Understanding the Non-Existent War on Christmas

David Roberts writes a newsletter about “the technology, politics and policy of decarbonization”. He also writes a lot on Twitter. A few days ago, he wrote about the meaning of the “War on Christmas”:

I’ve always thought it’s worth examining the WoC more closely, not because it’s particularly important, but almost the opposite: because it’s so obviously silly & the stakes are so low, it’s easier to see the underlying dynamics clearly, without strong priors getting in the way.

To review: once upon a time, pretty much all US stores & public facilities put up Christmas decorations & had clerks & employees say “Merry Christmas!” around the holiday season. It was a reflection of the total dominance of white Christian culture in the US.

Over time, demographics & opinions shifted, at least in some quarters. It became clear that centering Christmas excludes Jews, Muslims, atheists . . . all the many US subcultures that don’t celebrate Xmas. Some businesses/institutions became leery of alienating customers/patrons.

Some places replaced Xmas decorations & “Merry Xmas!” with more generic *holiday* decorations & “Happy holidays!” The idea was that the more generic approach would welcome Christians but *also* welcome other cultures — welcoming all, alienating none. What’s the problem?

Anyway, RW media got hold of this & spun it into a “War On Christmas,” telling listeners & viewers that it was the first step to eliminating Christmas altogether & part of a larger war on Christianity. . . . 

Why is this interesting? Because it makes the conceptual structure of the US culture war extremely clear. Most culture war struggles share this structure.

First thing to say: generic “holiday” celebrations & greetings do not hurt or diminish Christians or Christmas.

That’s crucial. Nobody’s targeting or trying to diminish Christmas. Everyone who celebrates it can continue doing so.

What generic-holiday does is *decenter* Christmas. It renders Christmas just one holiday celebration among others, Christianity just one culture among others.

In trying to accommodate everyone, generic-holiday implicitly says that Christians are not *special*. They are one group living among other groups, as equals, all of which are free to live their cultures as they see fit, none of which have a right to dominate or exclude others.

And that, of course, is precisely the problem for the reactionaries on the right. For them, on a deep level, being dominant — having your culture, your folkways, your needs, your feelings centered — is *part of* the culture. Without domination, the culture is nothing.

That’s why so much of the War On Christmas rhetoric is about how Christmas is being “destroyed” by this, or how Christianity will be “wiped out.” If they lose being centered, lose being dominant, then in a very real way they *do* lose a culture premised on hegemony.

“To those accustomed to domination, equality feels like oppression.” There’s a reason versions of this cliché are everywhere these days — we’re seeing it play out in arena after arena. To reactionaries, being told their culture is one among equals feels like erasure.

Silly as it is, the War On Christmas clearly exposes the fundamental struggle unfolding in the US.

To some of us, the essence of the US is as a neutral framework, where any culture can thrive, anyone from any background can succeed, all are treated fairly & with dignity.

Obviously the US has never lived up to that ideal, but as Obama said so eloquently, the struggle to come closer & closer to that ideal *is* America — it’s the most American thing of all. All those outsiders who forced the US to be more fair & open are the real American heroes.

Reactionaries, on a deep & fundamental level, do not share that vision of America. To them, America is a white, patriarchal, “Judeo-Christian” nation — a particular people, a particular culture. Sure, we’ll accept guests, Others can live here, but never forget who’s in charge.

In some sense it’s a trivial question: Do you say “happy holidays” & accommodate everyone or say “merry Christmas” & implicitly tell everyone who’s not a Christian to accept, without complaint, that they are secondary, subsidiary, peripheral — *less*.

But within that trivial question is embedded ALL the questions facing the US. Are we trying to be a genuine multiethnic, multicultural, diverse society, united by a framework of neutral rules that treat us all the same? Do we want everyone to feel welcome, with equal citizenship?

Or are we, at root, a white patriarchal Christian society that, at its discretion/whims, sometimes allows other kinds of people to live among us? Is the declining dominance of that subculture tantamount to America itself declining? Is diversity our enemy, as Tucker Carlson says?

That fundamental struggle is reflected, in a fractal way, in the silly fight over Christmas. It’s just one more way for the hegemonic demographic/subculture to tell the rest of us, “if we don’t get to dominate, we’re erased, and we’ll blow it all up before that happens.”

You’re seeing it everywhere now with rising right-wing violence & extremism. On some level, white patriarchal Christian culture already realizes that loss is inevitable — and it is fully ready to bring the whole structure down before it will live as equals among equals.

The real question this raises for me — the ultimate question of America, really — is whether it’s *possible* to have a true multiethnic multicultural society of equals. Is it possible for everyone to be happy even if no one gets to hear their special holiday greeting in public?

Or are there just too many reactionaries, too many people for whom the only alternative to domination is submission/humiliation, too many people who simply can’t *conceive* of genuine equality, for the thing to work? Can a country w/ NO privileged culture survive & prosper?

I dunno. (I used to be a confident Yes, a confident believer in the possibility of true democracy, but now . . . I dunno.)


Remember when they said allowing same-sex couples to marry would “destroy the institution of marriage”? 

I’ll say it again. When the authoritarians hear “we’re all in this together”, they think it’s a threat.

You Could Call It the Spirit of Christmas

This is part of an interview Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times did with theologian and activist Jim Wallis:

WALLIS: How I “take Christmas” is defined in the famous prayer by the mother of Jesus — Mary’s Magnificat: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Meaning: The coming of Jesus is intended to turn things upside down. The power of the Bethlehem narrative includes the inn having no room for Mary and Joseph, and the lowly shepherds being the first witnesses of the new baby as hope for the world born in a manger with his homeless parents. This is not the conquering messiah many were hoping for, but one from the bottom of society in a time of political unrest and massive inequality — sort of like now.

