January 13, 2005
The War Against Christmas
Jerome Eric Copulsky
From various conservative media personalities, the alarm was sounded, and loudly: Christmas was in danger. Rev. Jerry Falwell penned a pair of articles entitled "The Impending Death of Christmas?" (WorldNetDaily, December 11, 2004) which purported to show that the holiday was under coordinated and sustained assault. "Fair and balanced" pundits on Fox News darkly warned of the eventual banning of Christmas. Major department stores prohibited the phrase "Merry Christmas." Christmas trees were renamed holiday trees. Public schools forbade singing Christmas carols. Christmas cheer was supplanted by fear. Dark times indeed.
Ardent defenders of the holiday soon raised up arms and took to the media barricades. Foremost among them was talk-show host and "moralist" Bill O'Reilly, who characterized himself as a lonely defender of the faith. While sticking up for the public display of Christmas on his nationally syndicated radio show, the "no-spin" O'Reilly suggested to a Jewish caller offended by such public celebrations, "you gotta go to Israel then." After all, O'Reilly opined, "overwhelmingly, America is Christian." He went on to state that the caller's concerns were "an affront to the majority." In a recent column (New York Daily News, December 13, 2004) O'Reilly alleged that the attack upon Christmas was but a front in a larger war by secularists bent on undermining the Judeo-Christian foundation of America and replacing it with a "secular utopia" (to use Falwell's phrase) condoning gay marriage, drug legalization, and euthanasia.
Those persuaded by O'Reilly and his ilk might believe that America is teeming
with marauding secularists bent on destroying any and all public display of
Christmas or Christian faith. They may worry that these godless Grinches are
plotting to tear up nativity scenes in front of churches, disrupt midnight Mass,
or barge into the homes of private citizens to take away Christmas trees and
A more skeptical person might point out that much of the evidence of the "conspiracy" against Christmas was misinterpreted or simply manufactured. She may consider that the "controversial" decision by Macy's to replace "Merry Christmas" with "Happy Holidays" merely represents a prudent business resolution acknowledging that not all of their holiday shoppers are Christian -- that is, unless Christmas is no longer simply a religious holiday in America.
Despite the persistent assertions that the United States of America is a "Christian nation" (or "Judeo-Christian nation"), America is not a Christian state. It is -- references to God on our currency notwithstanding -- a secular state. The Constitution mentions neither Christianity nor God, and the First Amendment expressly forbids the establishment of religion by the government. Making Christmas a national holiday cannot, therefore, amount to the creation of a religious holiday, nor can it be construed as a governmental endorsement of Christianity.
In a case involving the display of a nativity scene on public land, the Supreme Court argued that Christmas, as a national holiday, has a clear "secular purpose." The same holds true with references to "God" in the Pledge of Allegiance and on our currency. In the recent decision regarding the Pledge, Chief Justice Rehnquist asserted that the phrase "under God" is "a declaration of belief in allegiance and loyalty to the United States flag and the Republic that it represents. The phrase 'under God' is in no sense a prayer, nor an endorsement of any religion .... Reciting the Pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one; participants promise fidelity to our flag and our Nation, not to any particular God, faith, or church."
That is, when we say the word "God," we do not really mean it -- a sentiment that ought to give the committed monotheist pause, for the Chief Justice's statement amounts to a fairly good working definition of idolatry. So the Christian concerned with the religious meaning of Christmas must look upon its establishment as a national holiday -- or the Constitution -- with suspicion. In short, the best way to de-Christianize Christmas is to grant it government sanction.
One has good reason to be suspicious about this controversy. Apparently Falwell and O'Reilly deem home and church insufficient for Christmas celebrations; Christmas and Christian religion (as they understand it) must be allowed to be proclaimed in the public schools and in the shopping malls, as well. Might this reveal the desire to promote a particular faith, not merely publicly (in churches, on lawns, and so forth), but politically, by means of state resources and power?
Or perhaps the desire for governmental sanction of a particular religious occasion betrays a lack of faith in those non-political institutions of church and home, and a conviction that the state must be enlisted to help preserve, protect, and promote religious observance. For conservatives -- usually suspicious of the power of the state to intrude into the private lives of its citizens -- this would certainly be a surprising position to take.
Jerome Eric Copulsky is Assistant Professor and Director of the Judaic Studies Program at Virginia Tech.