The City Council will vote on the fate of the nativity scenes tonight and judging from recommendations made in a staff report, this 58-year tradition in Santa Monica, the “City of the Christmas Story,” may be history.
Councilman Kevin McKeown, responding to this report, was quoted as saying “the nativity displays in Palisades Park just aren’t going to be resurrected.” My response to this statement is this: the nativity displays won’t have to be “resurrected” if they are not allowed to die!
But it will take courage and leadership to keep the displays intact. Allow me to submit a scenario of what I believe this leadership from Santa Monica’s City Council needs to look like.
First, vibrant leadership, the kind of leadership that members of the City Council were elected to demonstrate, looks at the nativity display “conundrum” and says, “yes, this is a challenge, but Santa Monica is big enough, creative enough and smart enough to deal with it fairly.”
Second, strong council leadership remembers the long history this city has is welcoming, cultivating and championing “multiculturalism” and “diversity.” Christianity is an important thread in the fabric that constitutes Santa Monica’s civic culture. Even the name of our city, Santa Monica, stems from Christian roots. Santa Monica is named after the mother of St. Augustine, one of the most revered writers and theologians in Christianity. Monica was known for her piety and the statue of her, located in Palisades Park at Wilshire Boulevard and Ocean Avenue, is a tribute to her virtue.
Third, leadership understands that the Christmas story provides a teaching opportunity for our children. Western civilization has been deeply influenced by Judeo-Christian traditions. The museums of Europe and the Americas are filled with great works of art from the masters, which are based on Biblical themes. Knowing the Christmas story, even for those who do not share the Christian faith, helps one gain a better understanding of the world we live in.
Fourth, dynamic Santa Monica leadership should not capitulate to, cower to or appease those who seek to destroy. This controversy has never really been about the reciprocity of ideas. Instead, it has been personal vendettas from a handful of out-of-town individuals who seek to stop this beloved Santa Monica tradition because they are atheists. Our City Council was elected by the residents of Santa Monica and ultimately, it is to the citizens of this community that our elected officials owe their allegiance. The people who elected the council to serve publicly are the same individuals who place the nativity scenes on the bluffs.
Fifth, healthy leadership is not lazy, nor does it gravitate to the path of least resistance. Succumbing to controversy by disallowing the nativity display is easy. But that is not robust leadership. Real leadership is creative. There are many other days in the year where others, with differing viewpoints, can erect their displays. Why does one point have to be contemporaneously juxtaposed to a counter-point? More specifically, what attachment do atheists have with the month of December anyway?
Sixth, leadership understands that there is no reason to destroy an event or display in order to be “fair.” If this is not true, then non-Hindus should be granted a parade permit on the same day and along the same route as the Festival of the Chariots, an event sponsored by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON). This parade, which includes elephants and large floats, begins at Santa Monica’s Civic Auditorium and traverses a course along Main Street to Venice each summer. Will our City Council demand that individuals who live in Burbank be allowed an “anti-Hindu parade permit?” Or should Christians and Jews demand that a lottery be held so their floats could be included in the Festival of Chariots parade? This is utter nonsense, but this is exactly what has happened with the nativity displays
Seventh, real leadership, the kind of leadership that the citizens of Santa Monica deserve, recognizes that last years’ travesty with the nativity displays was shameful and that the lottery system bred confusion and brought national disgrace to our community. This kind of public opprobrium need not be repeated and canceling the displays is not the answer.
The challenge for Santa Monica’s City Council is to stand tall and push back against those whose only desire is to tear down. There is room for baby Jesus in Santa Monica’s big-tent inn. The council simply needs to muster the courage to make the right decision.
A dusty manger on a lonely bluff will do the trick.
Dr. Robert Hamilton is a pediatrician in Santa Monica.