Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Old "War on Christmas" Song and Dance

"War on Christmas commences," declared the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights last month.

This is not the first skirmish in this supposed war. According to the Catholic League, Fox News, and other right wing organizations, this struggle has been raging for years. If you believe Bill O'Reilly, this war is being waged by the "loony left, the Kool-Aid secular progressive ACLU America-haters."

Huh. I must have missed that memo.

What I did receive from my employers was a reiteration of the ACLU's commitment to defending personal religious freedom and protecting that personal choice by opposing government involvement in endorsing one viewpoint over another:

"The ACLU supports the rights of Christians and all religious people to celebrate their holidays in public spaces. We oppose government action that promotes or endorses particular religions or religion over non-religion. Our views are dictated by the Constitution of the United States and are motivated by our commitment to religious liberty for all Americans."

The ACLU may be best known for its work in defending the separation of church and state (which indeed, for the most literal-minded among us, is not in the Constitution - at least in those exact words; rather, it is a description by Thomas Jefferson of the First Amendment's anti-establishment clause, which reads, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."). The fact of the matter is, however, that we are equally vigorous in our support of personal religious freedom. Among the recent cases in which we advocated for the Consitutional right to religious expression are:

  • a lawsuit on behalf of a New Jersey prisoner, an ordained Pentecostal minister, who had been banned from preaching and teaching Bible study classes to other prisoners
  • a letter sent to a Virginia jail objecting to the jail's removal of Christian-themed materials and biblical passages from letters written to detainees
  • a lawsuit on behalf of the First Apostles' Doctrine Church in Brookville, Pennsylvania, which had been prevented from providing shelter to the homeless as an expression of their Christian beliefs

Many ACLU staffers and members also celebrate Christmas, as a group of carolers from the Public Advocate for the United States found when they appeared outside the ACLU offices in Washington, D.C., a few years ago holding signs that said "Merry Christmas" and "Please Don't Sue Us" and were instead joined by staffers delighted by the festive music.

In Bill O'Reilly's world, the two major perpetrators of the "War on Christmas" are the loonies at the ACLU and the department stores. Reports of the ACLU's involvement, as they say, have been greatly exaggerated. According to Michelle Goldberg

[T]here is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It's a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can't celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.

"You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd," says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. "It's a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role."

To read the whole story, visit Salon.com.

Likewise, the department stores may not be plotting quite as cleverly as they are accused of. In calling for a boycott of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the American Family Association claims, "For years, Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions...The Gap is censoring the word Christmas, pure and simple."

The Gap's current commercials, however, feature a group of young people chanting, "Two! Four! Six! Eight! Tis the time to liberate! Go Christmas! Go Chanukah! Go Kwanzaa! Go solstice!" Maybe it's just me, but I believe Christmas is mentioned - and mentioned first, at that.

And, as Charles Henderson observes, Christmas does not seem to be in any danger of going extinct.

I'm writing this from New York City which by every estimation should be the central front of the war on Christmas. There are probably more members of the "loony left" right here in New York than anywhere. This is the world's capital of secular. The ACLU has its headquarters here.

But I can tell you that Christmas is alive and well in this city. And I find no evidence whatsoever of a war being fought against it. In fact, it is omnipresent. I spent the better part of yesterday morning in the waiting room of a doctor's office in a public hospital in the very heart of this city. There was Christmas music playing incessantly and loudly from the sound system for all to hear. The volume was so high I was tempted to request that the amplifier be turned down a bit to give the patients some peace and quiet. There was a huge Christmas tree in the lobby. Another giant, monster Christmas tree, as usual, in Rockefeller Center, not far away. A new fangled, more spectacular Christmas star hanging in mid air over the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, the heart of the shopping district. Salvation Army Santas were collecting money for the needy on many street corners. Christmas trees were selling briskly all along Broadway. Entire forests of trees. Here in the capital of Secular America Christmas is inescapable. It is vibrant. It is victorious. The churches are packed. The concerts of sacred music abound. The energy of Christmas is everywhere.

So for those of us who live in the real world - as opposed to the world inside the minds of Fox News commentators - there is no War on Christmas. I have checked our staff attorney's office, and she is not in there plotting to kidnap Santa Claus. The ACLU has every respect for Christmas. We just respect other religious and cultural traditions as well.

Becca in Harrisburg

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