead and enjoy this Christmas
season without apology. Send religious Christmas cards instead of generic "Holiday
greetings." Wish your friends a Merry Christmas. And display your own nativity
set proudly on your own property.
God bless us every one.
Jennifer Roback Morse. "Leaving Children Behind." Acton.org
(December 23, 2002).
This article appeared on Acton.org, a production
of the Acton Institute (161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503), and
is reprinted with permission.
Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., brings a unique perspective to the subjects of love, marriage, sexuality, and the family. A committed career woman before having children, she taught economics for fifteen years at Yale and George Mason University. She and her husband adopted a two-year-old Romanian boy in 1991, the same year she gave birth to a baby girl. Dr. Morse left full-time university teaching in 1996 to move with her family to California. She has been associated with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and is now a Research Fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. She is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World and Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work. In addition to caring for their own two children, Dr. Morse and her husband are foster parents for San Diego County. Visit her web site here.
originally appeared in the December 18, 2002, issue of the Tothesource.
Adapted and reprinted with permission.
Copyright © 2002