Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba actually banned Christmas from 1969 to 1997, so it's somewhat in character for the Havana government to want the American Interests Section there to take down its Christmas lights. Wags may wonder, though, whether the same lights would be allowed on a government outpost here in America, where, at the behest of the American Civil Liberties Union and other secularist groups, courts in recent years have reined in religious displays on government property.
The American display in Cuba consists of a snowman, Santa Claus, a pole strewn with lights in the shape of a Christmas tree, and the number "75," which is said to represent the number of pro-democracy dissidents that Castro's regime jailed last year. Probably enough secular symbols are mixed in there to satisfy the American judges; it's not as if the State Department's outpost at Havana were doing anything respecting an establishment of religion via the display of, say, a nativity scene.
We wouldn't want to liken the communist persecution of Christians, in Cuba or anywhere else, to the excesses of American judges. The American abuses, at least, take place in the context of a genuine rule of law and of judges appointed through a free and democratic process. And in the context of a First Amendment clause prohibiting Congress from passing laws respecting an establishment of religion. To whatever extremes that clause has been interpreted, the fact remains that it is one reason that religion has flourished in hundreds of varieties in America, free from the detrimental influence of government endorsement.
Still, as recent Supreme Court cases involving school vouchers, the Ten Commandments in the courtroom, and the words "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance indicate, Americans are still grappling with the interpretation of the First Amendment more than 200 years after it was written. One of the justices, Antonin Scalia, addressed this question when he spoke recently here in New York at a synagogue that was founded 350 years ago. According to the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, who recounted the talk in a column in yesterday's New York Sun, Justice Scalia maintained that neither the Constitution nor the First Amendment dictates separation of church and state, and that, as the justice put it, the founders mandated "not neutrality between religiousness and nonreligiousness," but rather neutrality "between denominations of religion."
Mr. Foxman, for whom we have a high regard, quoted James Madison as an advocate of the wall of separation. He might, too, have quoted Thomas Jefferson, who also leaned toward the separationist side. But there is a complementary strand among the founders, among them Samuel Adams and George Washington, who, while favoring the First Amendment, were ardent public advocates of the importance of religion. In his farewell address of 1796, for instance, Washington said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness - these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity."
Washington went on, "Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
This is the problem with Cuba and the other communistic and atheistic regimes. It is one thing to respect atheists and to protect their rights, as America's Constitution and tradition do. It is another to found one's ideology in opposition to the idea of God, as communism does. What Cuba is afraid of is different from what the ACLU and Mr. Foxman are concerned about. Castro's regime truly trembles before religion. It could not survive if religion were free to prosper. So in the darkness of Communist Cuba the regime quails before the lights that are up at the American Interests Section.