Christmas skirmishes and the war for American history

By David French This article is part of a series for the Patheos Holiday Monitor, which tracks the War on … Continued

By David French

This article is part of a series for the Patheos Holiday Monitor, which tracks the War on Christmas debates from across the land.

It’s the snickering season again, the time of year when we gather together to make fun of activists, talk-show hosts, politicians and the plain ‘ole regular folk who somehow believe there’s a “War on Christmas.” On Friday, it was the New York Times’ Gail Collins, gently mocking Senator Inhofe for his concern that the name “Christmas” appear in a Tulsa holiday lights festival. She called the war over Christmas her “favorite war” – presumably because of its nonexistent casualties and its low stakes.

Two days before, respected constitutional law scholar Marci Hamilton re-dubbed Christian efforts to defend Christmas as a “War on Diversity,” condescendingly declaring Christian citizens find it “scary” when Christmas displays are removed from public land.
And of course, no “snickering season” would be complete without hearing from the America’s unquestioned snickerer-in-chief, Jon Stewart, who weighed in with the wit that built his empire of mockery.

It’s all too easy to join in. After all, who gets hurt by “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas?” Is it really a big deal if an elementary school choir sings “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” or “Deck the Halls” instead of “Silent Night?” During an economic downturn, what customer would walk away from his shopping cart after a generic holiday greeting from a minimum wage cashier? As we begin our tenth consecutive year of war, are we really wasting time talking about this?

There’s a double standard at work, however. For decades, the secular left has argued that religious offensiveness is a very big deal. In fact, they’ve engineered an explicit exception to normal standing rules – the rules that dictate when a person has a claim in federal court – to allow “offended observers” to literally make a federal case out of their hurt feelings. What happens if that Nativity Scene on the courthouse lawn prompts your precious six-year-old future Randian to ask you a slightly annoying question about God? What if you’re irritated at a public official who prays at the local high school football game? You can sue, and you’ll have no shortage of lawyers eager to represent you pro bono.

In fact, your lawsuit can make it all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Just this year, the Court heard a case filed to remove a memorial cross from federal land – a cross erected by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor World War I dead. The cross itself was located on a rock outcropping in the Mojave National Preserve, away from well-traveled routes. The man who sued didn’t work at the Preserve and, in fact, didn’t live anywhere within sight of the cross. He lived far away, but claimed he was deeply offended by the mere presence of the cross on federal land, a cross few people ever saw.

If Jon Stewart wrote a sketch mocking a man trying to demolish a tribute to America’s war dead simply because the cross hurt his feelings, I missed it. In fact, the secular left supported the plaintiff, in lockstep, just as they’ve supported similar plaintiffs for the last half-century.

Let’s try to sort this out. So it is a big deal when a nativity scene is put on public land but no big deal at all if it’s removed? You can be upset when memorial crosses are put up, but not when they’re taken down? Does that mean that you’re a hero of the Republic if you find “merry Christmas” offensive but a hypersensitive rube if you roll your eyes at “happy holidays?”

In reality, the presence or absence of religious symbols is important. The Christmas skirmish is just one (easily lampooned) part of a larger battle over our nation’s history. Crosses on public land don’t coerce anyone, and the sound of school children singing “Silent Night” is miles from forced conversions or state churches. They are, however, declarations of national heritage and community belief.

But our national heritage and community beliefs are subjects of much dispute. Our national past shapes our national future, and the argument over history matters now. For those who despise Christianity or see America as a purely secular state, old crosses in the desert, chiseled religious images on public buildings, and a more than two hundred year legacy of public prayer say we were – and are – a religious people, a people who wish to acknowledge their God in public life.

In other words, it isn’t “scary” when Christmas lights become holiday lights or Christmas trees become, simply, trees. It’s just false. It’s yet another petty effort in a long campaign to shame us into becoming something we’ve never been: a truly secular nation.

