The True Spirit of Xmas

How 4/5 of the country became an oppressed minority

It's a Christmas tradition as venerable as mistletoe and caroling: As the days grow shorter, conservative activists claiming to speak for American Christendom raise their voices, not for a rousing round of "Good King Wenceslaus," but to complain that the roughly 75 to 80 percent of Americans who profess allegiance to some denomination or another of Christianity constitute a cruelly oppressed minority.

The kvetching is especially loud this year, with a spate of stories chronicling the outrage over a particularly insidious form of anti-Christian bigotry: the Satanic phrase "happy holidays."

National Review's John Derbyshire reports bristling at these two seemingly innocuous words with the sort of fascinated intensity he normally reserves for buggery. There's even a Committee to Save Merry Christmas, urging a boycott of stores that spit on Christians by deploying such bigoted phrases as "happy holidays" or "season's greetings." And in case you thought those phrases were, in our increasingly pluralistic society, just nice ways of creating a festive atmosphere without seeming to exclude the folks celebrating, you know, those other holidays happening around this time, CNN's Lou Dobbs shakes his jowls to remind you that those phrases have "excluded everyone who is celebrating Christmas" (which is apparently neither happy nor a holiday). The Christian Law Association has released a vague list of horror stories under the rhetorical headline: "Has Christmas Become Illegal in America?"

But "Happy Holidays" is just a skirmish in the Axis of Atheism's total war to annihilate Christmas. When the Target chain opted not to make a special exemption for the Salvation Army from its general ban on solicitation, it was tarred as not merely Scrooge-like, but anti-Christian, and deserving of a boycott. Newsweek is ineptly slagged for running an extremely mild piece to the effect that some scholars doubt whether various aspects of the biblical Christmas story could be historically accurate. Even the neutral-sounding phrase "winter break" for the vacation weeks students of various religions are given evokes the specter of the lion pits. If your media diet is largely constrained to Fox News and The Washington Times, it may seem that Bill O'Reilly stands all but alone in having a good word for the holiday amid an "anti-Christmas jihad."

While unusually visible this year, the panic over a War on Christmas is part of a more general persecution complex shared by some conservative Christians, which seems at least as strange as the minority-party style rage evidenced at this summer's Republican National Convention by people who now control every branch of government. While Catholic League honcho William Donohue targeted an old favorite when he complained on MSNBC that "Hollywood is controlled by secular Jews who hate Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular," the favored villain these days appears to be secularism itself—particularly odd in the context of the Christmas issue, since most of those other "happy holidays" are also religious.

Doubtless the faithful face many burdens, but it's probably worth recalling, for perspective's sake, the (almost certainly accurately) conventional wisdom that an open atheist could not be elected to national political office. George Bush the First may not have been quite as voluble about his faith as his prodigal son, but nevertheless he was dissuaded by neither realpolitik nor etiquette from telling one reporter: "I don't know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots."

In order to pull off the sort of grab at victim status conservatives used to deride as a tactic of the left, self-appointed defenders of the faith draw from a cornucopia of bogus anecdotes about oppression. A conservative cause celebre was born when Reuters ran a story under the headline "Declaration of Independence Banned at Calif School" about a teacher forbidden to use that document in classes on the grounds that it mentioned God. It sounds outrageous...and would be, if it were remotely true. It is, of course, not true: The Declaration appears in the school's standard textbooks and hangs on classroom walls. The school's principal, rather, insisted on pre-approving the handouts of a single teacher who had long generated complaints from parents because he was using his American History lessons as a pretext from indoctrination—a teacher who, as one student put it, "talks about Jesus 100 times a day." Judging by this Easter assignment and various other handouts, including fabricated quotations from Founding Fathers on the topic of religion, the concern was well motivated.

Of course, with activists constantly carping that wicked secular humanists have managed to outlaw all religious speech in public schools, it's not terribly surprising that in some instances school administrators who lack a particularly subtle grasp of Supreme Court jurisprudence begin to believe just that and overreach. Seldom mentioned when these cases are cited is the speed with which they tend to be resolved when parents—again, still overwhelmingly Christian in most of the country—get wind of them. Sean Hannity continued to harp on a story about a school removing Christmas music from a student concert well after the rapid reversal of that decision.

