Dec 24, 2018

By Rachel Laser and David P. Gushee

One of us is getting excited to celebrate the birth of Jesus and the other just finished making her first batch of homemade latkes, but we both believe the claim that there is a “War on Christmas” is false. We walk city streets adorned in Santa’s sleighs and pine trees twinkling with red and green lights. We listen to secular radio stations broadcasting Christmas music 24/7 from the moment we have eaten our last piece of Thanksgiving turkey. Rudolph movie marathons grace several channels. And wishes of a Merry Christmas begin on Dec. 1 no matter what holidays you celebrate.

The reality is that you could not avoid a Christmas experience in America if you tried. Yet for some, this is not enough. The cries of a “War on Christmas,” a seasonal staple of the Religious Right, echo through the decked halls. Like your great aunt’s fruitcake (if you’re Christian), the claim comes back around every year.

The “War on Christmas” trope traditionally played mostly on conservative radio and the Fox News Channel until it was adopted by President Donald Trump. During the 2016 campaign, Trump insisted that we would say “Merry Christmas” again, asserting, without providing any evidence, that people had stopped.

Assuming that everyone celebrates Christmas fails to acknowledge the existence of the nearly one-third of Americans who are non-Christian. Trump doesn’t seem to care. Or perhaps that is the point. After all, this is a president whose belief that “Islam hates us” led to a Muslim Ban. And Trump has made countless efforts to please those in his base who seek to re-establish Christian hegemony in American religious life, such as seeking guidance on key policy from an evangelical-only Advisory Board.

So, what is this charge of a “War on Christmas” really about? Generally speaking, it’s a reaction to those who challenge the presumption that everyone celebrates Christmas. When you are part of any majority group, it is easy to feel defensive when someone from a minority group points out that you might be — even unintentionally — ignoring or devaluing them. The classic resulting behavior is to call out the person challenging you as insensitive, or even aggressive.

We encourage a shift of mindset. Rather than taking it as a slight when someone points out they are hurt, offended or feel not seen by the assumption they are Christian, we hope that Christians take it as an opportunity to reach out, be a part of the wider community and love thy neighbor.

As a Christian and a Jew, we reject an America that narrows instead of broadens the space for religious diversity in our country. We want this season to be one of inclusivity. Should we abandon Christmas? Absolutely not.

But we simply cannot assume the baseline is that everyone celebrates it.

At this time of year, Jews celebrate Hanukkah, Hindus celebrate Diwali and some folks mark the Solstice or other holidays. And an increasing number of Americans — nearly 40 percent of young adults aged 18–29 — have no religious affiliation at all. This could account for recent polls showing that a growing number of Americans are celebrating a secularized version of Christmas.

This year, we encourage everyone to look to the person next to you — in the office, the coffee shop, the bus ride home — and not to assume that he or she is celebrating Christmas. You can ask them if they are doing anything special during this season or make a respectful inquiry about their religious or non-religious traditions during this time of year. But it’s wrong to take as a given that everyone shares your way of doing things.

Some may think that our proposal is anti-Christian or even anti-religion. But in fact, we are honoring Christianity alongside the many other belief systems of our nation by promoting religious freedom for all.

In a season when so many of us are focused on gift giving, we, a Christian who is still buying his gifts for this year and a Jew who has already given her family eight days of presents, agree on this: Religious freedom, which safeguards the right to make your own decisions about what (if any) holiday to celebrate and how you find meaning in your life, is one of the best presents of all.

Rachel Laser is president and CEO of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. David P. Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics at Mercer University and president of the American Academy of Religion. This post originally appeared on the site Medium.