Ah…the recently invented liberal war on Christmas, a war created and nurtured by a few conservative media folks like O’Reilly, Limbaugh, and Malkin, with the support of religious or is it political leaders like Dobson, Robertson, and Bauer, who seem to like nothing more than to exacerbate the animosity between Americans and exacerbate a culture war that itself is a product of a minority of ideologues on both sides. What a shame that a season that should be about Light and Love and Life has become one more place for our religious fundamentalists and secular fundamentalists to play out their insecurities and fears, and their inability to even imagine that there is some partial truth in the opinions of those with whom they disagree. It seems that the only way those inflaming our culture wars can be right is if those with whom they disagree are not only completely wrong but are seen, in some paroxysm of paranoia, as out to destroy them and so need to be destroyed. Of course, the fierceness of their absolutism simply masks their own repressed uncertainty about their own views.
No one seems to be honest in this “debate” on whether Christmas and the many other winter holidays celebrated by American citizens – Hanukkah (Jewish), Diwali (Hindu), Bodhi Day (Buddhist), Posadas Navidenas (Mexican Catholic), Yalda (Persian), Yule (Pagan), the Birthday of Guru Gobind Singh (Sikh), Kwanza (African-American) – should be celebrated in the public square with all their particular symbols proudly exhibited or whether holiday celebrations in the public space be observed using symbols and names that are the least particular and the most general and universal.
I tend to believe that those advocating the celebration of Christmas in the public square in an overtly religious way would not so readily yet alone graciously allow all these other “winter holidays” to be celebrated in their full particularity. No, those advocating a full-bodied Christmas celebration in the public square are not interested in a richly pluralist public space that takes seriously the religious and spiritual lives of American citizens in their full diversity. They are not attempting to readmit people’s deep religious and spiritual intuitions to the public square with a humility and caution appropriate to how religion, and specifically Christianity, was for centuries the source of coercion, persecution, and violence against non-Christians most often specifically around holiday times. (My father like millions of Americans, as a child, in his case living in Poland, remembers holiday times being the most dangerous times of year for a minority Jew living among a Christian majority.)
They believe and have stated openly that this is a Christian country. They are unnerved by the increasing religious diversity of America, see diversity as a cultural threat to their identities, and care very little for the feelings of fellow Americans who may feel marginalized or even frightened by Christians who see absolutes where everyone else sees nuance. At best, these advocates for “equality” have a rhetoric and grudging acceptance of tolerance for difference and while tolerance is better than intolerance it still assumes a superiority just waiting for the right moment to express itself.
This is not a question of political correctness. It is whether those advocating full religious celebration in the public square have actually learned anything from the more than two hundred year separation of church and state that has successfully enabled us to avoid religious conflict and war within our borders. My suspicion is they haven’t learned the genius of the separation of church and state and would be quite pleased with America becoming a Christian country (which they mistakenly think it was at some point) though of course one which tolerated religious minorities. If I have a choice between being called daft and politically correct about public celebration of Christmas with Jesus as the star or returning to the time when religious minorities felt marginalized and frightened, I choose daft and politically correct.
I would feel much more comfortable if, instead of stoking cultural wars and provoking some illusionary war on Christmas that merely turns Americans on one another, O’Reilly and Co. said something like this. We fully understand that Christianity was for many centuries the basis of great religious persecution and we fully recognize the corrective to this religious coercion that a strict interpretation of church and state insured. And we also realize how keeping our most particular religious symbols out of the public square has been important in enabling all religious minorities to feel fully part of America. However, we think we have really learned the lesson of the danger of religion over reaching and hurting people who are different and now feel that as a society we, people of all faiths, are all losing something valuable by not sharing our celebrations, our most important symbols, and our spiritual lives with each other. We think that our public culture has been impoverished, weakened, even flattened after years of shutting out this central part of who we are from the public life. And so what we want to suggest is that every religion begin to be permitted to bring their celebrations into the public culture as a way of celebrating and sharing our spiritual legacies, deepening and enriching our public culture and conversation, and affirming our country’s religious diversity. And of course there is a special onus on us, as the majority religion, to insure that we make this move with sensitivity and particular awareness for those who believe differently and those who are not believers at all.
Then secular and liberal fundamentalists would have to deal with their own reflexive dismissal of religious faith and passion as some primitive vestige of a bygone era. Then secular fundamentalists would have to confront and challenge their own “faith” that reality can be defined exclusively and exhaustively in material terms. They might have to question their certainty that all religious wisdom and practice is superstition and that all mystical testimony of transpersonal levels of consciousness in which people experience their interdependence with all life and widen their empathy and compassion for all life is nonsense. For there is something about the unrelenting fierceness of the secular and liberal concern about and critique of allowing some religious symbols into the public square that hints at an insecurity about their own position.
There is a great deal of political correctness on the left that needs to be surfaced and that does not help us create a richer, more dynamic, substantive, and even inclusive culture. And yes, we ought to be able to imagine a public culture, that rather than being stripped naked of our most important ways of making meaning, because we are so afraid of each other, is a place of spiritual diversity and religious pluralism in which we each benefit by seeing, learning about, and even understanding each others most poignant symbols, stories and values – both the similarities and the differences. As a passionate religious person and a radical pluralist, I look forward to that day in which we can bring all of who we are to our public square. (This should not to be confused with loosening the separation between government legislation and religion which I believe will actually need to be stricter as the public square becomes more open.)
But none of this can or ought to happen until our most passionate advocates for permitting particular religious symbols and language, most of whom are Christians without a serious commitment to religious and cultural pluralism, can assure us that their “concern for equality and fairness” is not merely rhetoric and a mask for the Christianization of America. The history of religion in general and Christianity in particular demands that the burden is on us religious people to demonstrate that religious passion and openness, religious particularity and inclusiveness, religious belief and pluralism can in fact go hand in hand. This is not only a question for Americans but increasingly seems to be one of the critical challenges for the future of this planet.