There isn’t a war on Christmas in North America

By Tim Muldoon This article is part of a series for the Patheos Holiday Monitor, which tracks the War on … Continued

By Tim Muldoon


This article is part of a series for the Patheos Holiday Monitor, which tracks the War on Christmas debates from across the land.

There isn’t a war on Christmas in North America. A few skirmishes here and there, but at least in the United States most level-headed people understand that people are remarkably free to celebrate religious holidays as they like. This is not Iran, where conversion to Christianity can mean a death sentence; or Iraq, where anti-Christian violence is escalating. Yes, some bad neighbors out there like to lob insults on billboards and buses, but these are outliers, the extremes at the end of the bell curve. Most folks are in the middle, and they realize that holy days and seasons are deeply meaningful. We are fortunate to live in an age in which we can learn about different religious practices and yet not be afraid to deepen our own.

Twenty-first century tolerance is not the same as your great-great-great grandfathers’ tolerance. In earlier ages, there was latent and sometimes explicit hatred between different Christian groups. My Patheos colleague Marci Hamilton makes the point well:

Each denomination felt distinct, and in many cases, rival believers hated each other. The Puritans killed Quakers, hated Baptists, and expelled anyone who disagreed with their religious beliefs. The Quakers, who controlled Pennsylvania, passed laws that prohibited non-Quakers from taking public office. Catholics were distrusted. There was no shared religious agreement on values or human nature. Jews migrated to the United States over 350 years ago, so they were present as well. To say that most Americans were Christian is to assert an abstraction and not much else.

The ideal of tolerance, rooted primarily in John Locke’s philosophy (especially as expressed in his 1689 Letter Concerning Toleration), was basically the idea that the state ought to let different Christian groups have an open field for persuading believers, and that the government shouldn’t establish any religion as the princes of Europe did. This was the philosophy behind our first amendment. What’s telling, though, is that Locke’s toleration didn’t extend to Catholics–they would undermine government, he thought, by trusting “another prince,” i.e. the pope. (It was precisely that concern that John F. Kennedy addressed in his famous 1960 address to Baptist Ministers on the eve of his election to the presidency.) Some religions were more tolerable than others.

One down-side of Locke’s model of tolerance is that it is limited by the experiences in Protestant Europe, and as a result the current American version of it is insufficient. Generations of Catholics dealt with life as second-class citizens, a point evidenced by the alternate culture that the Catholic Church built up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries (schools, hospitals, etc). Jews, too, were a constant minority group, and the growth of celebrations of Hanukkah–a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar–were fueled in part by the desire not to be left out during the Christmas season. To this day, fights over public displays of religious symbols (often around Christmas) are rooted in the desire of immigrant communities to assert their religious and cultural identity as Americans.

In the twenty-first century, these older battles about Christmas and Hanukkah displays–over Christmas trees, crèche scenes, and menorahs (and more recently the Kwanzaa Kinara)–come across as somewhat provincial. Those who don’t want to spoil the fun of a winter season may argue for a religion-free holiday, with commercialized symbols like a Coca-Cola Santa Claus, a Norman Rockwell picture, and a Miracle on 34th Street. But many others recognize that holiday seasons have to mean something a little more substantive than “hooray, it’s winter!” At their root, religious holidays are both expressions of a group’s identity and an invitation to others to learn about them.

In the case of Christmas (I’ll speak only for the holiday I know best), believers are expressing what it means to believe that God became a human being when Jesus was born. Yes, it’s a radical claim–no less so today than when Christians first starting talking about it among their peers a couple of millennia ago. Yes, it’s easy to make fun of, and it’s easy to make Christians mad by attacking that belief. But it’s bad citizenship. Of course the same goes for attacking other religious groups’ beliefs in uncritical, public ways.

Twenty-first century tolerance has to start with a deepening of understanding of religious traditions and what desires lead people to practice religious spirituality. Unlike the “least common denominator” approach of last century, which amounted to a stripping of religious language in the vain search for a bland uniformity–a move which arguably contributed to driving religion out of the public square and therefore toward extremes–this approach allows for the full expression of religious faith. Only where faith is allowed to thrive can it mature, enter into dialogue with others, and contribute to a healthy society. Public expressions of faith need not be angry; they arise out of religious groups’ desire that others learn about their roots. The right kind of tolerance can lead to a vigorous public conversation about religion, rather than the ostracism of this most meaningful dimension of people’s lives from the public square.


Tim Muldoon is a Catholic theologian, author, speaker, and retreat leader specializing in the ways that Church traditions speak to contemporary life. He has written extensively on the themes of young adult spirituality, Ignatian spirituality, theology in postmodernity, sexuality and marriage, and adoption issues. He is a columnist at Patheos.com.

