As the holiday season got into full swing, the American Humanist Association (AHA) took some heat from the religious right for blocking a public school from participating in Operation Christmas Child, which distributes shoeboxes containing toys and religious tracts to kids overseas. Writing for the Christian Post, Janet Parshall not only accused the AHA of depriving poverty stricken children, but also of persecuting and attempting to silence religious groups with which it disagrees. She went on to paint atheists and humanists as angry and heartless—a dishonest characterization at best, but the go-to portrayal for those of us who have left the bondage of superstition behind. While Parshall’s claims were incorrect, she did make one good point: What are we humanists offering in opposition to those who would further superstition?
First, it’s important to clarify that any public school participating in Operation Christmas Child is running afoul of the U.S. Constitution. Run by Samaritan’s Purse, the program has two stated goals, the first of which is to gain converts to a particular form of Christianity, the second being to help the needy. So, while they are helping the disadvantaged, they’re doing so with an implied caveat: to receive these gifts, you must convert as a show of gratitude. It’s no surprise that they target the most vulnerable—destitute children in foreign countries. (I contacted the ministry and confirmed that their effort is concentrated almost exclusively overseas, with less than 1 percent of the boxes distributed within U.S. borders, in First Nations Reservations).
Though Parshall was correct in pointing out that students aren’t placing religious materials in the shoeboxes, Samaritan’s Purse does so prior to delivering the gifts as part of an active evangelical ministry effort. A public school’s participation in this program, then, is a de facto endorsement of a particular sect of the Christian faith and a First Amendment violation. By stopping public schools from participating, AHA is not preventing Christians from doing so as individuals, nor is it persecuting those of the Christian faith; AHA is safeguarding religious freedoms for all by ensuring a governmental institution is not endorsing a particular religious doctrine.
Parshall’s article went on to perpetuate the illusion that humanists and freethinkers are seeking to eliminate the Christmas holiday. This is untrue, but we ourselves are laying the groundwork for the perpetuation of this modern day myth; the AHA and other groups are stopping First Amendment violations, but we’re failing on another level altogether: providing alternatives.
We must understand that individuals assembling shoeboxes full of goods for children in need are not so much motivated by the goals of the distributing organization—meaning they may not be thinking about winning converts—as they are motivated by a compassionate desire to help those who are suffering. This good intention is present even if others seek to exploit it to further superstition. We humanists must show an equal desire to alleviate the suffering of others and to demonstrate how our mutual goals can be met without adding conditions to kindness.
The AHA sent letters to two public schools informing them that their affiliation with Operation Christmas Child violated the Establishment Clause, and they did so on behalf of parents whose children attend those schools. In at least one case, before seeking legal representation with the AHA, parents first asked the school to consider doing a toy drive with Toys for Tots, a secular charity, but the request was ignored. Perhaps in the future, groups like the AHA should offer more alternatives to religiously affiliated charities. International Humanity Foundation, Children International, Doctors without Borders, PlanUK, and Save the Children all spring to mind. None of these groups have hidden agendas, and although I’m not a lawyer, it seems difficult to imagine that schools donating to these groups would find themselves in constitutional hot water.
Here, the AHA and like groups have a fantastic opportunity to introduce and facilitate partnerships with nonreligious charities. We go from taking something away to providing a better alternative that satisfies the compassionate desire to help. After all, the essence of humanism is compassion. This, above all other things, should guide our decisions, our actions, and our responses.