Saturday, December 21, 2013

What War on Christmas?

I wasn’t going to post anything about the conservatives’ trumped-up “war on Christmas,” but after constantly seeing posts and links to articles about this alleged incursion by my conservative friends on Facebook, I changed my mind.  I don’t really have anything new to add to this fabricated controversy, but I’d just like to go on record saying that the so-called war on Christmas is bogus and a fraud, and I’m tired of hearing about it.

The kernel of this supposed war — I hesitate to call it a controversy, because I only see one side saying that a controversy exists — has to do with not using U.S. public schools as bastions of religious proselytizing.  Before the civil-rights era, public schools would often start off the day with a teacher-led prayer, often explicitly Christian, and sometimes requiring Jewish and other non-Christian students to stand outside the classroom door if they didn’t want to participate.  Since then, the government, which includes the public-school system, has officially recognized that it shouldn’t be in the religion business.  This recognition has led to some controversies regarding what should be considered an appropriate acknowledgement of faith in the classroom and what should be considered a case of the government endorsing a religion or belief system. 

Of course, the predominant religion among U.S. citizens is Christianity, and for quite some time, Christianity — as the majority-held faith — has enjoyed a rather privileged status in U.S. society.  The most conspicuous example of this is the national holiday of Christmas, which (as we all know) had its origins as a religious observance.  But as America becomes a more diverse country, more and more Americans are realizing that not all of their neighbors are Judeo-Christian or celebrate Christmas.  And since Christmas is only one week before New Year’s Day, it’s safer to the sensitivities of non-Christians, and more inclusive, to say “Happy Holidays.”  This is especially true for businesses that don’t want to estrange any of their non-Christian customers.  However, many (most?) Americans still say “Merry Christmas,” a greeting usually met with a warm response. 

Still, many Christian conservatives like the semi-sanctioned favoritism that the government bestows on their religion and want to preserve this preferential treatment.  Because of this, they want everyone to know, in no uncertain terms, that the U.S. is celebrating a specifically Christian holiday every December 25th, and they see any secularization of the holiday season as an attack on Christianity itself.  But what is actually happening is that Christianity is not as privileged as it used to be, and Christians are mistaking this lessening of privilege as persecution.

One of the best-known diatribes against the desanctification of Christmas comes from commentator Ben Stein.  Stein is Jewish but also a great advocate of the way Christmas is celebrated in the U.S.  He originally made some statements about the secularization of the holiday in 2005 on a CBS news program, but his words have since gone viral over the Internet.  Part of his presentation went as follows:

I do not like getting pushed around for being a Jew, and I don’t think Christians like getting pushed around for being Christians. I think people who believe in God are sick and tired of getting pushed around, period. I have no idea where the concept came from that America is an explicitly atheist country. I can’t find it in the Constitution and I don’t like it being shoved down my throat.

Stein’s argument strikes me as disingenuous on several fronts.  He talks about Jews, Christians, and believers in God in general being “pushed around.”  This is a very vague phrase that seems to mix together the suffering of Jews — a truly persecuted people in the history of the West — with the loss of Christian advantage, but the two aren’t the same.  We all know how Jews in the West have often suffered at the hands of the Christian majority: the ghettoizing, the banishments, the forced conversions, the pogroms, and its ultimate manifestation in the Holocaust.  I certainly don’t see anything analogous to these when favoring the greeting “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas.”

Stein also conflates atheism, not believing in any gods, with secularism, existing outside the purview of religion.  The U.S. is indeed not “an explicitly atheist country,” but it does have a secular government that has no business promoting religion. The whole idea of a secular government is that it won’t advocate any faith.  If Christians one day find themselves living in a United States where Christianity is no longer the religion of the majority, they wouldn’t want the dominant faith shoved down their throats via the government.  The same holds true for minority religionists living in a Christian-majority U.S. today.  Stein’s vague and deceptive wording alienates me from the rest of his argument, however valid his other points may (or may not) be.

