Battle Hymn of the Church-public

By Micha L. Rieser (Own work by uploader (wreath and picture)) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I waged an internal debate this morning: Do I post about Dave Ramsey or the War on Christmas?  Christmas won.  Other people have already addressed Dave Ramsey better than I could, and well, I’m in a holiday mood.

Oh, sorry.  I’m in a Christmas mood.  Because naturally, that’s the only holiday happening right now.  Wait.  It’s not even Christmas yet?  Well, shoot.  And here I was all ready to sing a few rounds of Silent Night.

I’m glad we have a few well-meaning folks to remind us that everyone should wish people Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays.  Unless, of course, you know for a fact that your friend celebrates something else.  Then you should probably (grudgingly) accept that fact and wish your greetings accordingly.

Never mind that the same people shedding tears over the loss of Merry Christmas are also probably watching Elf or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, both of which mention Christmas but with nary a word about Jesus (who just kinda happens to be the reason for Christmas, no?).  Of course, that hardly matters–why, Christmas is as American as baseball and apple pie!

Here’s the cold, hard truth: It isn’t really about Christmas or any other holiday celebrated at this time of year.  If it were, people would quietly honor their religious and/or family traditions on the actual day.  It wouldn’t matter one iota what people celebrated or didn’t celebrate, what greetings they used or didn’t use.  I guess it would be a lot more like Thanksgiving–you know, the day that falls between Get Lots of Candy Day and Buy Lots of Stuff Month.  Fairly unnoticed and not particularly commercial.

If it were really about the religious holiday, theoretically, we ought to find Christians being glad that their holiday greeting isn’t being taken in vain.  After all, isn’t one of the premises of evangelism that most people do not already know Jesus?  Why invoke the percent of people identifying as Christian now?  Sadly, this is actually about a small number of very vocal people looking for another way to play Persecuted Christian.

There are several other things to consider in talking about this supposed War on Christmas:

  1. I don’t care how you greet me.  Wishing me Happy Holidays is fine by me–it makes me feel warm and squishy inside.  We may be strangers, but it feels for just a moment like you actually do care whether I have a happy time.
  2. Only about half the people I know are Christians.  Sure, some of the people who aren’t also celebrate Christmas, but not all of them.  When I’m with people I know personally, I’m free to wish them whatever holiday greetings they prefer.  That’s not always the case.  Why should store employees need to ask personal, invasive questions about your religious affiliation when a simple, generic greeting will do?
  3. Have you all noticed the sheer volume of Christmas-themed stuff in the stores?  It’s truly staggering.  How about the television ads, social media promos, and mailers?  Where is this alleged War on Christmas?  They may be using the words “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings,” but the intent is certainly clear.
  4. Don’t any of you War on Christmas types ever celebrate the New Year?  That’s not an extension of Christmas; it’s a holiday of its own.  I’m just guessing here, but aren’t a lot of stores/people/places that use “Happy Holidays” probably including New Year’s in their generic greeting?
  5. As far as school is concerned, I’m happier not having my religion stepped on.  In exchange, I won’t step on anyone else’s.  I also prefer that school be a place of learning.  Do they really need to have a party with a lot of sticky candy canes?  If my kids want to celebrate Christmas, we have friends and a church for that.  School really isn’t the place.
  6. Have we forgotten that there are lots and lots of people who might prefer not to be greeted seasonally at all?  This is a pretty hard time for many people.  Fixating on the words used by store employees detracts from the love and care someone may need.  Don’t waste time and energy crying foul over Happy Holidays–do something to show love to someone instead.
  7. Finally, a big old what. the. hell.  Are you kidding me?  This is really an important issue?  So, rampant holiday consumerism is less significant a problem than the type of greeting the store employee offered you.  I see.  Well, good luck with that, then.  I hope you have a damn skippy “holiday” filled with luxuries I probably can’t afford.

