Ocean State: O Holiday Tree

photo by Stephen Jones

by John Perilli

Another year, another war on Christmas. What have we learned this time? For the second year in a row, Gov. Lincoln Chafee drew scorn from the religious community for his insistence on naming the State House decorative fir a “holiday tree.” This year, he was even called out on national television by Bill O’Reilly and he took to FOX News to defend his choices. It wasn’t just the conservative sirens getting on Chafee’s case, either. Catholic schools, local parishes, and the Bishop of Providence himself joined the criticism bandwagon as well this holiday season.

Some Rhode Islanders have taken the holiday tree issue to heart, while others dismiss it as a trifle compared to the more pressing social and economic problems our state faces. The latter group points out our poverty rate, around 14.7 percent; our unemployment rate, which rests at 10.5 percent; and the recent 24/7 Wall Street study that ranked us as the 49th worst managed state in the country. They certainly have a strong point.

However, even if the holiday tree is a non-issue, it is still quite a telling one. It reveals more about our attitudes towards religion and government than we’d care to consider.

The holiday tree has been a Rhode Island tradition since as early as 1995, when then-Gov. Lincoln Almond hosted a “State House Holiday Celebration” complete with a tree-lighting ceremony. This festival continued through the rest of the Almond administration and for the entirety of Gov. Don Carcieri’s eight-year tenure without undue conflict.

Then in 2011, Rep. Doreen Costa (R-North Kingstown) decided to set the coals alight. She tore into newly elected Gov. Chafee for being a “grinch,” and inspired a group of protesters to interrupt the State House tree lighting with a raucous rendition of “O Christmas Tree.” That opened Pandora’s box, and the issue has refused to die since. Trying to avoid a repeat of the controversy, Chafee gave extremely short notice for the 2012 ceremony. This, if anything, made people even angrier, and conservative doomsayers still decried the “secular humanist” plot to remove Christ from Christmas.

According to sociologist Phil Zuckerman (as referenced in a recent Salon.com article by Daniel Denvir), secularism is strongest when the population is especially religious, such as in rural areas of the Bible Belt. Only 55 percent of Rhode Islanders identify as religious, so there seems little reason for either adherents or secularists to get angry. Not that nonbelievers are all quiet along the coasts — some secularist organizations have made inroads in New York and New Jersey — but there is less contention between them and their religious fellow citizens in these states.

All of a sudden, though, the religious opinion makers in Rhode Island exploded over a small secular gesture that has been standard for nearly two decades. By Zuckerman’s theory, this seems way out of balance. Was the vehemently religious contingent hiding in the woodwork, waiting for something to call it into service? Not likely: Rhode Island’s rate of religious observance has declined in recent years, and as a state, we are socially moderate. Could it be that these protests were always happening, just not in as clear of view? Possibly, but it would be difficult for a band of dissenters to go unnoticed for so long in such a small state.

No, the conclusion I am forced to is that most of this anger is not directed at secularism nor political correctness, but at the government of Rhode Island as a whole. Neither Gov. Chafee nor legislative leader Speaker Gordon Fox (D-Providence) are exactly popular — each have approval ratings below 30 percent — and a startling 44 percent of voters would vote out the whole General Assembly given the choice. So people have turned to the holiday tree to vent their frustration with what they perceive to be a failing government. And more than just frustration! The comments made about the holiday tree have been at best cynical and dismissive, and at worst, vitriolic and personal.

Far be it from me to tell people how to live, but I find this bitter, over-the-top hysteria to be counterproductive. No one benefits from getting mad at the government over a tree, while Rhode Island’s many problems remain as unsolved as ever. Don’t get me wrong: Suspicion of government is as much an American value as liberty, but all this holiday tree controversy does is stifle hope and confidence, the kinds that can drive people to pull an economy out of a recession. By raising their fury to such a harsh pitch, the holiday tree protesters are only hurting themselves, and pulling the rest of Rhode Island down with them.

What an excellent gift it would be next year if this issue did not resurface. That may be too much to ask for, so I at least hope that the anger at the holiday tree burnt itself out this time around, and won’t be as strong in the future. Even better, I hope the economy continues to recover, so that people will not be so wrathful during the season of charity and good cheer.


photo by Stephen Jones: http://www.flickr.com/photos/stevepj2009/3332691385/