A cartoon publicized by the Christian organization the Colson Center:
If anyone in public education knows of an actual case where a student
was sent to the principal’s office for saying the word ‘Christmas,’
I want to know about it.

Of course, Stein isn’t the only one to confuse, via faulty reasoning, a loss of privilege with persecution.  Former prosecutor Alan Sears has written an essay that sees the secularization of Christmas as — you guessed it — an attack on Christianity itself: “More and more, in America, the question of whether it’s okay to say ‘Merry Christmas’ is becoming, for many, but a cover for the real question: ‘Is it okay to believe in Jesus Christ?’” And like Stein, Sears offers unclear arguments to make his far-fetched point. 

Saying that Jesus of Nazareth was “the greatest teacher and philosopher the world has ever known,” someone who ought to be appreciated even by people who aren’t Christian (thus making him worthy of a national holiday), Sears writes: “[T]o what aspects of Jesus’ character and teachings — brotherly love, personal sacrifice, self-denial, kindness, generosity, concern for the poor, courage in the face of death, etc. — do groups like the American Civil Liberties Union so vigorously object?  If they “object” to anything, civil libertarians object to Jesus’ teaching “No one comes to [God] except through me” (John 14:6) when used in a context that could imply U.S. governmental endorsement of that belief.  That is a teaching of Jesus that (unlike kindness, generosity, etc.) not everyone agrees with, and the government ought not to imply that they should.

Sears also writes:

Mention Muhammad or Hare Krishna [sic] or Buddha or Gandhi in a classroom, and no one starts calling up lawyers. Carve a quote from any of them on the courthouse wall, and civil libertarians will sing of your tolerance and nod in sage approval. No one uses their name in a curse, or shudders to think someone might really believe what they taught.

However, the civil libertarians I know would object to words from Muhammad, Krishna, and Buddha being carved on a courthouse wall just as much as any passage from the Bible.  (Gandhi, on the other hand, is not a religious figure in the sense that the others are, and his inclusion in Sears’s list is bewildering.)  The government ought not to endorse Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism any more than it should endorse Judeo-Christianity.  So, what Sears says isn’t true.

But the holiday of Christmas isn’t in danger of going away anytime soon.  From everything I see, it will be celebrated from year to year for the foreseeable future and beyond.  What is, however, being lost is Christianity’s — or at the very least, monotheism’s — special status as something like a semi-official religion of the United States.  And, at the risk of repeating myself once more, a loss of privilege, by itself, isn’t the same thing as persecution.

The bottom line is that the U.S. government, even in the form of the public-school system, should not be used for Christian proselytizing.  However, to many Christians — because they believe that accepting Jesus’ divinity is required for any soul to escape perdition — proselytizing is the best thing that anyone can do, and they see no problem using the government as an agent of religious conversion and propagation.  Furthermore, because many of them also believe that government is a “mere” human construct that their God transcends, the idea that government should not be used for religious conversion is not as important as their religion itself, which they see as the one true faith.  

Sometimes, one tries to appeal to them via Jesus’ Golden Rule — “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and say that just as they would not want a non-Christian government proselytizing them, they should not want a Christian government to proselytize non-Christians.  But to be anecdotal, one response that conservative Christians have to this appeal is that, according to Jesus, the Golden Rule is not as important as the commandment, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” (Matthew 22:37).  Therefore, they say, converting someone to the Christian faith is more important than treating others as oneself.  Also, it’s virtually impossible for them to conceive of a United States where Christianity is not the majority religion.  And besides, many of them believe that the world as we know it will come to an end before the U.S. would ever have another dominant faith.  In other words, to them, there is no such thing as secularism because everything “falls under the purview” of their religion.  So, appeals of this kind to some conservative Christians tend to fall on deaf ears.

Given this absolutist mindset among some conservative Christians, expect tocsins of Christian persecution to be sounded anytime an instance of the loss of Christian privilege occurs.  Expect the cries of a “war on Christmas” to continue until Doomsday.

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