Trump and the 'War on Christmas'

by Michael Sean Winters

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You know the celebration of the birth of our Savior is nigh when Fox News starts yapping about the "War on Christmas." Their website has usefully collected a series of stories that expose the liberal plot to rob Americans of our most cherished holiday. Once again, liberals have stolen a cultural inheritance that most Americans have always enjoyed.

This is all hooey best ignored, of course. Until it results in an Electoral College victory, at which point you can no longer ignore it.

First, the hooey. Those referred to as "early Americans" had a positive aversion to Christmas. Heirs to the most radical variety of Reformation ideology, the Puritans banned any celebration of Christmas which they viewed as a pagan observance that had crept into Christianity thanks to the anti-Christ (that would be the pope to us). Christmas became popular in America more on account of the popularity of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and the arrival of German immigrants in the nineteenth century than due to a more expansive reading of Luke's account of the birth of Jesus.

It is true that liberal jurists started insisting on greater separation between church and state in the 1950s and 1960s. This coincided with the heyday of America's civic religion, a nondenominational version of mainstream Protestantism with more emphasis on national pride than on Christian humility, in which the reduction of religion to ethics was made absolute. An imagined "Golden Era" of Christian cultural hegemony took affront at justices on the Warren Court ruling against school prayer and banning nativity scenes on town squares unless Jesus and Mary were joined by Santa and Frosty. If Mary must be made to rub elbows with Santa, better to ban the whole thing.

Most obnoxiously, the faux-War on Christmas obscures the real War on Christmas that has been going on these past few decades as well. Fox News' Bill O'Reilly is upset when Wal-Mart switches its banners from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" but it is Wal-Mart's complicity in the commercialization of Christmas that is the real attack on this cherished holiday. And it is not just Wal-Mart. At my grocery store, the Christmas decorations and candies were out just after Halloween. Large commercial companies and the advertising firms they employ view Christmas as the time to teach little children how to be greedy, how to want what they don't need, how to equate happiness with stuff. Alas, this war is not one that interests Fox News.

N.B. Thanks to the shift from "Merry Christmas" to "Happy Holidays" there are now millions of Christians who think Hanukkah is the most important Jewish holiday of the year. It isn't.

Second, the Electoral College. It turns out that Donald Trump knew what he was doing when he complained in speech after speech about political correctness. Symbols matter to people and they were not wrong to dislike it when justices of the Supreme Court told them they could no longer enjoy the kind of communal symbols of the Christian faith that they had known all their lives. The tension within the First Amendment's two religion clauses has been real since the start, but in most of our nation's history, the separation clause did not predominate over the free exercise clause, and the free exercise clause was not limited to private ceremonies and places. There is an argument to be made that America's increasing diversity required a stricter application of the separation clause, but we liberals should not be surprised that some people resented that application.

In the event, many liberals were not only surprised: They tended to be condescending and dismissive. They did not mock Fox News' "War in Christmas" and other diatribes against political correctness the way I did above. The ACLU has not been about retrieving the authentic meaning of the Christian holiday. They like sticking their finger in religion's eye, which is strange for an organization that takes commitment to the First Amendment as its primary mission. People who objected when the government told them they could not have a nativity scene were told to get over it. No one likes being condescended to. Trump tapped into the resentment that had been brewing and it was larger and more widespread than the rest of us thought.

Surely, there is room in this great country of ours for a real pluralism, one that does not think a crèche is a threat to the Constitution but also hopes that peoples of other faiths will erect their symbols at the appropriate times of the year in the public square. A pluralism of the left would be preferable to the Puritanism of the left that has nothing but scorn for those who do not subscribe to what Michael Gerson aptly calls "law school liberalism."

Speaking of Gerson, last week his column pointed to the challenge of Advent this year in a typically beautiful column. I would like to reiterate my previously stated concern about the "War on Advent." The season has been lost and most people now think Christmas ends on Christmas Day when, in fact, that is when it begins. Gerson pointed out that Advent stands for everything Trump does not. Advent is the antidote to promethean self-regard. Gerson reminded me of a marvelous quote from Bonhoeffer, that Advent is the season "in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside." It would be news to Trump, the narcissist, that there is an outside.

So, this year, stand against the exploitation for crass political ends that the faux-War on Christmas represents, but sympathize with those people who really like seeing the manger scene and the "Merry Christmas" banners. Teach your children about the real meaning of Christmas and why you want to begin new family traditions that do not involve purchasing stuff. Fight the exploitation of Christmas for crass commercial ends too. Take that check you were going to send to the ACLU and give it to Catholic Charities or to NCR! Sing Advent hymns and make an Advent wreath and don't decorate your Christmas tree until Christmas Eve. Oh yes, and pray for the country.

[Michael Sean Winters is NCR Washington columnist and a visiting fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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