Unwise Men

What is it about Belleville? Last year, we heard the droll news bite regarding James Dowdy, who had an unusual fascination with socks. He had to have them, even if it meant stealing them. No, it is not known whether he preferred his stolen socks soiled or clean, or what he did with them once he was alone with them. What we do know is that when a Bellevillian reported seeing a man slink out of her house carrying a pair of socks, there was just one usual suspect to round up. Police say Dowdy had been arrested repeatedly for burglary, trespass and theft, all for the love of socks. In court, he had been lectured, fined and placed on probation. Standing before the bench, at a previous sentencing -- he'd been caught with a bag of socks -- he told the judge, "I know what I did was wrong. And the thing with the socks, I would like to get help so I can get over it and get on with my life." Would someone please get this man a job in a sock-puppet factory?

If Dowdy had a hankering for hosiery, Chris Gaskill has a craving for creches. Last week, police came to Gaskill's home and arrested him for misdemeanor theft. The charge? Abducting the baby Jesus from the Nativity display in Belleville's town square and bringing him to a bar and grill. A waitress thought the prank sacrilegious enough to call the cops. Gaskill, 24, a graphic-arts student at Belleville Area College, insists that he and two pals were just borrowing the figure. "It was a case of having a couple of cocktails in a boring town," he told a reporter. "We were driving around, and it was like, 'Hey, let's take baby Jesus out for a drink and see if he can turn water into wine.'"

Now, on its face, this may sound like a facetious remark, but consider: We live in an age where miracles are in short supply, yet we aspire to faith. News mags do cover stories about the great number of Americans who believe or want to believe in angels. And with the pope coming, people are more attuned to religious experience. Not long ago, in Renault, Ill., a retired truck driver, Ray Doiron, claimed to have visions of the Blessed Mother. On March 13, 1994, because of his visions, some 2,000 people descended on Our Lady of Snows Shrine, in Belleville, to look for the real Madonna. The point? Maybe Gaskill really did want to see whether symbolic Jesus would perform a miracle.

The mistake that Gaskill and cohorts made was in bringing baby Jesus to Applebee's Neighborhood Bar & Grill, a family eatery. They should've taken him to one of the town's dive bars, a dim, dreary joint stocked with liars, blasphemers, sots and common riffraff -- guys who don't even wash their hands after a trip to the john. Such patrons wouldn't have narced on Gaskill for copping the bambino. Besides, we know that Jesus preferred the company of sinners over the virtuous. More of a challenge. Think of the converts that baby Jesus, if he had somehow come to life, might have won over, changing water into wine. Of course, you'll always get some ingrate: "Say, bro', could you make that a Stag instead?"

Meanwhile, across the river, in the outlying town of St. Ann, Mo., baby Jesus and the entire holy ensemble -- wise men, angels, stable beasts -- were snatched from the city's Nativity display. Only the abductors weren't some college kids cruising around on a slow Tuesday night. The removal was effected by a federal judge's order, a ruling that stemmed from a lawsuit brought against the city by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The same Nativity scene had been on display for 50 years without controversy, but finally the tentacles of the Constitution caught up with it. It is the law of the land: The government must remain neutral toward religion. It cannot extol God on public property.

Still, it happens every year that a city's manger scene is ordered removed, almost always at the instigation of the ACLU. Last year, it happened to the city of Florissant, and soon after the St. Ann decision the city of Overland voluntarily removed its traditional Christmas display. These displays might have stayed had they not been made up solely of symbols associated with Christianity. Many towns do have prominent Nativity scenes, though they are part of a larger menage that includes secular objects such as tannenbaums, carolers, elves and reindeer.

But old customs die hard, and it's very difficult for some people to see the ACLU as upholding freedom of religion instead of denying it. As one disgusted St. Ann resident put it: "It's like the ACLU sends out scouts every Christmas to see which towns are ripe for a lawsuit. The first one to spot an outlaw creche gets a lifetime subscription to American Atheist magazine."

They have a point, you know. Until the adage "In God We Trust" is expunged from all U.S. currency, until Congress stops opening its sessions with a prayer, until public schoolchildren recite the Pledge of Allegiance omitting the words "one nation under God," the whole issue will be seen as nothing short of hypocritical.

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