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Rhode Island 'holiday tree': A pox on Christmas or just the Puritan way?

Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s ‘holiday tree’ is part of a secular ‘War on Christmas,’ critics say. But a peek at the state’s history points to a deep tradition of religious liberty.

By Staff writer / November 28, 2012

People view a nativity scene in Santa Monica, Calif., last year. The city has discontinued the scene after challenges by atheists. Critics say Rhode Island's decision to have a 'holiday tree' fits the same trend of a 'War on Christmas.'

Danny Moloshok/REUTERS/File


Conflating public celebrations with the Christ mass was not how the 17th century New England Puritans rolled – and that twinge of religious discomfort is still evident in the debate over what to call the big spruce with all the pretty lights inside the Rhode Island state capitol in Providence.

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Christmas-boosting protesters crashed the 2011 “holiday tree” lighting in the State House rotunda, but Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the nation’s only independent governor, vowed on Tuesday to press forward with another holiday tree lighting this year.

Fox News, in particular, has zeroed in on Governor Chafee as the latest prosecutor of the “War on Christmas” – shorthand for what many Christians see as a movement by secularists and progressives to diminish America’s religious traditions, specifically Christmas.

To be sure, the question of how to incorporate Christian symbols and celebrations in the public square continues to be an earnest question for many towns, cities, and states. Courts across the country have been busy adjudicating dozens of atheist challenges to Christmas scenes and symbols erected on public land, and Santa Monica, Calif., for one, decided to end its long-time nativity display this year rather than try to referee an argument about whether an atheist should be able to include an anti-God display.

Yet the case of the Rhode Island holiday tree stands in sharp contrast to the secular vs. Christian debate. Indeed, the battle over what to call the State House tree could be better described as one of faith vs. faith – an intra-Protestant battle of neo-Puritan ideals against Evangelical lines in the sand.

Expelled from the rigidly Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony for his religious views in 1636, Roger Williams founded the Providence colony and called for a complete separation of church and state, a brave stance which eventually earned the Ocean State a reputation as a refuge for religious dissidents, particularly Jews and Quakers.


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