David French is a lawyer, writer, soldier, and veteran of the Iraq war. He is the director of the Alliance Defense Fund Center for Academic Freedom and a columnist at

Elizabeth Tenety
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  • haveaheart

    Carstonio is absolutely right.Furthermore, when French says that “the sound of school children singing ‘Silent Night’ is miles from forced conversions or state churches,” he’s totally missing the point. (Or perhaps he understands it and is good at obfuscation.)Like any culture “war,” this one is a battle for hearts and minds. And children’s hearts and minds are infintely malleable.For non-Christian children, singing Christmas carols in school is tantamount to having the Christian faith forced into their lives. Not to recognize this as coercive is to be willfully blind.Christianity is not the default belief system of the United States, and we need to stop behaving as if it is. No one is being “hostile” to Christmas by wishing others “happy holidays.” That is simply a way to be respectful to people whose religious affiliations (or absence thereof) are unknown to us.It’s just basic politeness and civility.

  • Muddy_Buddy_2000

    As usual the people wanting to be horrified about the removal of the war memorial cross leave out a very key point. Several other religious and non-religious groups offered to address the “problem” by putting up Stars of David and other religious symbols so that the memorial was all the fallen, not just Christian soldiers. They were rudely refused with the claim that a white cross symbolized all Americans. Thus, the site became a very in your face endorsement of a very select brand of one religion group as expressly the real American Faith.I don’t get upset at being Wished a Merry Christmas, but I do get upset at those that try to force their religion down my or others throats by insisting on Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays. If we are talking about Santa Village,then it is stupid to expect anything but Merry Christmas, but in a mall in general Its oppressive to insist on Merry Christmas over happy Holidays. You just have to be fair, all religions deserve polite acknowledgment in the proper setting. I remember the Dallas City Council was having prayers lead by religious figures to open secession. They claimed no bias, but when a council member exercised his turn to invite a Wiccan Priestess, Wicca is very big in Dallas Area, several members went nuts and prevented the Priestess from speaking. In time, law and fairness prevailed and the Priestess open a Council Meeting which helped give the council excellent legal protection for the general practice.

  • Catken1

    “Just this year, the Court heard a case filed to remove a memorial cross from federal land – a cross erected by members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars to honor World War I dead.”There was another option – that the site allow other memorials, from other faiths, to be put up. They refused. It was more important to them to bar other groups, and keep the memorial for Christian soldiers ONLY, than to keep their memorial. And you call us offensive and selfish?”So it is a big deal when a nativity scene is put on public land but no big deal at all if it’s removed?”Yes. Because the first is government favoritism for one religion. The second is not government making an anti-Christian statement, it is government being neutral. Christians can still have nativity scenes on their OWN property, and quite a number of them do. “Does that mean that you’re a hero of the Republic if you find “merry Christmas” offensive but a hypersensitive rube if you roll your eyes at “happy holidays?”Almost no one throws a fit at being wished “Merry Christmas.” And those who do are rude. No one should respond to someone else’s politely expressed good wishes with anything but return courtesy.But those throwing a fit at “Happy Holidays” are specifically saying that THEIR religious holiday is the ONLY one that should be acknowledged, and that it is offensive to Christians for someone to offer pleasant wishes that include non-Christians. You get 95% of public attention for your holiday, but you throw a tantrum because others get any at all? It’s an attack on you to acknowledge that any other holidays _exist_? Heck, you can’t just interpret it as a wish that you have a Merry Christmas _and_ a Happy New Year?”Crosses on public land don’t coerce anyone, and the sound of school children singing “Silent Night” is miles from forced conversions or state churches.”How would you feel if there was a memorial, on public land, built in part with your tax dollars, that had only a Muslim or Jewish or Hindu symbol? Would you like to pay taxes for a memorial that specifically excluded you and your faith? And how would you feel if your child were pressured to sing hymns of another faith, with none of yours permitted? Or to say prayers to another’s god? You might not be so blase about that. Do non-Christian children’s feelings matter less than yours?You argue that the member of a minority religion seeking inclusion in celebrations, memorials, and other events/displays paid for in part with their tax dollars is being just as rude as the Christian who seeks to shut them out on the grounds that ONLY Christians matter. That’s like saying that the child who asks the teacher to protect them from the bully who steals his lunch money is behaving offensively towards the bully, and that the bully has a RIGHT to the lunch money on the grounds that he’s always taken it, and it’s TRADITIONAL for him to take it.

