Thirteen years ago, when I was editor for my hometown weekly newspaper in Warren, Arkansas, I sat at a conference room table in a bank across from two very proud women.
One was a longtime successful local business owner and the other worked at the bank. Both were members of the local chamber of commerce board, which had just purchased a Nativity Scene with individual life-sized characters intended for annual display on the courthouse square.
A fairly benign interview ensued — the basics of cost, reasons for doing it, etc. — but I ended it with two more critical questions of concern: What if someone steals Baby Jesus (this was Warren after all)?; and what if someone complains to an organization, like the American Civil Liberties Union, about a Nativity Scene being displayed on public property?
To the first, the business owner and project ringleader replied simply, “No one is going to steal the Baby Jesus.” Astonishingly, that’s proven true over the last 13 years.
But with regards to her response to the second question — things akin to “We won’t be intimidated by the ACLU,” “No one will force us to take it down or move it” and “if anyone is offended by celebrating the birth of Jesus, maybe they’re the ones with the problem” — time finally caught up to those assertions and proved them wrong.
The county judge (equivalent to county administrator here but an elected official) for the roughly 11,000-person Bradley County posted a letter to the public on Facebook last week acquiescing to three years’ worth of warnings from the ACLU not to display the Nativity Scene on public property. He received correspondence from the ACLU in 2017 and 2018 but admitted he ignored it. After the third time, he concluded the cost for potential litigation over the issue outweighed any perceived benefits, so the Nativity Scene instead is being displayed on the grounds of First Baptist Church. That church is on Main Street near downtown, so the scene will be just as visible but on private, not public, property.
No one had to destroy it or break it apart. The ACLU didn’t make the town melt the characters down, grind the substance to powder and put it in the water supply. Warren hasn’t suddenly become an apocalyptic wasteland because a purported symbol of collective faith was relocated.
While it would be unfair to say the community outcry against the judge and ACLU is unanimous — many Warrenians fall on the side of America being a nation of laws and the government establishing a religion is very much against those laws — the issue has made statewide news. So far, the clarion call of resistance, hilariously, has been some citizens challenging everyone in town to put a Nativity Scene in their yard to “show the ACLU we won’t be silenced.”
That’ll show ’em, guys. I’m sure the ACLU will be furious when they discover you’ve done exactly what you should have to start with by using your private property to display your individual beliefs.
As a lifelong Southerner, I’m duly exposed to the false arguments of protecting “religious liberty” and “heritage” that spew from the lost cause ilk. Whether it’s a Nativity Scene, prayer in school, a Confederate flag or monument, forcing those symbols to be displayed or practiced in the public square is nothing more than entitled bullying from people who believe their feelings matter more than anyone else’s rights. Instead of actually representing faith or preserving history — as they claim — they morph together the ideas of individual liberty (i.e.-worshiping freely, displaying a Nativity Scene or a Confederate flag in your yard or praying on your own at school, all things that are perfectly legal) and what they believe is a state right to establish and enforce certain cultural traditions.
It’s not meant to be inclusive. It’s meant to be a comfort to those who agree and make those who don’t feel powerless and disenfranchised. It’s meant to attack and offend just as much as it’s meant to rally support. Mostly, it’s meant as a show of dominance by one group over all others “at least around these parts.”
I’m sure you’ve heard, “If you don’t like it, you can leave” from your friendly neighbor either seeking to force his religion down someone’s throat or hide behind a statue of Robert E. Lee. Imagine that same guy yelling that from the courthouse steps every day at people trying to go inside and pay their property taxes. I’m sure that wouldn’t go over nearly as well, but implicitly, that’s all these types of monument displays ever really are.
Equality or freedom of speech? It’s not about those things either, because, for a lot of these folks, the road doesn’t run both ways. Very often, the “We can, and you can’t stop us. But you can’t, and we will stop you” aspect comes through loud and clear. It’s about fighting the thing they hate by forcing others to look at things they might hate.
Need proof? Let’s ask the people who keep shooting the Emmett Till sign how they feel about removing Nativity Scenes or Confederate monuments from public spaces.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.