Well, it’s another year, and we’ve survived the War on Christmas once more. Actually, this is a war that’s much older than the War on Terror: it began way back in 1920 or so, when Henry Ford published his pernicious “The International Jew.” As anti-Semites have often done, he blamed the Jews for trying to kill Christmas. Since then, conservatives have added other villains too: liberals, atheists, the ACLU, the Democrats... you get the idea. I don’t know who won this year’s skirmish in the war, but I find it odd to hear conservatives endlessly bemoaning how the left has removed Christmas from the public sphere. I mean, I go into a store or turn on the radio and what are they playing? Christmas music. All over the city, what do I see? Christmas lights and decorations, some religious and some not, but all devoted to Christmas. Few if any stores ever have Diwali or Hanukkah or Eid decorations. Few play holiday music for non-Christians. And yet, the right still insists Christmas has been eradicated. You could have fooled me.
But what really has enfuriated me this year is the latest example of right-wing talking points, sent around by e-mail and promoted on talk radio-- 95% of which is conservative. Seems there was a resolution to respect Christmas, and ten members of congress refused to vote for it. [Insert outrage here.] Actually, they were afraid to vote against it, so they voted “present”, but that was enough for the right to launch their attack. How despicable, how rude, how un-American these representatives are. It’s another example of how Christmas and Christianity are under attack!
However, if you look closely at the resolution, it’s actually another example of how manipulative some on the right can be, and you wonder why more representatives didn’t vote it down. You see, it wasn’t about respecting Christmas at all. It was about agreeing that this really is a Christian nation and that Christians are being persecuted for their faith. In America. That’s what the resolution says. Okay, to be fair, it also said world-wide, and yes, in some countries (Iraq for one), Christians absolutely are experiencing persecution. But in America? Not so much. There are hundreds and hundreds of Christian radio and TV stations that get to say just about anything they want. There are numerous TV preachers, making whatever claims they choose to make. Conservative Christians dominate the White House, the Justice Department, even the Supreme Court. And on the rare occasions when they don’t get their own way in their on-going effort to impose their particular agenda on the rest of us, their spokespeople howl that they are being persecuted. How do you dominate an entire culture and then claim you are persecuted? How cynical is that?
I teach social history, and I can tell you this is nothing new for the right. When American history books explain how the First Amendment was unique and worthy of praise, they seldom mention that there was a backlash almost immediately. From the 1790s onward, religious conservatives have tried to pass a so-called “Religious Amendment” that would not only establish Christianity as the official religion of America, in direct violation of what the founders wanted, but would deprive all non-Christians of any rights other than those the Christian majority would dole out. Lest you think I am making this up, I am not. The movement really picked up steam in the early 1870s, perhaps as a reaction to all the immigrants who were coming to America, many of whom were not Christian. Hundreds of people met locally to plan their strategy, as well-respected ministers asserted that Jesus and the Bible had been driven from the public square and it was time to do something about it. True believers attended annual conventions, under the name of the National Reform Association, with a goal of pressuring Congress to pass an amendment that would basically bring an end to separation of church and state, making America officially a Christian nation. One of the leaders of the movement was a Supreme Court Justice, William Strong. And while some newspapers were appalled, others thought it was a good idea and would make America a more moral country; since most Americans were already Christians, these newspapers reasoned, a lot of people would be pleased.
Of course, even then, it dawned on a few critics that not every Christian was conservative, nor did everyone agree with the rest of the National Reform Association’s goals, which included mandatory Sabbath observance and the teaching of Protestant Christian dogma in the schools. Over the years, some critics dismissed the amendment’s supporters as lunatics and fanatics, but the idea of officially stating that America is a “Christian nation” always seems to garner enough popular support to attract attention year after year. And while the amendment has never passed, the groups that supported it have continued to try to re-introduce it, from 1870 onward. Sometimes, proponents even get themselves into positions of power, as we have seen during the years of the Bush Administration, when arch-conservatives have been allowed to set policy on social issues, whether the rest of us like it or not.
So here we are; it’s almost 2008, and under a different set of names, the religious right is still trying to impose its version of reality (and morality) on everyone. And this time, they’ve bullied congress into opening the door just a little bit, getting members to agree that “the House of Representatives . . . expresses continued support for Christians in the United States . . .[and] acknowledges and supports the role played by Christians and Christianity in the founding of the United States.” I didn’t know there was a question of Christians needing some love from Congress. And I guess I missed all the resolutions that praised Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus on their holy days and thanked them for their contributions to America. (By the way, Jews absolutely were here in America’s formative years, and some fought -- and died -- in the Revolutionary War. Yet in certain states, the Christian majority refused to let them vote or attend college unless they agreed to convert to Christianity.)
It seems to me that some of our Founders were much more liberal and tolerant than some of the people and politicians who lived here in the early years of the United States. Looking back at magazine and newspaper essays from that era, you find there were quite a few Americans who wanted America to remain all white and all Protestant. (Sometimes I wonder if some on the religious right still think that would make America a better country.) Meanwhile, every year, out come the same unfounded assertions, the same tedious clichés, the same outrage over something that didn’t happen: yes, this year as ever, Christians were not deprived of their right to celebrate their holiday. Stop the presses.
In this season of miracles, I am praying for some courageous politicians who will say “Enough” and refuse to let religion be a wedge issue. The Founders said we shouldn’t have a religion test, yet there are so many Republicans (and even a few Democrats) feeling they must prove to the voters how they love Jesus more than their opponents do. If politicians want to show me how much they love Jesus, they might begin by feeding the poor. Or ending homelessness. Or making sure people have medicines they can afford. Or better still... how about defending separation of church and state? It really doesn't deprive anyone of their rights, and somehow, I don't think Jesus would mind.
And as for my friends on the right, I really get the point that you believe you are being persecuted for your faith. But despite what the right wing talk hosts keep insisting, there's no proof of it, other than a few cherry-picked and anecdotal stories. So, I think it’s time for all the lies and exaggeration and outrage to stop. A strategy that hasn't really succeeded since 1790 ought to be discarded, replaced by a willingness to work with even your political opponents. And who knows? If we put our energies into creating a more humane society, we might be able to achieve it. Imagine an end to the War on Christmas -- now, THAT would be be a genuine holiday miracle.
Donna L. Halper is a media historian, author and educator. She lives in Boston.