  • fare777

    Maybe, the God fearing, wrapped in a flag Ms. Palin can beat another fish to death on her TV show to make us proud.

  • timothy2me

    Sorry but crosses or other religious symbols don’t belong in nature preserves like National Parks. It doesn’t matter who it was for or who put it there.

  • MidwaySailor76

    If Christians want to erect symbols to their invisible friend, I have no problem with it. I suspect, though, that they want this to be an exclusive privilege, since they have (along with other religions, of course) spent virtually their entire history denigrating and persecuting those who don’t share their faith. As to the smirking by the non-religious: intellectual smugness has never burned anyone at the stake.

  • kchses1

    Things change. In the past century the vast majority of immigrants were from Europe and therfore some demonination of Christian. The last 3 decades have seen a different influx of immigrants. Most are non Christians. Now that Christians are not the overwhelming majority they were once were they have to actually show tolerance to other people. Get used to it. Things change.

  • ravitchn

    It is hard to know who is more obnoxious: pushy Christians or pushy atheists.I stopped supporting Americans United for Separation of Church and State when they objected to using public funds for preserving the California Missions, a valuable part of our history and of its true diversity.

  • hared

    Well, majority rules in this country, and these jews, atheists, agnostics and the rest of these earth, flesh and idol woshippers will again find themselves on the business end of people’s push back on these affairs.

  • ktsmom9

    Bravo Catken1, extremely well said. I’m truly astonished that WaPo even published this horrid bit of “writing”. (I refuse to dignify it with the term “journalism”)There IS no “War on Christmas”. It’s all in the imagination of Christians who refuse to accept that they don’t rule the world, or even the United States.Time to grow up people, and look around you at the diverse neighbors you have. Remember what Jesus said? All that about “Love thy neighbor”??? I think love includes treated respectfully as well as giving out Christmas cookies.

  • areyousaying

    My father loved Christmas and we always had fun both secular and religious.It’s not my father’s Christmas anymore.Theocons try to shove saying “Merry Christmas” down my throat while I really would like to tell them to shove the pagan holiday they hijacked along with poor old Jesus and their theocratic agenda for America up their intolerant teabagger butts.On the other side, people make a melodrama over a manger in town square for their own shallow and selfish feelings even though it, along with a Menorah and Santa Claus, has been a holiday tradition since the Country began.America doesn’t deserve Christmas anymore. The evil divisiveness that has crept into our every day lives (thanks in much part to Fox News constantly stirring it up for fame and riches) has destroyed the Holiday – oops, “Christmas spirit”I’ll be enjoying a traditional, non-war-like Christmas with Catholics, Mormons, Adventists and other Christians and agnostics alike in Mexico where it has not become just another ugly and far-from-Christ-like Atwater/Rove wedge issue.Shame on you pathetic Abrahamic bigots on both sides who, by your hostile nature even have to make a war over Christmas.

  • areyousaying

    By their haters, ye shall know them:The Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) is a conservative Christian nonprofit organization with the stated goal of “defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and litigation.”[1] ADF was founded in 1994 by the late Bill Bright (founder, Campus Crusade for Christ), the late Larry Burkett (founder, Crown Financial Ministries), James Dobson (founder, Focus on the Family), the late D. James Kennedy (founder, Coral Ridge Ministries), the late Marlin Maddoux (president, International Christian Media), and Donald Wildmon (founder, American Family Association), along with the leadership of over thirty other conservative Christian organizations.[2]The Alliance Defense Fund states that it established the Day of Truth[13] “to counter the promotion of the homosexual agenda and express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective.”[14](from Wikipedia)Next thing we know, this theocon bigot will be having us sing “Onward Christian Soldiers marching as to (Christmas) war.Disgusting.

  • areyousaying

    The theocon’s small and shallow god forbid we may wish those of different beliefs “Happy Holidays” in their twisted, Leviticus cherry-picked wet dream of a Huckabee/Palin Jesuslandia.

