The holiday season is in full swing. The Christmas lights are up, the eggnog is in the fridge and the TV Pundits are talking about the “War on Christmas.” RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says this cliché deserves a closer look.
President Donald Trump led a venerable ceremony in the nation’s capital that harkens back to the Calvin Coolidge Administration in the 1920s –the lighting of the national Christmas Tree. Shortly before he flipped on the lights, the president said, “I told you we would be saying Merry Christmas again.”
President Trump, as is his habit, apparently wanted to contrast the manner in which he celebrates Christmas with President Barack Obama’s eight White House Christmas celebrations. For those who think Obama was soft on Christmas, we bring you his weekly radio address on Christmas Eve, 2016. Before Santa had even landed his sleigh, the first words out of Obama’s mouth were literally: “Merry Christmas everybody.’
At Christmas in 2015, then-President Obama tweeted, ”Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours.”
We are in an era when it seems everything –including institutions that once unified Americans—is grist for the culture war mill, even such traditions as the wedding cake that so many couples awkwardly cut after vowing to spend their lives together.
This Advent season of peace and good will has in recent years too often become infected with division. Too many on the political right spend this season arguing that a liberal, secular cabal has foisted a “War on Christmas” upon the country. This has become an annual gripe from the fertile imaginations of Fox News commentators, as predictable as tinsel and tree ornaments.
Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. The seasonal shopping frenzy kicks off seconds after the Halloween pumpkins and witches disappear from store aisles. If you think shopping is starting earlier than ever, you’re right. A National Retail Federation survey released last week showed that 174 million Americans made purchases over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend – about 10 million more than had been predicted.
In case you are not infected with shopping anxiety, there are reminders everywhere that you’d best rush to the mall. Switch on television and you’re assaulted with Christmas commercials and cringe-worthy Hallmark movies. The oldies radio stations switch from “Stairway to Heaven” to a steady diet of “Jingle Bells” and “Silent Night.”
The churches where Christians worship and honor the birth of the Christ child are all tax-exempt. Unlike Thanksgiving, all major retailers are closed. Nothing much is open, save for a few Chinese restaurants. Remember Elena Kagan’s quip during her Supreme Court confirmation hearings. When asked what she does for Christmas, she said, “Like many Jews, go to a Chinese restaurant.’’
Christians sing along to one of the season’s favorite songs, “White Christmas” which was composed by Irving Berlin, a Jew. That World War II movie is run endlessly on television during Advent.
Despite the strict separation of church and state prescribed by the U.S. Constitution, nativity scenes are everywhere and even allowed on public property so long as religious symbols are leavened with secular props. That was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in the famous 1984 Pawtucket crèche decision that allowed Christian displays at City Hall so long as they were surrounded by such secular elements as Santa’s reindeer, candy canes and a wishing well.
New Englanders in particular ought to view with skepticism any celebration of Christmas that heightens religious division. Roger Williams, Rhode Island’s first white settler, set up a colony that would have no state established church, a break with European countries. His famous dictum was that “forced religion stinks in the nostrils of God.”
Williams colony erected a strong wall between church and state, more than a century before his teachings would be enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The Constitution doesn’t mention the word God.
No government official or decree hinders anyone from celebrating Christmas or attending midnight Mass. Corporations don’t force employees to work Christmas, unlike Thanksgiving. No elected official who wants to keep his or her seat is promoting legislation that would eliminate the tax-exemption for churches.
There is no war on Christmas. Christians, particularly, ought to celebrate without denigrating anyone’s religion of lack of one. In the true spirit of Christmas, Christians ought to practice what they preach, “Peace on earth and goodwill to all.”
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our “On Politics” blog at ripr.org