The holiday greetings debate, round II

The Thanksgiving leftovers have been eaten or thrown out.

Christmas music is playing on an endless loop in many retail establishments.

It must be that time of the year — when people of good will agree to disagree over what is a proper and meaningful holiday greeting. It’s the longtime champion (and still wildly popular) “Merry Christmas” vs. the young PC upstart with a tiny fan base “Happy Holidays.”

I got a press release from a Christian shopping website called “”: that promises “ welcomes you with a Merry Christmas, rarely heard in today’s retail world.”

My colleague James Walsh has an “article”: in today’s Journal News/ about a woman at St. Boniface Church in Wesley Hills who is distributing lapel buttons that say “It’s OK to Say Merry Christmas to Me.” The buttons are a project of Catholic Daughters of America Court John Paul II, a group of 161 women from Rockland County parishes.

The group has gotten orders for the buttons from across the country.

Fox News promoted the greetings debate last year like Don King would a championship fight. It seemed to strike a chord with folks who were already concerned about how Christmas is acknowledged during the holiday season.

For years, of course, schools and other public facilities have wrestled with how to acknowledge the holidays without playing favorites. If you ask me, the most interesting question that public facilities are facing these days is whether to replace Christmas trees with nativity scenes, as many Christians want.

I plan to write about this question soon.

Airport “pray in” planned

An update on the six imams who get pulled from a US Airways flight early this week, handcuffed and detained because of “suspicious behavior:”

One of the imams, Omar Shahin, will join other religious leaders for a “pray in”: on Monday morning at the US Airways ticket counter at Washington’s Reagan National Airport.

Participants will include Imam Mahdi Bray, head of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, the Rev. Graylan Hagler of the United Church of Christ, and Hillary Shelton of the NAACP.

The group will take part in public prayer and apparently depart on a flight together.

The six imams were supposedly detained after praying at an airport terminal in Minnesota before planning to board a plane.

More on America’s “influentials”

I blogged Wednesday about the Atlantic Monthly’s new list of the “100 most influential Americans of all time.”: I noted that six religious figures made the list: Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, Mary Baker Eddy, Jonathan Edwards and Lyman Beecher.

At the time, I had only seen the list. Now I have the magazine in hand (Lincoln, numero uno, is on the cover). There are a number of interesting observations and notes inside, including:

— Two Catholic leaders got two votes each, but didn’t make the top 100. They were John Çarroll, America’s first Catholic bishop, and Fulton Sheen, whose TV ministry during the 1950s made him the nation’s first truly national Catholic figure.

— The only Catholics to make the top 100 were Babe Ruth, Louis Armstrong and James Gordon Bennett.

— The only rabbi to receive votes was Solomon Schechter, who built the Conservative Jewish movement.

— Billy Graham got a few votes, finishing 11th among living influential figures, but not making the top 100.

— Other Protestants who got votes were Francis Asbury, a Methodist and early evangelical in the “pounding the pavement” sense (think Asbury Park, N.J.); Evangeline Booth, the first female general of the Salvation Army; and William Seymour, who believed that modern-day Christians could speak in tongues and helped set off the Pentecostal movement that is sweeping the world.

The Atlantic chose 10 prominent historians to serve as the magazine’s panel and build the list (Doris Kearns Goodwin, John Steele Gordon, Gordon S. Wood, etc.). Among them was Mark Noll, America’s leading historian of evangelical Christianity and a professor at Notre Dame.

Clergy call out parents, then lay hands

I attended a very moving service last night put on by the Interfaith Clergy Association of Yorktown.

The group used their annual Thanksgiving service to focus on a series of tragedies involving teenagers this past September. On three consecutive days, teens died in a speeding-related car crash, in a knife fight and in a drunk-driving accident.

The point that the clergy group wanted to make — and it can be difficult for people to hear — is that parents too often let their kids down by overlooking or even condoning dangerous behaviors (under-age drinking and joyriding with friends being among the most common).

About 250 people attended the interfaith service at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Shrub Oak. That’s a big crowd for these kinds of services, especially when everyone is busy getting read for turkey day.

The Rev. Claire Woodley-Aitchison, rector of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Mohegan Lake, gave the homily. She’s a very bright person and an engaging speaker, someone who doesn’t hold back and really speaks from the heart.

She challenged those in the church to face the negative influences that come into their homes — the stresses that separate loved ones, the over-competitiveness that drives suburban families, the willingness too many parents have to look the other way at cheating and dangerous behaviors. She called these influences “sins.”

Then she asked everyone who had lost a child — or even been hurt by damaged family relationships — to gather together in the middle of the church. She asked everyone else to lean toward the center and to “lay their hands” on the person next to them or someone in the middle huddle.

Now, this was a Catholic Church. I saw some senior Catholic ladies look at each other like they had just been told to stand on their heads. Woodley-Aitchison must have seen the same thing, because she acknowledged that Catholics were being asked to do something quite foreign to them. “You don’t do that in church!” she said. Many people laughed.

In the end, several dozen people gathered together in front of the altar for prayer. Everyone else leaned in and placed their hands on the group or someone close by. Monsignor Thomas Sandi, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, stood outside the huddle and placed his hand on a layperson in front of him. He offered one of the loudest “amens” when the prayer was concluded.

I bet a lot of people went home and hugged their kids.

America’s most influential religious figures?

The “Atlantic Monthly,”: one of my favorite magazines, lists the “100 most influential Americans of all time”:  in their December issue.

Sure, you can argue with a lot of selections. But that’s the fun part of lists.

The top five include no surprises: Lincoln, Washington, Jefferson, FDR and Hamilton.

But the list also includes a number of religious figures. Among them:

Number 8: Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideals were driven by his Baptist faith.

Number 52: Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon Church, easily America’s most successful home-grown faith.

