Christmas scenes are a private matter, according to Jack Shields (with podcast)

  • Jack Shields’s cardboard display. RAY DUCKLER / Monitor staff

Monitor columnist
Published: 11/28/2018 6:54:00 PM

Downstairs in the darkness of a Penacook basement stand four patriotic figures, waiting to be heard.

They can’t talk, but they have a lot to say, and they can’t move, but they’ll be in front of the State House beginning Saturday.

Perhaps you know something about these people. Let me introduce you. Over on the left we have Ben Franklin. To his left is Lady Liberty. Flanked on her left shoulder is Thomas Jefferson. And on the far right, kneeling, is George Washington.

Jack Shields will transport these four cut-out giants – painted on vinyl and attached to a black wooden background – downtown and leave them there until Dec. 31. Right next to the Christmas tree and, more importantly, the Nativity scene already there.

As a card-carrying member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Shields wants to promote the group’s interpretation of the First Amendment.

The one about separation of church and state. The one that some feel is behind a war on Christmas.

“Can someone explain to me why the manger needs to be on public property?” Shields asked over coffee recently at his home. “There are lots of churches where something like that can be displayed.”

I know what you’re thinking. At least some of you. Shields is Ebenezer Scrooge, yelling “Bah humbug” from atop the archway near the City Plaza. He’s the Grinch trying to steal Christmas. He’s a big hunk of coal in your stocking.

“I’m not anti-religion,” Shields insists. “When new people come to our country and come here and they see the Christian display, what does that say about our city? I don’t think that’s very welcoming.”

This is a good time to read exactly what the First Amendment to the Constitution says on the matter: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

What does that mean to you? Can baby Jesus be here, on private property, and not there, on public land?

To Shields, the meaning is clear: We are not a theocracy. Our government does not cheerlead for a particular religion, does not and never has symbolized one religion over another. He calls that freedom from religion, and he expects others from the group, which has branches in all 50 states, to join him Saturday.

He’s not sure how many, but the group is growing, said Andrew Seidel, the organization’s attorney and the director of strategic response. He says there are 32,000 dues-paying members, five times the number from 10 years ago.

“It’s certainly grown considerably,” Seidel told me, “and non-religious Americans are the fastest growing segment.”

Based in Wisconsin, the FFRF was incorporated in 1978. One of the core messages – “It is, as we regularly point out, a godless Constitution” – had seeped into Shields’s consciousness when he was in grade school.

A Navy brat whose father was killed during the Korean War, Shields is 68 and attended Catholic school until the eighth-grade. His First Communion, in second-grade, left him empty. “It was supposed to be an Earth-shattering experience,” he told me. “I wandered around thinking something was wrong with me. I didn’t get it.”

He was an altar boy at a Long Island high school in New York and says that experience only added to his non-believer status. “I saw priests as regular people,” Shields said. “That took the romance away. It was like looking behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz.”

But his secular ways have nothing to do with his concern. His atheist ways are not the point here. The governmental promotion of a single religion is what troubles him.

He didn’t need God to join the Peace Corps, or work for the Community Action Program, installing insulation to those in need of fuel assistance. He helped clean up the Tannery site in Penacook, collected trash in the village and spruced up the small park behind the bank.

He joined the FFRF about 12 years ago. He noticed the group’s message, portrayed by those four patriots, was making the rounds across the country, showing up in 65 cities in 34 states. This year, he stopped sitting on his hands.

“I always said that someone needs to do something about this,” Shields said. “That somebody turned out to be me.”

And in the biggest irony of all time, Shields had to pay a guy named Santa to make his political point, shelling out $112 to code administrator Michael Santa (seriously) to obtain a license. That gave him the right to display his cut-outs on the sidewalk and use the electrical box that runs on a timer and powers the Christmas tree.

The figures were sent to him via UPS in a huge, narrow box, and those bulbs surrounding Ben, Lady, Thomas and George will light up at night. Shields hopes he can do the same to local minds.

“Maybe it will start a conversation,” he said.

Shields already feels a change in the air. Inclusiveness. Diversity.

He cited the recent Concord Christmas Parade as an example, noting that several officials, including Concord Mayor Jim Bouley, refused to participate after organizer Dick Patten made controversial statements about refugees and immigrants on The Heights.

Patten, in fact, is a major figure in the annual downtown Christmas spirit as a member of the Concord Grange, which, along with the Concord Knights of Columbus, has been the driving force behind the placement of the Nativity scene and the tree for decades.

Patten declined to comment on Shields and the four figures coming Saturday, who are gazing down at a curling sheet of paper with a “Bill of Rights” headline.

Shields had plenty to say, and he wants you to hear his voice. He says go ahead, enjoy Santa (Claus, not Michael). He loves Christmas lights, even hanging ornaments from his ceiling, simply because they look nice.

But don’t single out one religion on public land. That’s not America, Shields says.

“I like the togetherness this time of year,” he said. “But there’s an underlying religiosity to it. We need a new sign post that says we’re going in a new direction.”

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