Of Haggis And Holidays

Scottish Trip Yields Church-State Wisdom

I don’t travel outside the United States too often, but recently I had a golden opportunity to join my wife Joanne on a two-week trip to Scotland and the Netherlands.

Two things happened the first night in Edinburgh. I had haggis for the first and only time in my life. Then, probably not related to eating haggis, I saw a sign on a city bus that really threw me for a loop. It said, “SAVE XMAS.”

Did this mean that the Fox News Channel had infiltrated Scotland with its phony claims of a “War on Christmas”? And were the Scots buying into this nonsense? But after making some inquiries, I learned that the sign was part of a campaign designed to convince Scots to save funds in reputable banks – this following the collapse of a “savings plan” last year that swallowed up a lot of folks’ holiday money. I was greatly relieved.

But I made another observation about the upcoming holiday. Throughout the country (even on the outer islands accessible only by ferry), bars and restaurants seemed absolutely obsessed with getting people to make reservations immediately for Christmas dinners – yet it wasn’t even Halloween when my wife and I visited!

I noted that virtually any place where you could get a sit-down meal was festooned with huge signs warning that preparations for the holiday period must be made right now – a not very subtle warning that if not, you could end up having to cook for yourself or go hungry. 

It seems the Scots love their Christmas traditions, but, curiously, I had learned from pre-trip reading that only about 17 percent of the populace ever goes to church in this country and none of the “Eat-Here-At-Christmas” promotions ever alluded to any religious significance to the season. Virtually every city had also erected Christmas lights ready to be turned on any day. It was a stunning example of how a message of consumption (literally, in this case) had completely obliterated all theological connections.

The Scottish situation reminded me of a sobering fact about America: The Religious Right carps a lot, but at the end of the day, church-state separation advocates are not a threat to Christmas. Perhaps rampant consumerism is. 

As I have discovered in my perambulations in other places during my tenure with Americans United, church-state conflicts can pop up just about anywhere. On the second day of the visit, I saw an article in a Glasgow newspaper about public schools being offered a chance to include Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the curriculum. A new program was to be announced by American film director David Lynch (“The Elephant Man,” “Blue Velvet” and some very quirky other features) and 1960s folk singer Donovan (you may remember some of his hits like “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and “Mellow Yellow,” or not). 

Lynch has been trying to slip TM into U.S. schools but has so far been rebuffed by sharp-eyed attorneys who have discovered that in 1979, Americans United successfully challenged the use of this technique in New Jersey schools. We argued, successfully, that TM is an offshoot of Hinduism. In America you can believe anything you want, but you can’t foist it on your local school system. In Scotland, there is no First Amendment and so far not many objections seem to have been raised.

A few days later, protests erupted on the anniversary of the legalization of abortion in Scotland. Local papers featured guest columns from ministers on each side of the issue. I noticed that Scottish anti-choice advocates, like their American counterparts, seemed to use nothing but theological rhetoric to justify their positions.

Even during the visits we made to Scottish castles, much of the commentary  focused on the seemingly endless religious wars – protection against which came from the endless construction of fortified buildings. The first conflicts were between Christians and the Picts, creators of gigantic stone pictographs and stone circles, some of which are still preserved around the nation. Later, upon the ascendancy of King James I, tension escalated between Catholics and Protestants.

As we were about to leave for home, I picked up an International Herald Tribune and saw the headline “London Mosque Plans Mired In Controversy.” The story discussed a huge battle in that city to stop construction of a mosque over fears it would “interfere” with the “Christian skyline” of cathedrals and other prominent religious buildings.

It noted as well that similar conflicts were occurring in Belgium, France and Germany. Even nominal Christian majorities have a lot of trouble conceding space to those with new ideas, and again there is no First Amendment to guide respectful resolutions.      

I returned home to celebrate AU’s 60th birthday with a fond recollection that even before I was born (albeit not by many months), some forward-thinking Americans had set up an institution to anticipate some of the struggles an increasingly diverse culture would encounter and to promote the idea that having a government picking one religion over another for favored treatment was not going to be the solution.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.