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Jewish World Review Dec. 9, 2004 / 26 Kislev, 5765

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Consumer Reports

Now, the Theophobes | This year, the Theophobes went too far: They chased the Salvation Army away from Target, banned "Merry Christmas" at Macy's, denied Christians a place in Denver's "Parade of Lights," booted fifth and sixth-grade carolers from San Francisco's Union Square, and eliminated the Declaration of Independence from the history curriculum at Stevens Creek Elementary School in Cupertino, Calif.

It is hard to imagine a more telling batch of secular idiocies.

Target, the single largest collection source last year for Salvation Army donations — $9 million out of the $90 million taken in during the Christmas season — decided to push out solicitors so as not to give offense to the miserly. In being solicitous of Scrooge, however, Target may have reaped a retail whirlwind.

Meanwhile, Macy's — the store celebrated in "Miracle on 34th St." and famed for concluding its Thanksgiving Day Parade with an appearance by Santa Claus himself, has instructed employees to abandon "Merry Christmas" and replace the salutation with the blander, "Happy Holidays." Panjandrums from the chain's owner, Federated Department Stores, say they have left chipper greetings to various stores and employees, but employees disagree — at least anecdotally.

Next on the bah-humbug bandwagon, Denver, where Mayor John Hickenlooper flirted with the idea of removing from city hall an old "Merry Christmas" banner in lieu of a "Happy Holidays" greeting until enraged voters gave him the what-for. He sheepishly reversed course.

A similar ban-and-back-off fate awaits organizers of the 30-year-old Parade of Lights, which this year rejected a float from the Faith Bible Chapel (story requires registration) because it not only wished onlookers a Merry Christmas, but also threatened to treat bystanders to — are you ready? — Christmas carols! Meanwhile, a float featuring gay, lesbian, transsexual and bi-sexual American Indians - and describing them as "holy" figures — did make the cut.

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And last, but not least, keep an eye on the case of Williams v. Cupertino. Fifth Grade Teacher Steven Williams of Cupertino, Calif. has filed a religious discrimination suit against Patricia Vidmar, principal of Stevens Creek Elementary School, along with the schools superintendent and the school board.

In a refreshing departure from recent First Amendment jurisprudence, Williams has not demanded the luxury of worshipping a witch, beast, fowl or inanimate object. Nor does he insist on transforming local nativity scenes into art junkyards littered with gewgaws, gadgets and toys. He just wants his history students to know that America's founders considered religious faith important. This seems unobjectionable, but his school principal actually forbade his distributing to students excerpts from such documents as the Declaration of Independence, diaries of George Washington and John Adams, early state constitutions, a sermon on "the rights of colonists" by Samuel Adams, and writings by William Penn and others.

The principal and teacher first crossed swords last year after a student asked about the provenance of the phrase "under G-d" in the Pledge of Allegiance. Williams handed out the 1954 Congressional Resolution that led to the insertion of the two words, whereupon a parent called to complain. The tempest seemed to pass but not for long. Williams continued teaching required material such as the Declaration of Independence and the religious revivals known as the Great Awakenings. But Principal Vidmar blew the whistle when the teacher tried to discuss Easter.

My guess is that Williams, a devout Christian, discovered (by design or happenstance) how to get under Vidmar's skin. Along the way, he passed out a couple of documents that one might construe as mildly proselytic: One lists quotes about the Bible — mostly from great American figures — but also includes Jesus' observation: "It is written, man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of G-d." (The other chronicles the use of "In G-d We Trust" on U.S. currency.) Whatever the circumstances, the principal overreacted and started outlawing anything that mentioned G-d or Christianity.

This approach would force students to study American history without consulting the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, every inaugural address, the bulk of writings by America's founders and much more.

Taken to further extremes, it would deprive Stevens Creek students knowledge of the Roman Empire from Constantine on, the Crusades, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, most of the greatest artwork before the 20th Century, the oevre of English-language authors from Chaucer through Eliot (C.S. Lewis no doubt is strictly forbidden!), and the musings of great scientists who to this day puzzle over the existence of G-d. The result: a curriculum that ignores the substance of history and reduces the textbook to a sketch pad — an assemblage of empty pages, which the children may fill with scribbles, scratches and inventions. Worse, the school's chief administrator, far from erecting a wall of separation between church and state, has put up an even more impervious wall of separation between students and knowledge.

Setting aside the legal merits of the case, it's clear Steve Williams has become the latest victim of Theophobia — the absolute, frenetic, run-away-from-G-dzilla panic that afflicts some people when they hear the "G" word. The Supreme Court spread the contagion through a series of bumbling and incoherent First Amendment cases, and the plague has ripped through the nation's intellectual elites, most of whom equate religious expression to fascist incitement.

That's a curious twist, since the only thing protecting the American political system from fascism is religion itself. Here's why: faith supplies the essential ingredient for individual liberty — and that ingredient is virtue. If people can agree upon basic moral precepts, they don't have to waste time watching their backs for Hobbesian treachery; they can proceed with some confidence that their persons, property and lawful actions are safe from assault.

To put it in another way, when societies drive out G-d, somebody always moves swiftly to fill the vacuum — and that somebody inevitably is a person or government that attempts to exercise irrevocable authority over its "flock." It is no accident that Hitler, Lenin, Pol Pot and other butchers of note took special pains early in their despotic careers to suppress religion and undermine the traditional family.

Theophobes would find such a characterization truly horrifying, but it's true. This explains why theophobia — while popular in faculty lounges, journalism seminars and Hollywood bacchanals — has not and probably never will attract a public following of any appreciable influence or size.

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