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Separation of sex and state

December 11, 2005|Carol Platt Liebau | Carol Platt Liebau is an attorney, political analyst and guest radio talk-show host. Her blog is at www.carolliebau.blogspot.com.

ONE OF THE most difficult tasks of a democracy is deciding which messages are suitable for universal consumption in the public square -- especially when it comes to sex and religion.

Americans are bombarded with sexual images year-round. In October, Victoria's Secret introduced mall floor displays, titled "Backstage Sexy," featuring bare-bottomed mannequins in provocative poses and suggestions of bondage. Billboards advertising sex shops, strip shows and "gentlemen's clubs" appear alongside highways. Women's magazines at checkout counters offer graphic sex tips. Television is rife with innuendo and more. The FM airwaves are saturated with musical paeans to lust. When it comes to sex in the public square, envelope-pushing is the order of the day.

The graphic images, sights and sounds offend many religious, cultural or social conservative Americans. Some even voice outrage, but to little lasting effect.

That's because American "tastemakers" -- elites in the media and the courts -- have shaped a libertarian social consensus. That an advertising campaign, television program or song transgresses traditionalist values is irrelevant. Americans have decided, for better or worse, that one group's sensitivities cannot govern what is available to others. The traditionalists must avert their eyes from what offends them lest their sensibilities infringe on others' freedom of expression.

Contrast the treatment of sex in the public square with that of religion. A 2003 Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll found that 96% of Americans celebrate Christmas. About 90% recognize Christmas as the birthday of Jesus Christ, according to a 2000 Gallup poll. These are substantial majorities, larger than the number of citizens who feel proud to be American (84%), higher than support for the war on terror only five months after Sept. 11, 2001 (93%), and greater than the percentage of Americans who believed that Elvis Presley was dead as of 2002 (88%).

Even so, in recent years, people who want to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday avoid overtly religious allusions in the public square, lest a stray reference to the birth of Jesus somehow offend either nonbelievers or non-Christians.

The result has been a strait-laced self-censorship that would be derided were it applied to matters of sex rather than faith: Last year, a mayor in Massachusetts apologized for having identified the city's "holiday party" as a "Christmas party." In Denver, a religiously themed float was barred from participating in the city's December "parade of lights."

This year, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino briefly considered renaming the city's Christmas tree -- an annual gift from Nova Scotia since 1917 -- as a "holiday tree." Retail clerks are instructed to wish their customers "Happy Holidays" or to offer "Season's Greetings." Seasonal music on the radio is merrily (and almost exclusively) secular -- much more "Frosty the Snowman" than "Joy to the World." Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Santa Claus have supplanted angels, wise men -- and, of course, the baby Jesus -- as Christmas' most visible icons. Would anyone be surprised to hear a modern classic reissued as "Rocking Around the Multicultural Celebration Tree"?

All these measures spring from a laudable aversion to giving offense, and the impulse that prompts them is a tribute to the nation's history of religious tolerance. But nonbelievers or non-Christians are not being forced to celebrate Christmas (much less profess belief in Jesus' divinity).

So it's worth wondering: In a nation founded on religious principles, why should spiritual messages be tailored to the sensitivities of nonbelievers, while sexual messages are not similarly constrained for the sensibilities of traditionalists?

If there's a standard for deciding what content is appropriate for the public square, surely it should be uniformly applied. At the very least, we should rethink a status quo that presumes religious messages will elicit the kind of indignation once reserved for the crude sexual messages that pass without comment (or censure) today.

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