The Grinch dive-bombs Pitman, N.J.; James Madison winces

Oh, hell, it’s Christmastime, so they’re at it again.

The war on Christmas warriors.

By that I mean both those who overreact to expressions of religious faith – and those who overreact to the overreactions.

Neither side could find the real meaning of the First Amendment if we gave them a GPS with James Madison calling out the directions.

This week’s nationally noticed flap takes place right in our area, in little Pitman, N.J., where for the umpteenth year in a row the Catholic Knights of Columbus hoisted a banner across the town’s main drag urging one and all to “Keep Christ in Christmas.”

Like Pavlov’s dog, the Freedom from Religion Foundation up in chilly Wisconsin reacted.

It sent the town’s mayor a letter calling this banner an affront to the First Amendment that must be taken down.

I have little patience for the humor-starved militancy of some atheists. Still, I admit the foundation might have had a point – if only it had been right in assuming the town government had put the banner up on public property.

But the banner is private property, attached to a building and a pole that are private property. (That the town’s volunteer fire company lifted the banner into place does complicate things.)

Seems to me, in a close call, the banner should stay.

I say this not because I’m Christian, though I am. Not because I love Christmas, though I do. And certainly not because I think this is a Christian nation; I emphatically don’t.   I also have no patience for the silly nattering about a supposed “war on Christmas.”

But in these questions of First Amendment law, the details – who exactly did what, when and in what context? – do matter, fussy as they may seem.

Here’s the bigger point, so often ignored by the sour atheists who imagine they have some right to be free of all mention of God.

The First Amendment is only about what government, not private citizens, may do to promote a religious view or limit its exercise. It does not require that God be scoured from public life. In fact, the amendment implicitly assumes that faith will be a lively and contested part of our lives together.

What does “faith” mean anyhow? How is this for a working definition?: A position on the existence of God, and the moral consequences of that position, which extends beyond the knowable facts.

When you think about it, by that definition, atheism, too, is a faith. I know that will make some heads explode.

But to say God doesn’t exist is to take a position on the central question of faith that is as unprovable as the Nicene Creed. Call atheism a faith, or call it an anti-faith, under the First Amendment atheism has no more right to be privileged by government, to be taken as the norm, than Lutheranism does.

The Founders’ wisdom lay in insisting that, in dealing with religion, government be rigorously even-handed, never giving an advantage to one sect (whether it be Buddhism or atheism) over another – because as Madison and the rest well knew, that way lies strife, tyranny, bloodshed and madness.

That’s wisdom worth celebrating, at Christmas and throughout the year.

Ho, ho, ho!

On that note, let me conclude with this wish:   For those of you who observe the day, may you have a merry, mellow and (if you choose) holy Christmas.  For those who do not observe Christmas, my wish is that those of us who do celebrate the day will take time to offer you some gesture of fellowship or kindness that makes the whole overdone mess seem worthwhile.

Hitch in heaven – hilarious

It’s hard on this day to post an essay about atheism without noting the passing of the most eloquent, pungent and bravest atheist of them all, Christopher Hitchens.  While his militant bashing of religious faith exasperated, I always found Hitch to be one of the smartest, bravest, most relentlessly entertaining journalists that our craft has ever offered up to the world.

He was cantankerous, excessive, sometimes cruel – but he was never cowardly, never captive to political cant, and never dull.

And, in a busy, productive and all-over-the-map career, he did one thing that, even if he had never written anything else, deserves our undying admiration.

When, during the Iraq War, the debate over waterboarding – was it torture? was it ever justified? – was raging, Hitch did something no other journalist did, certainly none of the smug Georgetown think-tank polemicists who spewed forth clouds of words justifying whatever the Bush Administration got it into its head to do.

He had himself waterboarded.

He suffered that awful experience, while deep into middle age.  Just so he would know.

So his condemnation of the practice as torture had irrefutable authority – bolstered by the fact that he’d never been one of those fuzzy thinkers who thought we could somehow wish away the historic brutality of Saddam Hussein and not be morally complicit in it.

Hitch, you will be missed.

I smile contemplating that little chat you must just have had with St. Peter.  In my concept of a merciful God, one with a well-developed sense of humor, I think you’re probably in heaven right now.  Because nothing would punish you more than finding out that you were so, so wrong about the Almighty.  Relax, Hitch, you might find, as eternity rumbles along, some things to like about The Guy.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.