I did an interview last week with TV preacher Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). The network was interested in getting my thoughts about U.S. Rep. Henry Brown's resolution promoting Christmas.
I told CBN I didn't think much of it. I pointed out that if you want a deeply religious experience at this time of year, you're bound to be disappointed looking for it at city hall, public schools or the U.S. Congress. I recommended going to church for that.
I've told several reporters this year that, whether the Religious Right likes it or not, the character of Christmas is changing in America. Increasing religious diversity, the popularity of "do-it-yourself" spirituality and other factors are affecting all aspects of the culture, Christmas included.
Some in the Religious Right have responded to this by hunkering down and arrogantly insisting that Christmas belongs to them, and they will determine how it is to be celebrated. On Dec. 22, Robertson went on a tear about the need to preserve the religious character of Christmas and warning interlopers to stay away.
"It isn't somebody else's holiday! This is our holiday! This is a Christian holiday!" Robertson ranted on his "700 Club."
Yet that same CBN story cited an interesting statistic. It referenced an unnamed poll taken this month that found that "66 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, while 20 percent celebrate it as a secular holiday."
Those numbers surprised me. Numerous polls have shown that the United States remains a religious nation, but the number of people celebrating Christmas as a secular holiday appears to be growing. Twenty percent may not seem like much now, but I doubt that figure was even half that 40 years ago.
I think this is what's really bothering people like Rep. Brown, Robertson, Liberty Counsel, the American Family Association and the other members of what I call the "Christmas Police." Some people dare to celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday or add elements of other traditions, including Paganism. (This is not so strange, considering the holiday's Pagan roots.) Some interfaith families blend various traditions. There are even people who say they add a dose of Festivus from the old "Seinfeld" sitcom.
This really annoys the Religious Right. To the budding theocrats, there's only one "right" way to celebrate Christmas -- theirs.
But once again, the Religious Right is picking a fight it can't win. If Americans' attitudes toward Christmas are changing, it's not because of government fiat. Indeed, the reasons for this tide of cultural change are complex and involve many elements.
America's policy of religious freedom buttressed by the separation of church and state guarantees every American the right to celebrate Christmas as his or her conscience dictates. You can do it wholly religious, wholly secular, a mix of both or add in elements from other holidays that take place this time of year. If the Religious Right doesn't like it, too bad!
I don't know what Christmas will look like in 50 years. It may very well be more secular, or it may have incorporated even more features from other end-of-the-year celebrations. The holiday will evolve as the culture dictates – no matter how much television evangelists and members of Congress rant and rave.
Season's Greetings from Americans United!