Defining Ideas

The Stakes In The War On Christmas

Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Image credit: 
Barbara Kelley

The annual war on Christmas began early this year. A week after Halloween, Starbucks unveiled its seasonal cup design, which left off traditional holiday motifs like reindeer and snowmen, opting instead for a plain red cup with the Starbucks logo. Within days, an irate individual posted on Facebook, “Starbucks REMOVED CHRISTMAS from their cups because they hate Jesus.” He also claimed Starbucks forbids employees from saying “Merry Christmas.” Donald Trump, on the stump in Illinois, reacted by calling for a boycott of Starbucks and suggesting he wouldn’t renew the company’s lease on a store in Trump Towers. Trump also promised that if he became president, “We’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you.”

Within a week of being posted, the Facebook comment was viewed over 11 million times, and shared half a million. In response, the liberal Daily Kos called the complaint a “right-wing freakout” by a “deeply insane Christian person.”

The whole affair suggests that the Christmas wars are now as much a part of the season as caroling and shopping. Schools proscribing Christmas parties, store clerks shying away from greeting customers with a “Merry Christmas,” and municipalities forbidding crèches on public property seem to millions of American Christians—who form 71% of the population—to be attacks on their most cherished holiday, and another secular assault on their religious beliefs by a minority of atheists, agnostics, and followers of faiths other than Christianity. And though not much of Christian theology remains in a holiday that is more about consumption and leisure than the birth of Christ, the attacks on Christmas do reflect an evangelical secularism that aims to drive Christianity from the public square.

This animus against Christianity is directed towards public displays of faith rather than private ones. Secularists do not object to a personal belief in God or private Christmas trees and crèches. Rather, as Pope Benedict wrote in 2005, secularism is “the expression of a consciousness that would like to see God eradicated once and for all from the public life of humanity and shut up in the subjective sphere of cultural residue from the past.” Secularists are content to let Christianity live on as a lifestyle choice, a source of private therapeutic solace and comforting holiday rituals. Christianity, they say, is just one more option in the spiritual buffet alongside Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Wicca, and Scientology. This line of thinking underlies Starbucks’ rationale for the cup design, which reflected the company’s professed “culture of belonging, inclusion and diversity” that welcomes people “from all backgrounds and religions.” From this perspective, the company’s slight against Christmas is just another example of the multicultural program of not “privileging” one cultural option over another, lest someone be “excluded” and his esteem injured.

Yet behind the diversity mantra that no cultural option is more valuable than another lies an active dislike of a religion that has progressively lost influence in Western culture ever since the Enlightenment. The spectacular success of science in understanding the natural world nursed a hubristic belief that it could also unlock deep truths about human nature, enabling psychologists and doctors to help individuals lead better lives and overcome their sufferings. The enemy of this progress was thought to be religion, which is a relic of our benighted past, an irrational superstition whose dark clouds have been dispersed by the light of reason. Religion lives on only because of the backwards masses too fearful or stupid to give up this Marxian “opiate” or Freudian “illusion” and face the reality of a godless world. To the Enlightenment secularists, as Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz put it, people of faith are “shamans or witch doctors from savage tribes whom one humors until one can dress them in trousers and send them to school.”

Moreover, religion challenges the authority not just of science, but also of the secular state. It’s no coincidence that in the late nineteenth century, centralized power and science joined forces in the Progressive movement, which argued for a “Darwinian” Constitution, as Woodrow Wilson called it, based on what Progressive Mary Parker Follett in 1918 called “the most vital trend in philosophical thought and by the latest biologists and social psychologists.” Yet faith provides principles, beliefs, and virtues that are not always compatible with, and often oppose the discoveries of science and the aims of a political power bent on “improving” human life by creating “social justice.” This natural conflict between a centralized, expansive federal government based on technocratic expertise, and organized religion founded on faith has been evident in contemporary issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, and Obamacare’s mandate for the provision of birth control in healthcare plans, as well as in the attacks on public displays of religious symbols such as crèches and the Ten Commandments.

These general secularizing forces of modernity explain the war on Christmas. The main tactic for achieving the strategic aim of removing faith from the public square comprises a misreading of the First Amendment’s anti-establishment clause. The so-called “wall of separation between church and state” is a phrase found not in the Constitution but a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson. The Constitution forbade the federal government from establishing a religion financed by taxes, but this was a practice of many states well into the nineteenth century. The “wall of separation” in the states was created by Supreme Court cases in the subsequent decades, at the expense of the First Amendment’s guarantee of free public speech, which includes religious expression.

The notion of a “separation of church and state” ran contrary to the intent of the Founders. The public role of religion in the republic was taken as a given by the crafters of the Constitution. Even the most tepid of believers among them assumed that the health and success of the American republic depended on the vitality of religious belief. As George Washington put it in his “Farewell Address”: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Famed deist Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence attributed our “unalienable rights” to “nature and nature’s god”—and regarding slavery Jefferson asked, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of people that these liberties are the gift of God?” Thomas Paine, accused of atheism, wrote at the beginning of The Age of Reason, “I believe in one God, and no more, and I hope for happiness beyond this life.” So too another Enlightenment hero, Benjamin Franklin: “Here is my creed. I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His providence. That he ought to be worshipped.” And John Adams remarked, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Whatever the founders thought about the specifics of Christian dogma, they nonetheless agreed on the central necessity of a transcendent grounding for morals, virtues, political freedom, and the unalienable rights of people, a foundation beyond the vagaries of time and the will of flawed men. Religious practice and presence in the public square was the most important expression and validation of this divine sanction for the rights the republic was crafted to protect. And Christianity was especially important, for the foundational principles of Western civilization derive from the Judeo-Christian tradition and the cultural inheritance of Greece and Rome.

With a holiday more about consumerism and parties than faith, it’s easy to dismiss complaints about marginalizing Christmas as an overreaction from narrow-minded Christians. But for many millions of Christians, Christmas is still about the birth of the Redeemer of the world. Yet fighting for the public celebration of Christmas is about more than just one faith’s particular theological doctrine. Defending Christmas is also about defending the public right to recognize the spiritual reality upon which most religions are founded.

The war on Christmas is really a war on religion. What is at stake in that war is whether the goods we live by and cherish––the dignity of the individual, tolerance, freedom, and respect for life––will survive, or whether they will succumb to the materialist logic that makes each of our unique selves nothing but chemicals, without freedom or dignity or transcendent worth, someday to be swept away by chance or force. Such ideas that turn humans into material things have been the precondition for the worst horrors humans have inflicted on one another. An occasional public reminder that we are something more than mere flesh and bone, capable of self-sacrifice and unconditional love, is not too much to ask from a free society that in its Constitution formally guarantees the right to religious freedom.