Even when genuine cases of religious speech's being squelched lead to a more prolonged battle, the narrative favored by the martyrs manqué doesn't always quite fit. When a Massachusetts high school attempted to punish Bible club members for distributing candy canes with religious messages affixed, Rev. Jerry Falwell justly fumed, but unjustly added: "And yes, students have just as much right to speak on religious topics as they do on secular topics—no matter what the ACLU might propagate." The hitch is that the ACLU successfully defended those very students. One wonders what Falwell makes of the fact that early Puritans, regarding Christmas as too pagan and too papist (it's Christ's mass after all), banned its celebration, and that a few contemporary Christians remain sympathetic to that view.

Sometimes, of course, there's a straightforward and cynical explanation of persecution mania. During initial coverage of the murder of Matthew Shepard, widely regarded as an anti-gay hate crime, Today anchor Katie Couric asked a guest to comment on the hypothesis, advanced by some gay activists, that the anti-gay rhetoric of groups like Focus on the Family and the Christian Coalition may have helped to create an atmosphere in which such attacks were more likely. In the wake of recent reporting questioning whether homophobia was the real motive for the murder, Focus on the Family president Don Hodel demanded an apology, seeing Couric's question as evidence of her "anti-Christian agenda." The point of this rhetorical sleight-of-hand is transparent enough: Complaining that your group and your actions have been attacked wins less sympathy and fewer allies than declaring that our shared identity is under assault.

To some extent, the feeling of marginalization may be the result of the very real process of cultural fragmentation. There is probably now as rich and varied a marketplace of Christian media—from Veggie Tales cartoons to the apocalyptic fantasy of the Left Behind series and its spinoffs—as there's ever been. But it's perceived as niche culture, in large part because cultural products are increasingly tailored to niches. As a recent New York Times op-ed notes: "Plain-vanilla Top 40, once the chief vehicle for hit songs, is now the format for only 5 percent of the nation's 10,000-plus stations." A few crossover hits notwithstanding, a young singer who wants to incorporate her faith into her music is now likely to narrowcast to a Christian rock audience because, well, she can. (One apparent exception is hip hop, where alongside lyrical fare that famously drives conservatives to apoplexy, one also finds the likes of the acronymic "Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth" by Wu-Tang Clan's GZA.)

What remains of the mainstream, meanwhile, steers clear of potentially divisive religious themes, not just because American society is gradually becoming more pluralistic in terms of the proportion of Christians to devotees of other faiths, or of none, but because the idea of a monolithic Christian audience is a lot of nonsense, however useful it is to demagogues. Many believers, after all, don't much care for the Left Behind books. Critics of the "Anti Christian Lawyers Union," for that matter, tend to forget that the lead plaintiffs in Abington School District v. Schempp, which barred schools from conducting morning Bible readings, were Unitarians who resented the school's usurpation of their prerogative to teach their children about the Bible in their own way.

So are we really seeing an unprecedented wave of hostility toward either Christmas or Christianity? Or is it, rather, that the waning of the cultural hegemony to which some Christians have come to feel entitled is perceived as an attack? Many of the most loudly trumpeted complaints in this vein are, after all, complaints about the absence of special treatment: no special spot for the Ten Commandments in the courthouse rotunda; no pride of place for Christmas among those happy winter holidays; no exceptions for the Christian charity.

Since "special rights" has been a term of aspersion among conservatives for decades, would-be theocrats have at least the decency to be too ashamed to demand them explicitly. Instead, they've learned the power of the victim narrative, of framing the debate to cast themselves as underdogs. Rather than attempting to entrench their values, demagogues purport to be playing defense against a plot to "purge religion from the public square," trading on the same ambiguity in the word "public" that has eased the acceptance of ever more regulation of privately owned establishments that are open to the public, and allowed for the metastasis of the term "public health," which now apparently covers not just infectious disease control or mosquito abatement, but smoking and obesity. Since the battle is a reactive one against the undifferentiated forces of anti-Christian bigotry, such nice distinctions as that between a business that fails to cater to its customers and an arm of the state adhering to strict neutrality can be dispensed with. More importantly, moderate Christians with no desire to impose their faith on others might be convinced to support a re-Christianization of public life on the premise that they'd only be defending themselves against marauding secularists.

The stratagem is so perverse as to be almost admirable: Take a holiday associated with sentiments like peace and goodwill, mix in some well-intentioned attempts to acknowledge it in an inclusive way suited to a pluralistic society, and then use the combination to generate fear, divisiveness, and high ratings. But whether we're impressed or appalled by that cynical ploy, whether we're gearing up for Christmas dinner or just a post-Ramadan pig-out, we can all breathe a little easier knowing that the anti-Christmas "jihad" is no more real (sorry kids) than Santa Claus. Happy holidays.

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