  • eezmamata

    The christians declared this war on christmas to divide everybody. Sure, it’s just a political game for the Foxoids and their kind, but other more ‘real’ people, both christian and otherwise, are suffering from this stupid war.In this effort to divide us into the real christians and those who are against christianity, which is their real intent, do you suppose they’re considering how many decent Americans who just happen to be christian will fall on the other side?Hey, Merry Christmas everybody, happy holidays, happy new year. And you christian freaks who won’t let the rest of us enjoy the holiday, well you can just fuск off.(Like that? Install a cyrillic keyboard on your machine 🙂

  • highwaybluesoccer

    Merry Christmas, Feliz Navada!!!

  • eezmamata

    Here in Bulgaria, where I’m living now, amongst the least religious people I’ve ever met — they don’t even know they’re atheist/agnostic — they have western christmas trees, they put lights on the balconies of their apartments, they wish each other a merry christmas … they have traditional dinners and dances, and just enjoy the hell out of themselves.No christmas wars, no hatred, just good times for all, an almost bewildering happiness to be with their families and friends.Oh, how I wish my fellow Americans could just enjoy the season the way they, we, are enjoying it here in Europe.Merry Christmas, America. I do miss the good things I always enjoyed being an American in America.

  • Carstonio

    French’s article is so laden with absolutist straw men that it’s difficult to tell where to begin. He wrongly equates secularism with atheism. He wrongly equates the religion-neutral term “Happy Holidays” with hostility to Christmas and Christianity. He wrongly treats First Amendment issues as though they’re about protecting sensibilities of nonbelievers instead of keeping government neutral among religions. Most reasonable non-Christians don’t take offense at being wished Merry Christmas. They do rightly take offense when specific Christians like French insist that their religion is normative. Or make all interfaith issues as about them and their religion. French talks about “community beliefs” (a highly debatable concept at best) and about America being a “religious people,” but he defines these strictly in Christian terms. There is no such thing as “their God” for Americans as a whole, because Americans who believe in many gods or no gods count just as much as Americans who are Christian.

  • smeesq

    I live in a fairly rural part of a southern state where most of my neighbors and co-workers are born-again Christians. I was raised in a nice Christian home, but consider myself an atheist. My son and husband are Jewish. My son’s best friends at his Ivy League college are largely Hindu and Muslim (one Baptist.) My best friend is a Buddhist who used to be Catholic. So I get to mingle with people from many different religious perspectives. The fundamentalist Christians are the only ones who seem to need a symbolic war or fight to set themselves apart from others. When I was in junior high, I vaguely remember my Sunday school teacher using this theme of being a special warrior for Christ. She encouraged us to carry Bibles to our public school everyday (I remember she told us to carry it so EVERYONE could see it), and to gather together at lunch to pray and read our Bibles, so that others could see us and we could “let our light shine.”Not a little bit of why I am an atheist today stems from my experience in that church when I was young. I think religion should be like sex…its no one else’s business but your own, the state should definitely not be promoting it, it really shouldn’t be displayed or engaged in in public, and you should never impose it on others who aren’t interested.

  • BootmanDC

    I’m Christian and grew up in a majority Jewish community. We had both a nativity scene and menorah in town on public property. Although I wasn’t crazy about it (I think those things should be on the front lawns of the respective churches and temples), nobody had a cow about it. The community agreed to it.In school, I wished my Jewish friends Happy Hannukah and my Christian ones Merry Christmas. But in the general public (business) where you can’t know or assume someone’s religious views, “Happy Holidays” is just safer, since you don’t presume somebody’s religion or that a person has a religion. I don’t view it as an attack on Christianity, but rather as loving one’s neighbor as oneself.

  • DanielintheLionsDen

    I am from a small southern town, populaton 3,000 with 12 Protestant Churches, many at odds with each other. There was no creche on the Court House steps. It would never even occured to anyone in town to want such a thing. The main goal of Southern small town government was to discourage puclic assemblies of people, because of the omnipresent racial tension. So public displays of Christmas were minimal. Mery Christmas