Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The War on Christmas Revisited

Christmas is a time for repeating traditions--including, now, the "Stop the War against Christmas" meme and the pushbacks against it (the "Fox News is all wrong" meme).  In the latter vein, Jim Wallis of Sojourners writes this year:

Jesus later calls on his disciples to turn the other cheek, practice humility, walk the extra mile, put away their swords, love their neighbors — and even their enemies — and says that in his kingdom, it is the peacemakers who will be called the children of God. Christ will end our warring ways, bringing reconciliation to God and to one another.

None of that has anything to do with the Fox News Christmas. In fact, quite the opposite.

Making sure that shopping malls and stores greet their customers with “Merry Christmas” is entirely irrelevant to the meaning of the Incarnation. In reality it is the consumer frenzy of Christmas shopping that is the real affront and threat to the season.

Much of this seems quite right (and I think a lot of conservative Christian Fox-watchers would share  concerns about commercialism, even if the media they watch promote it).  But there's one valid point to the "Stop the War against Christmas" campaign that I think Jim should explicitly acknowledge.  In the spirit of traditions, I'll reprint an excerpt from my own post on this four Decembers ago:

I'm basically sympathetic to [Wallis's] kind of critique.  Isn't it true that many of the "keep America Christian" efforts seem to be motivated more by the idea of retaining (cultural) power than the idea of pursuing Christ-like servanthood?

But there's a big potential pitfall in this criticism too.  The culture warriors may often overlook servanthood, but they are right to oppose secularism -- and the social-justice Christians need that opposition to secularism in order for there to be public space for their own critique.  If it's improper to bring up Jesus's name in pluralistic public settings (including department stores), then you can't proclaim, "Jesus came to bring good news to the poor and oppressed," in those settings.  The social-justice types need to give one cheer, maybe two, for the culture warriors.


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Hi, Tom. Thanks for the post. Drawing a little on the last part of your comments, I sometimes wonder where the line between the cultural components of religion and its other manifestations is to be drawn. Maybe it is an obscure line (at least to me)not so much because it is difficult to identify where (bad) culture ends and (good) the rest of it begins, but because of the ways in which each deeply affects and is affected by the other. Marc

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Dec 15, 2011 6:10:12 PM

Hi Tom,

One problem with the debate over Christmas is that both sides are, in a sense, trying to have their cake (or eggnog) and eat it too. The "culture warriors" insist that the religious dimension of Christmas be acknowledged, but don't really think through what it would mean to treat Christmas as an essentially religious holiday. The "multiculturalists" really want the same old Christmas they've always had with some new labels ("the holidays") and some incredibly shallow nods to diversity or neutrality. At the end of the day, it also seems to me that the Christmas dilemma is in some deep sense intractable. For the outline of some thoughts on the subject, see my little talk on "Christmas" at http://ssrn.com/abstract=947613 .

Posted by: Perry Dane | Dec 15, 2011 7:04:06 PM

The problem with this kind of attempt to play the middle is that is misses the midpoint of the shouting for the true virtuous mean. There's no real threat to the discussion of religious values in American society. (That those ideas are getting less popular is not in itself a threat.) The idea that there is a threat is itself one of the CRW memes. For the foreseeable future, people proclaiming the giving message around holiday time will always be welcome in the public square. They don't need the crazies to defend that right for them.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Dec 16, 2011 12:05:34 AM

Andrew, the threat is real. I have pointed out that holding Christian beliefs can get you into trouble. Do I need to post them all again?

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 16, 2011 11:44:55 AM

Perry, that's a great piece that I remember reading a while back (and some of it parallels Marc's comment that the "cultural" and "religious" components of Christmas are harder to separate than we think). I agree that that there's no perfect solution in the Christmas debate. The "bracing austerity" of taking government out of it also has some appeal to me, but as you suggest, we're unlikely to achieve it--or more importantly, understand or embrace the Madisonian "anti-dilution" rationale for it, which must be to a significant extent a rationale from within the relevant religion (in this case Christianity). This connects some with my point in the post, though, which is that if we have a serious discomfort about explicitly Christian language in the public square, that will carry over to explicit language from the Christian left like Jim Wallis's "Jesus calls us to peacemaking and concern for the poor."

