Is the 'war on Christmas' worth fighting against?
By Robert Marus, Associated Baptist Press, December 15, 2005
WASHINGTON (ABP) -- Is the "war on Christmas" one worth fighting? Despite the dutiful culture warriors lining up to defend the religious trappings of the holiday, some Christian ethicists aren't so sure it's a wise battle to pick.
Since November, some conservative Christian personalities and organizations have stepped up their annual efforts to pressure retailers and government officials to dump generic or secularized references to the "holidays" or the "season" rather than "Christmas." Retailers are responding.
"This year, more than ever in my memory, people have really begun to think about the reason for the season -- and I think it's because of what happened in the retail market," said Mat Staver, president of the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel. Staver's national association of conservative Christian lawyers has led for years in activism bent on keeping religious references in public holiday displays.
Retailers -- and government officials -- are taking notice:
What's going on?
According to religious-freedom expert Charles Haynes, the conflict is superficial, but it gets at the heart of what it means to be an American in a society of ever-expanding religious diversity.
"I think that they are -- many of these examples -- are distractions from the real issues; I think they are red herrings. Or red and green herrings," he said, with a laugh. Haynes is a First Amendment scholar at the Washington-based Freedom Forum.
But the underlying issues aren't laughing matters, he noted.
"The examples about Wal-Mart not using 'Merry Christmas' in its ads, Lowe's putting up signs that say 'holiday trees' … they're reacting to a kind of political correctness on the left, if you will, that has made us all more sensitive to our religious diversity," Haynes said. "But this religious correctness from the other side is equally ridiculous, you know -- somehow telling people by saying 'happy holidays' they're anti-Christian."
David Gushee, a Christian ethicist at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., said one's view of the conflict may very well depend on one's context. "The shift to more generic holiday greetings can be read either as a symbol of growing secularization in America or as an enhanced sensitivity to the real religious diversity of our nation. Both are probably true," he said, in an e-mail interview.
"As with many other church-state issues, here in the small-town South the culture is so overwhelmingly 'Christian' that it strikes us as odd indeed when 'Christ' is taken out of 'Christmas,'" Gushee continued. "It is easy to forget that the rest of the country is much more diverse."
Haynes said much of the uproar owes to conservative Christians' reaction -- perhaps an overreaction -- to a handful of ham-handed efforts by government officials attempting to avoid holiday-season violations of the First Amendment.
"For example, sometimes public schools do go too far in trying to be inclusive or sensitive to diversity, end up improperly excluding Christianity, and that's not right," Haynes said. "Now, that comes out of a long history of controversy over … the Christian domination of schools. So it's understandable, but it's just not right."
Haynes should know. He is cited as a hero in Gibson's book for mediating a 2004 dispute in Mustang, Okla., over a public-school holiday play. A cautious superintendent yanked a nativity scene at the last minute, causing an uproar in the overwhelmingly conservative, overwhelmingly Christian Oklahoma City suburb.
Haynes helped work out a compromise, and now the district has a clear set of rules for holiday pageants. "This year, under the policy, they ruled that December programs can include a scene from the Christian tradition -- a nativity scene -- but it will clearly be in the context that we are learning about what Christians believe, just as would be the Hanukkah scene," he said.
Many of the government actions that Falwell and other purveyors of the "war on Christmas" have cited as part of their perceived anti-Christmas plot would likely be interpreted as unconstitutional even by liberal judges. Indeed, some of the very villains of Gibson's book have themselves ended up on the side of aggrieved Christians in such cases.
The ACLU, for instance, joined Staver's group in a Massachusetts holiday case two years ago. They were fighting to secure Christian students' right to give their classmates candy canes with an attached religious message. They won.
But Staver said that was an anomaly. "For years, the ACLU has been pushing an anti-Christmas agenda," he said.
Staver agreed most judges would rule against many of the government decisions to which he objects. But, he added, efforts by supporters of a strict ban on government establishment of religion have led to the kind of confusion that people like Haynes end up trying to rectify.
"The law is pretty well set forth," Staver said. "I think, however, what has happened over the years is that, because of the agenda by the ACLU, I think there's been a lot of confusion regarding nativity scenes or regarding Christmas carols. And, I think, as a result of that, some well-meaning government officials … assume that the safe route is to censor."
But those public officials are misguided, said Brent Walker, executive director of the Washington-based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
Walker noted that religious Christmas music, symbols and biblical texts all can be used in schools and other government settings, as long as they are non-devotional in nature and balanced with other aspects of the holiday season. For instance, he said, public-school holiday concerts "can and should include religious music along with the secular, as long as the sacred does not dominate."
But Walker said that, in the private realms of retail policies and everyday greetings, constitutional strictures are irrelevant.
"There's nothing wrong with calling it what it is: a Christmas tree. And it is perfectly appropriate to extend a specific holiday greeting such as my Jewish friends do when they wish me a 'Merry Christmas,' and I return a 'Happy Hanukkah,'" he said in a recent commentary on the subject.
"But often it's quite appropriate to wish another 'happy holidays' or 'season's greetings.' It's just a matter of good manners and common courtesy. If I am talking to a person whose religious affiliation I do not know, I will employ the more general greeting. And the same goes for merchants who have advertised goods to Americans of many religious traditions who may or may not celebrate Christmas."
Critics of the "war on Christmas" furor, including Walker, have suggested that Falwell, Liberty Counsel and others may be fanning the flames of controversy to aid year-end fundraising drives -- a charge they deny.
But Haynes and Gushee both offered deeper criticisms of the attempts to re-Christianize the trappings of the holiday season.
"Christians really need to exhibit a deeper concern for the way 'Christ' is used by 'Christmas' in order to stimulate a massive orgy of consumerism and thus stimulate the American economy," Gushee said. "But that is a more counter-cultural message than anyone seems willing to hear."
Haynes went further. "We're not talking about the religious Christmas here. That's one of the strangest things about this; we have people saying they are religious people … defending the secularization of Christmas," he said.
"And they're not saying they want stores to really focus on Jesus this year, [they're] saying, 'No, we just want stores to continue to exploit the Christian faith and use the birth of Jesus to sell things …. One of the oddities of this whole debate is that here you have these folks defending the commercialization of Christmas.
"It's like defending the Easter Bunny -- that it's anti-Christian if you don't have the Easter Bunny," Haynes continued. "You'd think they'd be jumping up and down and saying, 'Great! You can have your Easter Bunny and your darn tree and let us keep Jesus!' But no!"
Staver doesn't see it that way.
"I think anyone who says that this is not a battle worth fighting has no clue of the attempts in America to secularize and censor Christmas," he said. "Because of the secularization that occurs, whether it's in the retail area or the public sector, they have a bleed-over effect."
He noted that other holidays -- Labor Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day -- are not "genericized" by retailers or news media.
"Why do we want to genericize Christmas?" Staver asked. "I think that illustrates that there is really a clash over the central message of Christmas, and that is really Jesus Christ. And I think that is definitely worth fighting for."
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