December 9, 2004

Bill O'Reilly and other right-wing pundits are making a big stir over what they say is a liberal-secular attack on Christmas. There seem to be increasing occurrences when Christmas decorations are banned from civic parades and Christmas carols are excluded from school pageants, and so forth. This is a blatant attempt, say critics, to replace Christmas with a generic celebration where the preferred greeting is "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas."

Much as I hate to agree with O'Reilly on anything, I have to admit that some of the attempts to banish Christmas symbolism from public events strike me as overwrought and silly. History, after all, does need to be taken into account and for generations people have enjoyed celebrations that included Christmas trees, and decorations, and songs, and parties, and food that became rooted in their emotions. To be told that these must either be suppressed or kept private doesn't set well with a majority of citizens.

Part of the problem comes simply from the truth that we live in a country in which most people consider themselves to be Christians of some sort but in which there are significant minorities who are not Christian and don't want to be forced to participate in Christian pageantry. That's going to create a certain tension no matter what.

It's a tension, though, that could be managed with reasonable friendliness were it not for exacerbating factors that have recently come on the scene. One is that most people don't have even a beginning understanding of what is involved in the Constitutionally decreed separation of church and state. It means, simply, that the government must not support or prefer any particular religious organization, that every religious organization stands on the same legal footing. It does not mean that beliefs and moral convictions derived from religion cannot be permitted a public expression. That would be ridiculous and would, in effect, amount to a political suppression of religion.

Another factor that has roused hostility over Christmas -- and one for which right-wingers are mainly to blame -- is the attempt to marry Christianity to a particular political program. Most of the policies reported in the media as being rooted in Christianity, have nothing to do with Christianity rightly understood. There is no more disgraceful movement in American history than the attempt to kidnap Christianity and make it over into a hyper-nationalistic crusade involving the death penalty, incessant warfare, hated of most forms of sexuality, and cheer leading for corporate capitalism.

If we had mind enough to perceive Christianity for what it is, and strip away these self-serving political encrustations, there would be little reason for anyone to feel threatened by it or by its symbols. We could then say either "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays" without declaring ourselves to be political warriors. I realize that's not going to happen, but, still, it's what I wish for all of us as we move into a season that's supposed to stand for the blessings of generosity and mercy.

©John R. Turner

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