Andrew, I agree with your implicit point that the war on Christmas has always been exaggerated, but I think there are underlying premises that have an effect beyond the surface of this dispute. Your reference to "the giving message" that is "welcome around holiday time" sounds pretty generic and ecumenical, sort of like--on the political side--"our religious and moral traditions call for peacemaking and concern for the poor." There are benefits from having sharper, more explicit messages in public debate, like Jim Wallis's "Jesus demands peacemaking and concern for the poor." (There are costs too, and reasons and occasions for being ecumenical.) But the more that Jesus messages are seen categorically as too narrow or divisive for the public square, the more that will also hamper the sharper peacemaking and anti-poverty messages, maybe not immediately, but over time.

Posted by: Tom Berg | Dec 16, 2011 3:11:13 PM

Fr. J, I don't think we need to repeat the details of debates we've had before.

Posted by: Tom Berg | Dec 16, 2011 3:12:53 PM

Tom, he brought it up not me. When someone makes that claim even though it has been refuted it should not be allowed to stand.

We see how Christian views get you blacklisted. Just today: http://www.creativeminorityreport.com/2011/12/traditional-marriage-supporter.html

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 16, 2011 7:08:36 PM

Fr. J , I read your link and appreciate your putting it up. The story has to do with an adjunct professor who allegedly was not hired, or had his hiring rescinded, because of his views on same-sex marriage. A key statement in the story is this: "Hamline's student newspaper quoted David A. Schultz, an adjunct professor at Hamline's law school, saying that some faculty members had complained to administrators about Emmer's possible hiring, citing two issues: his stance on same-sex marriage and the fact that he was being hired without a hiring committee or faculty review, according to Inside Higher Ed." Let me say that if the former was the reason, I strongly oppose it. If the latter was a good-faith reason, that's a different question; if the latter was a purported justification but was just a stalking horse for the former, I would again strongly oppose it. No matter the state of general sentiment on these matters, there are certainly those out there, like me, who strongly believe that religious and other views generally have no place in decisions of this matter, and who believe particularly that we should not manifest anti-religious views, or even ideological views on the underlying issue regardless of the importance or unimportance of religion to the objectors.

That said, with all due respect, this story (and even others like it) doesn't demonstrate that there is a "War on Christmas," whether it is overstated or understated, what a "War on Christmas" would even mean, and what ought to be done about it. Indeed, both issues can be said to have something to do with how to live in a pluralist state. To my mind, it is inconsistent with doing so to bar people from jobs on the basis of their strongly held religious beliefs, although that hardly covers the whole gamut of potential issues. But it is also perfectly consistent with pluralism to choose, if one wishes, to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," especially in a religiously diverse public square. That's true if the decision is a commercial one, and doubly true if it also constitutes a statement of belief on the speaker's side: i.e., as a Jew (or a Christian), I might decide that saying "Happy Holidays" is a way to embrace and show respect for a variety of religious beliefs and traditions to whom this season is important, including those who are not religious at all--not out of hostility to Christmas or Christianity (or Hannukah, or Judaism, etc.), but out of a desire to show equal respect for a variety of religious traditions during this season. (In fact, what I actually do is varied. Sometimes I wish people a "Merry Christmas," sometimes a "Happy Hannukah," and often "Happy Holidays." It depends on the context.) Whether that's the right response or not is a matter for debate; but your story does not address it one way or the other.

I should say that I generally agree with Tom's post and, especially, Perry's comment. And I also think the whole discussion can get quite complicated quite quickly, with implications for other aspects of law and religion, or religion and culture. It's one thing to argue over what retailers should say, and about what role consumer opinion should have in that debate. It's another to say (not that you have) that retailers ought to, or must, always say "Merry Christmas"--which would go a fair way toward harming the public square and the public-private divide in other ways--or to conclude that any use of the phrase "Happy Holidays" is a sign of disrespect for or hostility toward Christianity, rather than respect for religious pluralism tout court.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Dec 19, 2011 7:58:05 AM

Paul, every year we get a raft of stories about someone who says "Merry Christmas" and gets fired or otherwise discriminated against. The Grinches are Legion. I don't see this kind of thing aimed at other faiths. But the general point is that just being a Christian can get you into trouble nowadays. I object to those who want to lull us into a false sense of security and dismiss these things as minor. Say Happy Holidays all you like, but no one should be punished for saying Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.

Posted by: Fr. J | Dec 19, 2011 4:07:09 PM