About

Elizabeth Tenety Elizabeth Tenety is the former editor of On Faith, where she produced "Divine Impulses," On Faith’s video interview series. She studied Theology and Government at Georgetown University and received her master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. A New York native, Elizabeth grew up in the home of Catholic news junkies where, somewhere in between watching the nightly news and participating in parish life, she learned to ponder both the superficial and the sacred.
  • mcintire78

    “…from the public square.” Every house on my street has Christmas lights up and a tree in the window. There are Christmas lights on Main Street and wreathes in every businesses window. America is overwhelmingly Christian. Religion is not being driven “from the public square.” However, religion is separated from government, for both their sakes, and for mine. Not being a believer, I’m not particularly fond of the idea of government endorsing Christianity. If it did, would I be less of a American for not being a Christian? If believers can’t bear that separation without being marginalized and becoming extremists, let me suggest that they grow up a little bit and spend some time praying for tolerance. And wisdom.

  • PhilSeymour

    I hope many people will read Mr. Muldoon’s thoughtful examination of the how’s and why’s of the Christmas season in 2010 America.This was particularly relevant; “Public expressions of faith need not be angry…”

  • areyousaying

    “Christians” saying “Christmas” and “war” in the same breath is an oxy-mormon.

  • areyousaying

    No, “Twenty-first century tolerance has to start with a deepening of understanding of..” the fact we’re not all Catholic, Baptists, Mormon or whatever and what leads people to fear your bullying in the name of “religious spirituality”Don’t you have some pervert priests to go hide?

  • Sajanas

    “Yes, some bad neighbors out there like to lob insults on billboards and buses, but these are outliers, the extremes at the end of the bell curve”So, you find statements of atheism to be insulting? The reason atheists put them on buses (and they’re such tame things like, “their probably is no God”) is because the real problem is that people of faith take it as an insult. When believers give people who don’t take their ideas seriously some respect, there won’t be any need for bus signs.

  • ktsmom9

    Muldoon is absolutely correct. There IS no war on Christmas. The Christians WON long ago, as any member of another religious (or non) tradition can tell you. All Americans who are not Christians have been well aware of the oppressiveness of the “Holiday Season” their entire lives, just as the Jews knew their days were numbered in Germany, so the minority Faith people know they’re being tracked and listed.I dread the day someone like Palin or other Bible-thumping “Christian” gets to the Presidency, then the lynchings (or burning at the stake?) will become law once again.

  • Garak

    The War on Christmas is over, and Christians lost. Business has succeeded in making Christmas an almost purely commercial holiday. And it didn’t need any governmental support to achieve victory.

  • eezmamata

    It is the purveyors of christianity which declared this war, not the followers nor the unbelievers.These priests, preachers and other such parasites who make a living off of the beliefs of others, these people need this war. They need the atheists as much as they need the believers.

  • schnauzer21

    “…from the public square.” Every house on my street has Christmas lights up and a tree in the window. There are Christmas lights on Main Street and wreathes in every businesses window. America is overwhelmingly Christian. Religion is not being driven “from the public square.” The birth of jesus wasn’t even on the christian calendar for the first 300 years or so the religion existed. It was considered unseemly to celebrate his birth the same way they did for regular humans(kings and such at the time).

  • schnauzer21

    “In the case of Christmas (I’ll speak only for the holiday I know best), believers are expressing what it means to believe that God became a human being when Jesus was born. Yes, it’s a radical claim–no less so today than when Christians first starting talking about it among their peers a couple of millennia ago. Yes, it’s easy to make fun of, and it’s easy to make Christians mad by attacking that belief.Christains (not all but the leadership at least) are the very first to say they are being “oppressed” and also the first to dismiss the views of others.

  • Freestinker

    People who get upset about hearing the phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are upset because they understand the days of their cultural and religious dominance in America are coming to a close, and evidently, it hurts. They aren’t content with personal religious liberty. They don’t appreciate religious diversity. They want their religious opinions to dominate the entire country, like they used to.”Happy Holidays” acknowledges a growing and ever expanding religious and cultural diversity in America, a diversity that is engulfing if not replacing traditional Christian monculture. And as with the demise of any once-dominant religion, also comes a predictable devaluation of their symbols and rituals. The same thing happened to the Pagans of the early Roman empire when Christianity came into fashion.That’s why “Happy Holidays” stings some people so badly. It’s a constant reminder that the days of Christian religious dominance in America are all but over. Now they have to share the season (and the country) with everybody else. “Happy Holidays” means they just ain’t so special anymore.

  • Carstonio

    Freestinker pegged it. I’ve heard stories from a few business owners and clerks who got grief from customers for saying Happy Holidays. I might understand the customers’ feelings if they tried to wish Merry Christmas to people and were rebuffed. But they were essentially demanding that others say Merry Christmas to them.

  • Catken1

    “Yes, it’s easy to make fun of, and it’s easy to make Christians mad by attacking that belief.Why is it bad citizenship to question or criticize any assertion made by anyone, just because that assertion has the magic word “religious” attached to it? Surely in America, we have freedom to speak and question even religious ideas? And if an idea is true, valuable and/or worthwhile, surely it can survive such questioning and criticism?

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