Thursday, December 09, 2010

Christmas and the Culture War

The Rasmussen Reports polling group says "Most Celebrate Christmas as a Religious Holiday". Given the religious history of the United States this doesn't particularly surprise me but I noted that the figures from Rasmussen show something that is not expected. While a majority of Americans still celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, a very larger percentage do not.

The polls showed that 92% celebrate Christmas. But it also shows that only 65% of those who celebrate Christmas celebrate it religiously. That means 59.8% of the American people see Christmas as a religious holiday and implies that 40.2% do NOT. This is a much narrower ratio than I would have expected and it is hidden by the claim that 92% celebrate Christmas.

I know how the Religious Right works and they will harp on the 92% figure while ignoring the fact that a huge percentage of those people see Christmas as a secular holiday, not a religious one. Fundamentalists are experts at twisting facts to try to fit their preconceived religious beliefs, so this is no surprise.

Of course Christmas itself is a holiday that historically is more pagan than Christian. There is no evidence Jesus was born on December 25th. The Catholic Church picked a date near the winter solstice, which was widely celebrated. Most scholars, including many who are evangelicals, accept that Jesus was most likely born in the spring, nowhere near the 25th of December. Certainly most the accoutrements of the holiday are purely pagan: the tree, the gift-giving and even much of the Christmas myth itself. The pagan origins of Christmas is one reason that the Puritans, hard-core Calvinists, actually banned the celebration of Christmas.

When Calvinist Oliver Cromwell took over England he and his fellow fundamentalists made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. This ban on Christmas lasted for about 15 years, until 1660. The fundamentalist cousins of Cromwell, the Pilgrims, banned Christmas celebrations in America as well. From 1659 to 1681 Christmas was outlawed in Boston. Christmas did not become a federal holiday in the United States until 1870 and those horrible Founding Fathers actually had the first Congress in session on Christmas Day in 1789, after the Constitution was ratified. Of course those were the nasty "secularists" who had Post Offices open on Sundays for until the mid 1800s.

Regular readers of this blog will know that this blogger is a non-believer and has been since shortly after leaving seminary. That said I used to celebrate Christmas in spite of my faithless state. Given that the best enjoyable parts of the holiday are entirely non-Christian in origin, and lost any pagan religious meaning centuries ago, I saw no reason not to enjoy the holiday.

I used to go out and buy the tree and lug it home, dropping pine needles the entire way. Given that I was in the city, and carless, that meant carrying it home for about five blocks. We'd then lug it up the stairs to the third floor and put the tree to the left of the fireplace in the living room. Since the ceilings were about 12 feet high we made sure we got a tall tree. We'd decorate it and give presents. We celebrated the best aspect of the holiday, which was good will and benevolence toward all.

But, just as their theological ancestors literally ruined Christmas for people, today's fundamentalists have ruined Christmas for me. When someone used to wish me "Merry Christmas" I responded similarly. But then the fundamentalists, as part of their culture war on freedom, started screaming that anyone who said Happy Holidays (which recognizes that there are other holidays at the same time that other people celebrate) were waging war on Christmas.

This is rich since it was their theological ancestors who literally made the celebration of Christmas a crime. They insisted that what greeting you offered people was some sort of referendum on their cultural agenda. If you said "Happy Holidays" you were desecrating their religious beliefs and just shy of being a commie-pinko out to destroy America. If you said "Merry Christmas," however, then you were a God-fearing Christian celebrating "the true meaning" of Christmas. Clearly they ignore the fact that historically Christmas was a non-Christian holiday and that the "true meaning" of Christmas had nothing to do with their faith.

But these fundamentalists have created a package deal. In their tiny minds the "Christian" faith requires an entire political agenda. Historically that includes finding some group of people that one must fervently hate. In the past Catholics and Jews have filled that role. Today they bash gays and immigrants. Of course, given fundamentalisms links to the decadent South hatred for blacks was widely practiced as well—the Christian school movement got its first major push when loving Christians fled the schools to avoid integration. (For instance the Christian high school I attended and the seminary, were both lilly white institutions.)

Along with "honoring Jesus" they required hatred and militaristic posturing to stand up to the "Red Menace" and various evils, such as freedom of speech and civil liberties. They took the baby in the manger, wrapped him in the American flag, and made Jesus part of their political agenda—an agenda that to me is a rather repulsive one.

Given that "Merry Christmas" is used by them as some sort of "code" for the entire agenda they push I don't know whether I should be insulted or not when I hear it. Certainly when someone like Rush Limbaugh says "Merry Christmas" it has the entire agenda packed into the phrase. Similarly most fundamentalists, and hence a major percentage of the Republican Party, are also expressing a whole political agenda by the phrase.

I didn't used to be bothered in the least when wished a "Merry Christmas." Now I don't know if the person is being benevolent or quite the opposite. The Left, be it Progressives or libertarians, did not make this a culture war. The only protests they had was when state funding was used to push a religious agenda, contrary to the Constitution. But the private celebration, or not, of the holiday was just that: private.

Fundamentalists however, insist that every aspect of culture must be brought under the dominion of "their Lord." Given that their Lord doesn't actually rule this means under the dominion of their sects and their agenda. So they actually waged a culture war in the private sector, more than in the public arena. For instance:

• When Google wished people a Happy Holidays Christians filed complaints charging them with t
he crime of "political correctness" for NOT saying Merry Christmas. Google is entirely a private institution.

Christian Post reports:

"Conservative Christian groups are also fighting what they consider a cultural war on Christmas by strongly advising their supporters to not give their Christmas business to retailers who censor or omit "Merry Christmas" from this season's advertising.

Groups which have launched such initiatives include Liberty Counsel, American Family Association, and Focus Action, the advocacy arm of Focus on the Family. They say the omission of "Merry Christmas" from retail stores is part of a cultural purging of God and Christmas from the public square."

• Wal-Mart used to greet shoppers with "Happy Holidays" but fundamentalists were upset that their "Christian" agenda was not being pushed. They began an anti-Wal-Mart campaign and the company caved. A spokeswoman for Wal-Mart said the boycott taught them. "We, quite frankly, have learned a lesson from last year. We're not afraid to use the term "Merry Christmas." We'll use it early, and we'll use it often." Nope, what they are afraid of is saying Happy Holidays. They caved into threats of a boycott from the American Family Association and the Right-wing Catholic League, but want to play the "cave in" as something courageous.

I know the Religious Right paints this issue as one of intolerance by secularists. But public opinion polls show that the group that gets upset are not the secularists. Zogby polled people and found that 95% of people are not offended by the term "Merry Christmas." But if you said "Happy Holidays," then 46% of people feel insulted. And clearly it is the Christian Right who are the ones who have no tolerance. Zogby found that only 10% of non-Christians said the term "Merry Christmas" bothered them.

If that is the culture war then it appears the war is pretty much on one side only. Most people have had no concern if they are wished a Merry Christmas, even those who don't celebrate Christmas. They tend to be very tolerant. But those who are Christians are very offended if they are wished a "Happy Holidays" with about half them being offended, which is quite intolerant.

I don't get upset if wished a Merry Christmas. I used to respond similarly, but that was before the Religious Right tuned a simply, well-meaning greeting into a proxy for their entire culture war. Now, if I say anything at all, I simply say: "I'm not a Christian. Happy Holidays." But this is a direct result of the Christian culture war using this holiday season as a proxy for their entire agenda.

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