The Now Infamous Denver Nativity Scene: Is It Pushing Christianity or American Culture?

Anti-religious zealots begin to salivate about this same time every year. Armed with little more than a handful of memorized separation of church and state quotes from the Founding Fathers, they scan the country in search of "misplaced" religious icons. Their latest target is the Nativity scene that sits on the steps of the City and County Building in Denver.

Helping spearhead the cause is an angry little elf named Marvin Straus who is the co-founder of the Boulder Atheists and represents the Colorado Coalition of Reason (COCORE). Responding to the Nativity scene displayed in front of a public building, he told 9NEWS on Tuesday, "the message is there should be no government supported religion, and that's what we have here."

Straus and COCORE are attempting to ward off what they perceive as the encroachment of religion, specifically Christianity in this case, on the Christmas holiday. Forgive me for being the bearer of bad news to COCORE, but that ship sailed a long time ago.

While it is well within their rights as citizens to protest, I often wonder if they are genuinely concerned about the separation of church and state or just discontent with the way religion has shaped American culture as a whole. All they really seem to be accomplishing with their protests is tarnishing a time of celebration for most everyone else--religious and irreligious.

It reminds me of a familiar Christmas story involving a certain green villain.

Straus earns the label of Grinch this year because he and COCORE will be renting three billboards in the Denver area for the next month at a cost of approximately $1,000 to protest the Nativity display in front of Denver's City and County Building.

The message of the billboards will read, "Stop government support of religion. Move this Nativity scene to a church."

Allow me to invoke my nearly half-decade of experience as a beverage engineer (barista) as a means to illustrate a point.

For a Starbucks barista, Christmas time is like a bris--quick but painful. After my shifts I would retreat home exhausted, reeking of curdled eggnog, my retinas burning from overexposure to the holiday cups, and worst of all with the same ten Christmas songs on repeat in my brain for nearly a month.

Christmas music in moderation is good. Christmas music on loop in public places is pure evil. The crown jewel of annoying Christmas songs is "Santa Baby." Starbucks loves that one. If you want a sure-fire way to get spit in your latte just serenade a barista with that holiday "classic."

Along with "secular" songs like "Santa Baby," Starbucks also plays many traditional Christian Christmas hymns. As a student of Christian theology, when a Christian hymn would start I would always freeze, watch my customers, and brace for impact. But to my surprise nothing ever happened.

We never received a complaint about the Christian hymns even though I expected it every time those songs played. After all, those hymns are chock-full of Christian theology. Take the first stanza of a popular Christmas hymn that Starbucks likes to play called "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen."

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay, 
 Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day; To save us all from Satan's power when we were gone astray.

Christ Our Savior? Save us all from Satan's power? Gone astray? WHAT?! Is Starbucks making me pay four bucks for coffee and preaching at me to boot?

Before you rush out to picket your local Starbucks, hear me out. Howard Schultz isn't a Christian. He's Jewish. So why would he allow Christian doctrines to echo in his hallowed temples of caffeine?

It's because Schultz and the Starbucks brass understand what Straus and COCORE don't want to accept. Christmas hymns, Nativity scenes, and the like have and will always be part of the American Christmas experience, not just the Christian one.

In fact, Nativity scenes have become such a part of American culture that some of the Nativity characters have begun to assume Western characteristics.

Take the Nativity scene in question in front of Denver's City and County Building. I can't tell you what Jesus looked like exactly, but I assure you he and his mother weren't pasty-white and blue-eyed. Furthermore, I seriously doubt Jesus wore a bleached white onesie and was smiling ear-to-ear at birth.

If the scene were really accurate, the baby would have a lot darker skin, he would be covered in amniotic goo, and he would probably be screaming at the top of his lungs.

The point is Nativity scenes don't solely portray the Gospel story, but they also incorporate elements of the culture of which they are a part. For some the Denver Nativity has a profoundly Christian meaning, but for others I suspect it's akin to Christmas hymns at Starbucks. It's just background music in the midst of many distracting treats.

Neither point-of-view seems bothersome, but it does seem very Grinch-like to ruin the holiday season for everyone else.

The City and County Building Nativity Scene in Denver has survived 40 years of legal challenges, and I'm sure it can withstand one more. COCORE might have an easier time trying get rid of Santa Claus.

Hopefully, Straus and COCORE's hearts will grow a little bit this year. Maybe they could even put the $1,000 earmarked for inflammatory billboards toward something that might be remotely effective like feeding the poor or clothing the homeless.