Of all the places for the Savior to be born, God chose not a place of kings, of the wealthy, nor of the powerful. The scene is not even one of comfort, but one which shows that neither worldly power, worldly affluence, or worldly wealth were his interest. It would not be a place a husband would choose for his wife, nor one the pregnant wife would choose for her comfort or the well-being of her child.
Yet we have romanticized the occasion, with lyrics that speak of bright stars above, cattle lowing, the “sweet” head of the Lord Jesus, and “no crying he makes.” For a visible representation of this misapprehension, consider the standard nativity scene. It is to the biblical narrative what the PBS painter guy is to art, with a little bit of a Norman Rockwell nostalgia mixed in.
That nativity scenes have become an annual source of contention is evidence not of vital Christianity but of something gone awry.
Christians lock horns with city councils, with atheists, and litigate to the Supreme Court of the United States, and for what? To put such scenes in public areas next to Santa Claus and perhaps the atheist Spaghetti Monster. Perhaps the common proverb “pick your battles” should have overcome the culture war itch to fight.
But of course there are annual fights, and those fights have led to the development of legal doctrine, so I’ll offer a simplified walk through such a dispute. It begins with the place for a nativity scene. If, for example, a park has been opened for various forms of public expression, it is considered a public forum or a designated public forum. For any such forum, the government is subject to strict scrutiny, meaning it must show a compelling interest in prohibiting speech such as a nativity scene. When the government then opposes the erection of a nativity scene, it offers as a compelling interest the Establishment Clause, under which the government must be neutral among religions, and between religion and non-religion.
(1) whether the government’s predominant purpose was secular;(2) “whether the government action has the purpose or effect of endorsing religion,” and (3) whether the action fosters “an excessive entanglement with religion.”
This analysis will lead to counter-intuitive arguments for supporters of nativity scenes, including arguments that the nativity scene isn’t inherently religious. Then it’s a help to the proponent of the nativity scene if there is a Santa Claus or Spaghetti Monster nearby. As I say, such arguments may seem like odd ones to make in favor of a depiction of the birth of Christ. But, coming full circle to first three paragraphs above, maybe it’s a fitting irony.