Another Successful “War on Christmas” for the Religious Right

Another holiday season is soon to pass, and this year, Santa Claus will be very, very good to the religious right–even though the leaders of that movement have been more than a bit naughty.

In what has become an annual Yule time tradition, the heads of various religious right organizations are spending the ten weeks or so before December 25 whining about an alleged “War on Christmas.” Aided and abetted by their allies at the Fox News Channel, groups like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) and the Liberty Counsel have made the War on Christmas an integral part of their operations.

These organizations have discovered that the War on Christmas is truly the gift that keeps on giving. Not only does it provide them with heightened media exposure throughout much of December, it’s also a great fundraising tool. The ADF, Liberty Counsel, the American Family Association and other organizations raise tidy sums hawking bumper stickers, buttons, lapel pins, and other trinkets defending Christmas from the alleged secularist onslaught.

Last year, the owners of the right-wing website WorldNetDaily sold “Christmas Defense Kits” that included a bumper sticker reading, “This is America! And I’m going to say it: Merry Christmas!” (There’s nothing like being a sanctimonious prig for the holidays!) Meanwhile, the Liberty Counsel did a brisk business offering “I [heart] Christmas!” buttons, and the American Family Association offered ones blaring, “Merry Christmas: God’s Good News.”

As I observed the religious right rolling out this campaign even before Halloween, I couldn’t help but notice how much of it focused on retailers and the language used in sales circulars, newspaper advertisements, and websites. Liberty Counsel, in particular, was obsessed with attacking stores for using phrases like “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

Liberty Counsel actually issues a “Naughty & Nice” list every year, blasting retailers who fail to use the religiously correct greeting. It’s as if they’ve taken it upon themselves to function as a type of “Christmas Police,” bent on imposing seasonal linguistic uniformity.

The 2007 list noted soberly that Nordstrom, for example, used the phrases “Once Upon a Holiday” and “Great Gifting” on its website which prompted no-mention-of-Christmas grousing from the council.

I don’t know what’s sadder: That there are people who have nothing better to do than monitor retailers’ websites checking out the holiday terminology or that some followers of these groups take all this seriously. Because more than one holiday is celebrated at the end of the year, some retailers use generic language. Christmas will still come–indeed, you’d be hard pressed not to know that in a country where Christmas carols begin wafting over the radio as soon as the last wing of the Thanksgiving turkey has been consumed.

In churches all over America, Christmas is celebrated joyously. For fundamentalists who love Christmas music, Christmas displays, and the attendant religious celebration, that’s the place to go. Want to see nativity scenes, living and otherwise? My guess is the local churches have them in spades.

Christmas is celebrated in these houses of worship, and in many homes, as explicitly religious. Portions of the business community and the popular culture in general tend to focus more on the secular side of things. That offends the religious right. Increasingly, these groups are attempting to force celebration of the holiday as a religious event down everyone else’s throats.

Humanists react to Christmas in various ways. Some celebrate a secularized version or add elements of the solstice. Others eschew the holiday completely. To the religious right, merely acknowledging Christmas as a culture phenomenon, as even many humanists do, isn’t good enough–the celebration must be explicitly religious as well, and it must be embraced in as many areas of the government as possible.

Yet, as should be obvious in a country that separates church and state, agencies of government can’t legally celebrate religious holidays. Public schools, for instance, serve children of many faiths and some of no faith so don’t expect an overtly religious Christmas pageant there. Again, a church probably has one.

There’s also a certain irony in watching religious right groups throw a fit defending Christmas traditions that have little or nothing to do with Christianity. In recent years, they’ve been particularly incensed because not enough Christmas trees are displayed in government buildings and in public places. Christmas trees, however, have Pagan origins. Even Pat Robertson, speaking on the 700 Club about a week before Thanksgiving, pointed out that Christmas trees “come from Teutonic Paganism” and “are not an integral part of Christianity.”

There’s even a Bible verse that seems to warn against the practice of dragging a tree into your home and decorating it. Jeremiah 10:3-5 advises the followers of God not to adopt pagan practices, saying:

For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.

People who know history realize that many of the conventional trappings of Christmas are pagan in origin. Early church leaders and the government officials they worked with simply added a Christian gloss to longstanding practices, making the transition easier for everyone.

But none of this has swayed the religious right over the years. They remain convinced that depictions of the nativity belong on the cold marble steps of the courthouse and that public schools should compel non-Christian children to sing religious carols and engage in other acts of Christian worship. Increasingly, they are obsessed with the very greetings they receive from temporary help at the local mall and what words and phrases appear on websites sponsored by giant corporations whose main interest is not honoring the founder of Christianity but persuading everyone to engage in a month-long orgy of spending.

The War on Christmas was always phony. That the religious right continues to promote it is bad enough. What’s worse is listening to holier-than-thou types lecture the rest of us for our secular biases while they expect the government and corporations to somehow “re-sanctify” a holiday that is increasingly little more than a celebration of consumerism and debt.

If fundamentalist Christians really want to “save Christmas,” they might start by ceasing their demonizing assaults on humanists and secularists. They might instead seek to honor the spirit of the holiday by focusing on what it is supposed to be about. Mean-spirited attacks, divisive tactics, and overheated rhetoric have no place during a season that supposedly promotes peace, love, understanding, and goodwill.

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