Happy Holidays, Mr. French!: Why The Religious Right Wants To Control Christmas

Skirmishes over Christmas are not about interior decoration or 'political correctness'; they’re about what kind of country we are and will be.

Last night, my wife and I attended the annual winter concert at my son’s middle school. Paul plays a mean clarinet, and I was proud to see him on stage with the advanced band tooting away on a variety of songs.

The pieces were drawn from various cultures. We heard an old Russian song called “Minka’s Sleigh Ride,” a Japanese folk tune titled “Sakura, Sakura” and my personal favorite – “The Three-Minute Nutcracker,” all of your favorite numbers from the Nutcracker ballet condensed into 180 seconds.

This type of variety makes sense. The school population is diverse, and we want everyone to feel welcome. I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I left the concert feeling good about our school and the larger community. But it wasn’t long before I was reminded that there are people out there bound and determined to use Christmas as another front in their misguided “culture war” – and as a weapon to promote misguided forms of religious supremacy. It’s an ironic way to treat the season of peace!

Consider this column by David French, an attorney with the right-wing Alliance Defense Fund, which appeared on The Washington Post’s website. While I disagree with French’s views, he at least has the virtue of candor. He freely admits why the Religious Right carps on this issue so much – it’s a reminder to the rest of us that Christians (of his stripe) rule.

“The Christmas skirmish is just one (easily lampooned) part of a larger battle over our nation’s history,” he writes. “Crosses on public land don’t coerce anyone, and the sound of school children singing ‘Silent Night’ is miles from forced conversions or state churches. They are, however, declarations of national heritage and community belief.”

He adds, “In other words, it isn’t ‘scary’ when Christmas lights become holiday lights or Christmas trees become, simply, trees. It’s just false. It’s yet another petty effort in a long campaign to shame us into becoming something we’ve never been: a truly secular nation.”

So there you have it. If you’re bothered by a (government-sanctioned) cross on public land that purports to represent all war dead but doesn’t include your non-Christian loved one, too bad; get over it. If your child is compelled to sing sectarian devotional songs in school, just move on. “Secular,” to French, remains a dirty word, and “community belief” – a polite term for mob rule – is the standard by which your rights will be gauged.

But here’s an interesting question: If we’re not meant to be a “truly secular” nation, what are we supposed to be? My guess is that French and those who think like him have a goal in mind: We’ll be a religious nation!

And while French and his ilk may give lip service to a generic religiosity that supposedly most Americans can endorse, the reality is much different: We won’t be a Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, liberal Christian nation or even Deistic. We will be a nation that reflects the type of Christianity French prefers – because we all know believers aren’t serious about their faith unless they read the Bible literally and embrace right-wing fundamentalist politics.

How convenient.

Unfortunately for French, this front is collapsing all around him. In fact, I’m ready to say the “war on Christmas” is over because Americans don’t want to fight it. Americans are well aware that the First Amendment gives them the right to celebrate the holiday however they choose – and that is just what more and more people are doing.

Sure, lots of folks still want a full-throttle, old-fashioned religious Christmas. More power to them. They can go to any number of churches for that (not city hall or a public school), and they shouldn’t try to compel anyone else to take part.

Other Americans are doing things differently. Some celebrate Christmas as secular holiday. Others are rediscovering its Pagan roots. Others don’t celebrate at all or enjoy another holiday. USA Today recently published a piece on the elevation of Christmas’ secular aspects over its religious features. It seems to be a growing trend.

This didn’t happen due to government mandate. It’s an artifact of the culture and increasing diversity. Naturally, this upsets the rigid authoritarians of the Religious Right. They’re bothered by the fact that in a free society, people have the right to celebrate a holiday in a way that best makes sense to them – instead of the “religiously correct” way favored by fundamentalists.

At the end of the day, the various skirmishes over Christmas are not about interior decoration or “political correctness.” They’re about what kind of country we are and will be.

The Religious Right knows that. Its leaders pretend to be defending a beloved holiday, but what they are really doing is trying to lock in a narrative that rewrites American history, a narrative that insists that the American government was founded to be “Christian” instead of secular as our Constitution commands – and it’s a narrow version of Christianity at that.

This is a narrative in which some people have more rights than others, and those who don’t support the narrative are relegated to the back of the bus, free to loiter about the margins of Christmas but not deserving of equal space at the government’s table.

No thanks. I’d rather keep the government out of the business of promoting the religious aspects of Christmas. Government does it poorly, and it’s the churches’ job anyway.

The good news is we can reject this Religious Right overture and say no to those who claim to treasure Christmas but cynically exploit seasonal sentiment for political gain. We must always remember that, thanks to our First Amendment, it is our right to chose what (if anything) Christmas means to us.

At the end of the day, that is the greatest holiday gift of all.

I don’t suppose French would have enjoyed last night’s performance. It was billed as a “Winter Concert,” and “Silent Night” wasn’t on the play list. But from where I was sitting, everything sounded absolutely perfect.