Number 74: Brigham Young, who led the Mormons out west.

Number 86: Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science.

Number 90: Jonathan Edwards, perhaps the most influential theologian in the early days of the nation.

Number 91: Lyman Beecher, a clergyman abolitionist and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s father.

It’s easy to get picky. Two Mormons and no Catholic leaders, even though 1 in 4 Americans are Catholic? But which Catholic figure should make the list? An early bishop? Cardinal Francis Spellman, who practically ran NYC? Archbishop Fulton Sheen, the first Catholic that many Americans ever met?

And where’s Billy Graham, for half a century the most influential evangelical leader in a country that is largely defined by its evangelical culture? 

There’s no end to the second-guessing…and third-guessing…and on and on.

One more thing on Minneapolis

One note to my previous post on the alleged bias incident at the Minneapolis airport…

The first Muslim elected to Congress will represent — you guessed it — Minnesota’s fifth district. Keith Ellison, a Democrat, was just elected by a 2-to-1 margin.

Groups claim “flying while Muslim” incident

American Muslim groups are furious that six imams were removed Monday evening from a US Airways flight leaving Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

This incident may have some staying power.

The “Muslim American Society”: and the “Council for American-Islamic Relations”: say the imams — prayer leaders — were handcuffed and questioned for hours because of “suspicious activity.”

The groups say that the suspicious activity may have been the carrying out of normal evening prayers in the airport before the imams boarded the flight.

US Airways released this “statement”: today:

“We are aware of the situation involving six customers on US Airways Flight 300 from Minneapolis to Phoenix last evening, and are diligently conducting our own investigation today. We are debriefing crewmembers and ground personnel as well as working with local law enforcement. We will cooperate fully with all of the appropriate law enforcement officials to determine the facts surrounding the incident last evening.

“We are always concerned when passengers are inconvenienced and especially concerned when a situation occurs that causes customers to feel their dignity was compromised. We do not tolerate discrimination of any kind and will continue to exhaust our internal investigation until we know the facts of this case and can provide answers for the employees and customers involved in this incident.”

Imam Mahdi Bray, head of the Muslim American Society Freedom Foundation, said this:

“These religious men had already gone through the airport security screening, like all other passengers on the aircraft. The fact that some of them chose to openly pray did not warrant, by any means, their removal from the plane.

“Last time I checked public prayer was still protected by the U.S. constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion and speech. We charge the airline with not only discrimination, but with an action that is insulting and demeaning to these Muslim religious leaders, and to all people of faith.”

He said the imams were leaving a religious conference in Minnesota.

His group is calling for a congressional investigation.

I guess “On Religion” was taken

Newsweek and the Washington Post have started a new on-line religion forum called “On Faith.”: It’s worth checking out.

It’s billed as a “conversation on religion” with Jon Meacham and Sally Quinn. Meacham is managing editor of Newsweek and author of the recent “American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers and the Making of a Nation.” Quinn has long been one of the Post’s most celebrated writers. 

They’re a formidable duo, no doubt.

It works like this: They ask a question about faith. Then a few people from an all-star “panel of experts”:  weigh in. Then the public can comment.

The question that’s up this morning is this: “If some religious people believe they have a monopoly on truth, then are conversation and common ground possible? If so, what would be the difficulties and benefits of such a conversation?”

Among the panelists answering are Elaine Pagels, who has written several best-selling books about early Christianity, and Imam Zaid Shakir, a prominent American-born Muslim educator working in Hayward, Calif.

It’s good, thought-provoking stuff.

Reflecting on tragedy at Thanksgiving

The Journal News/ ran an intriguing “community view”: column on Friday from the Interfaith Clergy Association of Yorktown.

The group, like other interfaith groups in the region, has an annual Thanksgiving service. This year, the Yorktown clergy decided to focus the service, which is tomorrow night (Tuesday the 21st), on a rash of tragedies that have hit the Yorktown area.

The tragedies have become all too common in the suburbs: drunk driving accidents; teen driving accidents, usually of the high-speed variety; and youth-on-youth violence.

The clergy group put it this way:

“Over the last year alone, almost every community can speak of its loss of beloved children. We see the grim waste of youth and potential life sacrificed to alcohol, cars, guns, knives and rage. We have adults who refuse to grow up and children who see adulthood as untrammeled satisfaction of the self. We hear of the dark dreaming of isolated youth wreaking revenge on other children and their teachers and dread to hear where the next school shooting will take place. We are aghast at the heartless, inhuman carelessness for life and community. How close to home this time?

“None of us can say: Those things can’t happen here. How did it come to this? We shake our heads and go to work, to school. Our anger subsides into personal, sentimental reverie. We grieve but do not change and hold our breath waiting for the next calamity. We are not free; we are shackled by assumptions and behaviors that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Alone in our houses of luxury we feel helpless. In the land of plenty our hearts feel empty.”

The group will hold the special service at “St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church”: in Shrub Oak at 8 p.m.

Of course, acknowledging a run of tragedies is easy. They seem to be on the front page of the paper every other day. But what to do about them?

The clergy suggested:

“This year we will take the time together to seek the face of God, to own our own piece of this wave of destruction and repent of our actions and inaction. This year we will begin a public, interfaith process of covenanting, of defining and committing, to the spiritual, moral and ethical living and teaching that will turn the hearts of the parents back to the children and the hearts of the children back to the parents.”

Finally, the group asks their fellow interfaith groups across the Lower Hudson Valley to make a similar commitment:

“We are the land of opportunity; let us seize this day, this year, this time, and this 2006 Thanksgiving opportunity to come together in solemn assembly. Let us take this time to reshape our communities where we are all free to live strong lives of integrity and fortitude. Let it start now, and let it start with us.”