By Carol Morello and Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 2009; A12
A poster showing Mary and Joseph heading to Bethlehem for a census and the birth of Jesus is raising eyebrows among some evangelicals, who consider it an inappropriate use of Christian symbolism for the headcount the government will conduct next year.
The posters, created by the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO), have been distributed to more than 7,000 churches in an effort to raise awareness of the census among Hispanics. Most were printed in Spanish.
Luke 2:1-4 says Jesus was born during a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Although historians question the accuracy of the account, Luke stated that everyone had to return to his ancestral town to be registered for taxes and that Joseph and Mary left Nazareth for Bethlehem.
The NALEO poster depicts that journey with an outline of Joseph leading Mary, on a mule, down a hill in the direction of a large star. "This is how Jesus was born," the poster says. "Joseph and Mary participated in the census." In smaller letters to the side, it adds, "Don't be afraid."
The posters were dreamed up by NALEO, one of 136,000 "partners" to the U.S. Census Bureau. The volunteer organizations are helping spread the message that the census is important, easy and safe. NALEO has been at the forefront of a national coalition of Latino groups promoting the census.
Arturo Vargas, executive director of NALEO's educational fund, said the poster is timed for the Christmas season. Vargas said the posters "are being well received by the congregations that we're working with, and they're reminding people of the Gospel story of how Jesus was born."
The poster has widened a fault line between Hispanics who are encouraging participation in the census and those who are urging a boycott to protest lack of progress in immigration reform.
The Rev. Miguel Rivera, a boycott leader who heads the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, criticized the poster during his Tuesday morning radio show, which is broadcast in 11 states.
"The Bible establishes clearly that we are not supposed to use the name or God or Jesus in vain for any other purposes than worshiping," Rivera said. "The census would never do the same thing using the name of Muhammad during Ramadan."
The Rev. Luis Cortes Jr., the head of the church network Esperanza and a co-sponsor of the poster, accused Rivera of condemning the poster to draw attention to his call for a boycott.
"It is a biblical fact that the mother and father of Jesus Christ responded to the census of their day," he said.
Biblical scholars had mixed reactions to the poster.
Obery Hendricks Jr., a professor at New York Theological Seminary and author of "The Politics of Jesus," said the poster shows a lack of respect for Jesus.
"It cheapens Jesus and oversimplifies everything," he said. "Why don't they say his parents were forced to go to the census, forced to go away from their land for oppressive purposes? It take things out of context and makes it Pollyanna, all is calm, all is bright, when he was born in a time of terrible tumult."
Marcus Borg, a historical Jesus scholar at Oregon State University, said the narrative of Jesus's birth is often used for secular purposes
"Take Christmas cards, if they say, 'Peace on Earth,' and don't say anything specifically Christian," he said. "I can't imagine why anyone would take issue with the poster on grounds of irreverence or blasphemy."
The Census Bureau is trying to stay above the fray.
"We work with people from all walks of life to get an accurate count, but we do not provide funding to partner organizations and play no role in the creation of material by private community groups," said Nick Kimball, a spokesman for the Commerce Department, which oversees the Census Bureau, reading a written statement.