I've been extremely lax about posting lately, despite the fact that there are lots of bright shiny factoids in the news lately that I could riff on. My excuse is that I've been working on a book, about the "War on Christmas" and larger "Culture War" that Fox News et al. keep trying to foist on the American people. Will it be published? Heck if I know. I'm just writing it, based on a few tea leaves suggesting it might have a chance.
Here, to keep the blog alive, as a sort of personal diary, and as a teaser for the book, is a very rough draft of the first part of the Preface (not the whole thing). It will change; it may be abandoned altogether and replaced with a different approach; but it's what I've got on paper at present. I'm open to any constructive feedback.
As I sit and write this Preface on a stormy Monday afternoon, my mind keeps returning to last weekend, which I spent with my two daughters, ages 10 and 12, at a beautiful National Forest campground on the Oregon coast. Just my daughters, me -- and about 150 of their fellow Girl Scouts, other parents and troop leaders, at the annual Girl Scout Camporee.
The weather was uncharacteristically cooperative for Spring in Oregon: just warm enough, just dry enough, the dragonfly-sized mosquitos present but not yet in full force. The kids were delightful: enthusiastic, inquisitive, energetic (!), and silly. The other adults were a joy to be around: all of them committed to their families, overjoyed to be spending time with their children, committed to helping all the scouts learn to be stronger people and better citizens, both by teaching and by example. Everyone pitched in selflessly: adults drove carpools at their own expense; everyone worked together to haul luggage from the cars to the various campsites several hundred yards away; older Juniors and Cadettes helped teach and care for the little first-grade Daisies on their first Camporee. After meals, everyone cleared their dishes, wiped their tables and swept the dining hall floor. On Saturday, all the girls rotated, by troops, through different educational stations. One father from my girls’ troop, an experienced rock climber who used to live near Yosemite, rigged a (low-to-the-ground) slack line for the girls to walk across and a “zip line” where they could hang from a pulley and zoom on a wire between two trees. Other parents taught the scouts how to set up different kinds of tents and improvise shelters from tarps and tree branches. Since I’m a search and rescue volunteer and a certified Wilderness First Responder, I taught the girls basic first aid and survival skills, including how to apply pressure to a cut to stop the bleeding, how to improvise first aid tools from ordinary materials (for instance, making an Ace-type bandage by cutting a T-shirt in a long spiral), and how to recognize and help a friend who might be showing early signs of hypothermia (they were VERY pleased to learn that chocolate is part of my recommended treatment!). The girls also went swimming, boating, and put on a series of skits to entertain us all. During the skits, one troop of very young girls parodied my first aid instruction: “Today we learned to respond to emergencies calmly. This was a test of the Troop 157 emergency response system. Had this been an actual emergency, it would have sounded like this: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHH!”, with much running around and screaming.)
It was, in other words, a wonderful, cooperative, healthy, moral, family-oriented, community-oriented, all-American weekend.
“Great!” I can hear you say, “but what does this have to do with Christmas?”
The answer is, it has nothing to do with Christmas -- but it has everything to do with how Americans should respond to the “War on Christmas” and “War on Christians” that we hear more and more about every year. My daughters’ Camporee was a perfect example of how Americans can work together despite their superficial differences, and how the whole community benefits when we do. Whether you believe there’s a War On Christmas, or whether you believe it’s a deception being practiced by political manipulators, the solution is the same: act more like the Girl Scouts and their parents on that Camporee.
Some of the girls at the Camporee were white; some were Asian; some were African-American. Some were athletic and self-confident and handled the physical challenges with ease; others were less sure of themselves, more gangly, more fearful. Some of the girls (mine included, thankfully) come from intact families; others have divorced parents; others’ parents were never married in the first place but still share parenting duties and love their kids. My wife stayed home while I went; some husbands stayed home while their wives went; some couples both attended; in at least one instance both divorced parents came, setting aside their differences for the good of their child. I know, from my involvement with the Scouts for the past few years, that most of the girls’ families (including mine) are Christian, but that one word covers a lot of territory: some of those Scouts’ families are theologically conservative, others theologically liberal, all under that “Christian” banner. Other families were Jewish, Unitarian, atheist, agnostic, Buddhist, “I believe in some sort of God but don’t belong to any religion” Deists -- and mixed. Most of the parents were straight; at least a couple (and probably more than a couple) were gay or lesbian. It didn’t matter. We didn’t debate religion or discuss our sexuality around the campfire after the kids went to bed; we laughed and told funny stories about the day and praised each others’ kids. We didn’t speak of family values; we all were there living them, boots-on-the-ground.