KRISTOF: What is it with the modern evangelical movement? Historically, evangelicals were people like William Wilberforce, fighting to abolish slavery. More recently, they included Jimmy Carter. But these days the big cause of many evangelicals has been a philandering politician who rips children from parents at the border.

WALLIS: The word “evangel” comes from Jesus’ opening pledge to bring “good news” to the poor and let the oppressed go free. Txxxx evangelicals have turned Jesus’ message upside down. That’s called heresy. And, in the United States, this has created a toxic melding between white evangelicals and the Republican Party. We’ve seen the conversion of too many white evangelicals to the narcissistic and nationalistic cult of Txxxx, where the operative word in the phrase “white evangelical” is not “evangelical” but “white.”

KRISTOF: I struggle with this. I’ve seen conservative evangelicals do heroic work, including Chuck Colson’s work in prisons, and George W. Bush’s leadership in fighting AIDS in Africa that saved 20 million lives. But some of the grossest immorality of my life came when evangelicals like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson smirked at AIDS and resisted tackling the disease because it was killing gay people. How do we understand a faith that can produce so much good and so much evil?

WALLIS: The religious right leaders you name hijacked the word “evangelical.” Result: White evangelicalism has destroyed the “evangel.” When “evangelical” strays from the radical love of Jesus into hateful partisan faith, we see the worst.

KRISTOF: Do you think about abandoning the term “evangelical” because it has too much baggage?

WALLIS: I understand why so many have moved to “post-evangelical” or “adjacent evangelical” as the old term has become so tainted by right-wing politics and hypocrisy. Many of us call ourselves “followers of Jesus” who want to return to the original definition of a gospel that is good news to the poor. And we believe that any gospel that isn’t good news for the poor is simply not the gospel of Jesus Christ. Period. . . .

KRISTOF: But if faith drives your work on behalf of the poor, why does the same Scripture seem to lead others to cut funds for the homeless?

WALLIS: Because they aren’t reading those Scriptures with over 2000 verses in the Bible about the poor and oppressed! Those white evangelicals have cut all those texts out and their Bible is full of holes.

KRISTOF: For many evangelicals, the paramount political issue is abortion, which Jesus never directly mentions. What’s your take?

WALLIS: Abortion is used by the political right as a distraction from all the other issues that would entail a consistent ethic wherever human life and dignity are affected. Everyone in the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” polarizations should want to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and abortions — and there are clear policies to do that, especially in support of low-income women

This Passed for a Sermon Tonight

We decided to deliver our own Christmas Eve sermons this year. This was mine:

It was on November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, that Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, where 3,512 soldiers who died in the battle were still in the process of being buried.

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract….

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Not everyone agreed with Lincoln’s speech. In his book, Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills quotes an article from the Chicago Times published a few days after Lincoln spoke. The author of that article pointed out that the U.S. Constitution made no mention of equality and accepted the institution of slavery. Lincoln, therefore, was supposedly betraying the soldiers who fought to defend the Constitution as it was written and adopted. From that article:

It was to uphold this constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.

Garry Wills, on the other hand, argues that Lincoln’s words were important because they gave new meaning to the Constitution, to the battle at Gettysburg and to the entire Civil War. Lincoln avoided “all local emphasis”. His speech “hovered far above the carnage”. He mentioned “no particulars” — “no names of men or sites or units, or even sides”. Lincoln didn’t even mention slavery.

Listening to Lincoln, it was as if the Southerners, against their will and without realizing it, were also engaged in the “unfinished work” of making sure government of, by and for the people would not “perish from the earth”.

In addition, Lincoln claimed that America had been founded on the proposition that all men, and perhaps all women, were created equal, despite the obvious fact that some people, including women, weren’t born with the same rights as the men who wrote the Constitution. And by expressing the hope that government of, by and for the people should not perish, he implied that such a government already existed.

Despite Lincoln’s exaggeration or imprecision, Wills concludes that the Gettysburg Address was a tremendous success. It “cleared the infected atmosphere of American history … tainted with official sins and inherited guilt”. Lincoln’s words changed the meaning of the Constitution in the minds of most Americans:

The crowd departed with a new thing in its ideological luggage, that new constitution Lincoln had substituted for the one … they brought with them. They walked off, from those … graves on the hillside, into a different America.

I n fact, how different was it? Did America become as different as Lincoln would have wanted it to be after the Civil War, or in the 20th century or the 21st? We all know that progress has been made, but it hasn’t been enough.

From The Atlantic last month:

One hundred thirty-nine years since Reconstruction, and half a century since the tail end of the civil-rights movement, a majority of white voters backed a candidate who explicitly pledged to use the power of the state against people of color and religious minorities, and stood by him as that pledge has been among the few to survive the first year of his presidency. Their support was enough to win the White House, and has solidified a return to a politics of white identity that has been one of the most destructive forces in American history. This all occurred before the eyes of a disbelieving press and political class, who plunged into fierce denial about how and why this had happened. That is the story of the 2016 election.

Maybe we will never cure humanity of tribalism, the tendency to favor people who look and sound like we do. Fear of strangers was probably built into us through thousands of years of evolution. But we have made progress. There is less slavery in the world. There is more equality, even with the economic inequality that’s increased since the 1980s. But we all have more work to do. Lincoln’s implied promise of a government of all the people, by all the people and for all the people has not been fulfilled. In recent years, we seem to have gone backward.

So it’s worthwhile at this time of the year, when “joy to the world” is proclaimed, “peace on earth” and “good will to men” are sung, and A Christmas Carol always ends with “God bless us, everyone”, to remember the words and the challenge delivered by a real president, 154 years ago, at the dedication of a new cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.