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Next time you’re in Honesdale, PA, give yourself a treat and drive (or walk!) up to Irving Cliff. It’s an ideal spot for a family picnic or a romantic moment, and the view it provides of our little borough is, well, spectacular. While you’re there, you can’t help but notice a tall piece of scaffolding, festooned with lightbulbs. This is used for a lit display on certain holidays—a star for the Fourth of July and Christmastime, and a cross during Eastertide—that is visible all across town, and maintained by the government of the Borough of Honesdale, as it has been for quite some time.
And as you may have heard, that display has recently made the headlines. As reported in these pages and elsewhere, someone brought the display to the attention of a litigious outfit called the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF)—which is, depending on whom you ask, either a stalwart defender of the Constitutional principle of the separation of church and state, or Satanic minions bent on the eradication of America’s Christian heritage.
So it seems that back in June, the FFRF sent a letter to the borough, pointing out that religious displays are not supposed to be supported by governments on any level, and implying that legal action might be taken if the borough didn’t somehow rectify the situation.
The mayor, for reasons currently unknown to this writer, did not bring the matter up to the borough council or the public at that time, but instead waited until this month.
The result was exactly what one would have expected: a huge public outcry, a storm on social media, a remarkably well-attended council meeting and a bevy of politicians jockeying to leverage the situation.
Oh gee, did I mention the upcoming election?
I’m not saying that the announcement was deliberately timed to provoke outrage and boost voter turnout amongst local conservatives. I wouldn’t have any way to prove such a statement, and frankly I don’t think our local politicians are quite that Machiavellian.
But I do think that it’s instructive to look at this kind of phenomenon and think about its deeper meanings. It may be tempting to look on this controversy as a mere kerfuffle, a tempest in a teapot, but it speaks volumes about what is going on in the nation as a whole.
Progressives may not fully appreciate the extent to which our fellow citizens feel that they are under existential threat, that their way of life (and by extension, their very lives) are under attack by distant, shadowy and elusive forces. This is an attitude that has been carefully cultivated for a generation or more by conservative pundits, media outlets and organizations like the NRA. So a move like the FFRF’s, though based soundly in facts and the law, turns out to be counterproductive: it plays directly into this narrative of persecution. It doesn’t change anyone’s attitudes, but encourages people to entrench themselves more deeply. It doesn’t promote mutual acceptance and the value of diversity, but increases divisiveness and suspicion.
Perhaps our little borough can instead use this opportunity to promote some rational discussion of these issues, build a more robust and inclusive community, and avoid unnecessary conflict. But that unfortunately is not what seems to win elections these days.