Here in Western Oregon, there are more political liberals than political conservatives (though not by as large a margin as some people might think; in 2004, Kerry won Oregon by only 4%). Some of the parents were Republican conservatives, as you might expect whenever families and Scouts and camping and volunteering are involved; I also know that many of the parents were Democrats who oppose most of the current Administration’s policies, including the war in Iraq. Yet everyone there was an American, and every night and every morning of Camporee we held a flag ceremony. The older scouts formed an honor guard, raised and lowered the flag according to correct protocol, and everyone, liberals and conservatives alike, held their hand or their hat over their heart and reverently recited the Pledge of Allegiance.
Before meals, one of the leaders would lead everyone in saying grace, but using words that gave thanks without saying exactly who or what we were saying thanks to; simply showing gratitude, and knowing in our own hearts who we were grateful to, was more than enough. The children from religious homes didn’t need to be told it was God they were thanking, and the children from non-religious homes were taught both that gratitude is an appropriate response to all the good things we are given, and that it’s normal and proper for people to give thanks -- in other words, they were both taught and shown tolerance.
There was no cross anywhere in that federal camp, and no Christian prayer or ceremony, but neither was there anything that seemed un-Christian. There was more than enough goodwill and self-sacrifice and love in that place to remind my children and me of God’s obvious presence, without having to be reminded. One time when I saw my daughters laughing with a group of children, and another time after kissing my daughters goodnight (Girl Scouts aren’t embarrassed to kiss their fathers in front of their friends!), I felt overcome by a sense of joy and gratitude and simply, impulsively bowed my head and quietly said thanks to God. I didn’t advertise it, and I don’t know or care whether anyone saw me praying or not; I wasn’t proving a point like a wide receiver dropping showily to a knee in the end zone; I just felt comfortable and did it.
My family and I didn’t need anything overtly “Christian” or “straight” or “married” or anything else to make us feel like we belonged in that place. If there had been more overt Christian prayers or symbols, I wouldn’t have been any happier, or felt more comfortable. And I would have been tremendously upset -- I think everyone there would have been upset -- had someone else acted in a way that highlighted Christianity or heterosexuality or marriage or anything else in a way that made those who weren’t Christian, straight, married, or anything else feel like they DIDN’T belong; for instance, if someone had tried to erect a cross at the flag ceremony, I think all of us -- including Christians -- would have objected. We all were Americans; we all (even the fathers!) were Girl Scouts; we all knew in our own hearts how we felt about God and our families and our nation; we all belonged in that community. That was enough. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
This book will address many things -- the history of Christmas in America, the swirling dynamics of faith and politics, the complicated and carefully-wrought system of laws that tries to accommodate the sometimes-conflicting Constitutional rights of freedom of religion and freedom from religion -- but in the end, I really just want to ask my readers a simple question: What if America could be like a Girl Scout Camporee on a beautiful weekend in May on the Oregon coast?
What if America could emphasize the things that matter to all of us -- our children and our community and our respect for each other and our need to work together -- instead of worrying about the things that make us different? What if, in our National Forest campgrounds and dining halls and our other shared places, we all focused on the work that needed to be done, the luggage-hauling and dish-clearing and floor-sweeping, instead of looking sideways and complaining that someone else wasn’t, in our opinion, doing their fair share? What if we all felt moved to be thankful without having to argue about which God we’re being thankful to, all helped teach each other’s children without caring whether their parents are different than we are, all loved and served our nation and respected its fundamental principles no matter how much we disagreed about the political brouhaha of the day?
What would a Girl Scout Camporee Christmas look like?
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