I’ll admit, I love this season.  I like driving downtown at night and seeing the streets festooned with lights.  I enjoy putting up the tree and bringing out the special decorations.  I appreciate the neighbors’ outdoor displays (yes, even those giant inflatable snowmen).  The song “Silver Bells” sums it up pretty well for me.  Guess what, though?  None of that has anything to do with my religious beliefs.  It’s just a fun part of the transition from fall to winter.  Spiritually speaking, it’s the traditions of Advent that draw me back to the awe and wonder of my faith.  Perhaps the ability to separate the commercial from the sacred is why I don’t believe there is a War on Christmas at all.

This might be a shortcoming of conservative evangelical Christian culture–more often than not, the actual reason we get a whole month is lost on people who think High Church tradition is “irrelevant.”  Those churches that do not teach or understand the liturgical year have caused their own problem.  How many people in those churches know that we just celebrated the Christian New Year?  This is our season of hope and anticipation, yet it’s full of shopping sprees and fighting about Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas.

Here’s my charge to you: Go do some research.  Google is a wonderful thing.  Search for Advent, and read about the traditions.  Take a break from your usual daily devotional (if that’s your thing) and read the Advent Scriptures instead.  Create an Advent wreath with your family and light the candle each night, adding another every Sunday.  Read the prophets and the Magnificat.

And then do this:  Enjoy the hustle and bustle of the outside world.  Have fun shopping and wrapping and baking and partying.  Drink egg nog and mulled wine.  Sing “Jingle Bells” (and maybe ride a sleigh with actual jingle bells).  Watch Ernest Saves Christmas (you’ll thank me later).  There is nothing wrong with any of that.  Just do it knowing that really, cookies and egg nog and sleighs and Rudolph have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the miraculous event of God descending to us as a tiny babe.

Happy Holidays, all.

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9 thoughts on “Battle Hymn of the Church-public

  1. I don’t know anyone personally who gets too bent out of shape over some mall clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas. I would not personally refer to this as a war on Christmas.

    However, when schools get sued because part of their Christmas Concert contained a Christmas medley and one of the songs happened to be Silent Night or O Little Town of Bethlehem, that would be a War on Christmas. When a town is sued because they have a Christmas display and part of that display contains a Nativity scene or other religious symbol as happened in Lynch v. Donnelly or County of Allegheny v. Greater Pittsburgh ACLU, that would be a War on Christmas. When schools start calling Christmas Break a “winter break” or a Christmas Tree a “giving tree” or “holiday tree”, that is a War on Christmas. When students are asked to bring in their favorite Christmas story for the teacher to read each day in December and the teacher reads everything from the Grinch to the Polar Express but refuses to read the Story of Christmas because it is too religious, (or, what happened in one case I was part of when I worked for the ACLJ in Virginia, the school sent home permission slips allowing parents to “opt out” of having their child be present for the reading of this one story) that is a War on Christmas.

    Some mall clerk saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas, that is just a matter of preference. I have seen the “flow chart” by Rachael Held Evans about the War on Christmas where she says you are only being persecuted if someone is threatening your life or civil liberties, but not when someone wishes you Happy Holidays. To me this diminishes the struggle that is actually going on for the very foundation of this Country. It is a straw man argument designed to make a point. In doing so, she misses the point.

    Maybe I am reading too much into what you didn’t say in this post. However, you did tag it with “War on Christmas.” I think the war on Christmas is so much more than the holiday greeting, and so very much more real with greater consequences than what someone says to you in a store.

    • Losing one”s place of privilege is not the same as being persecuted.

      It might feel like what one imagines persecution feels like, subjectively speaking, but a loss of privilege is not persecution.

      • Since when is it privilege to honor something that this country was founded upon? Since when is it privilege to mention the meaning of Christmas at Christmas? Since when is it privilege for a school to sing religious Christmas Carols at Christmas time? Since when is it privilege for a teacher who has told each and every student that they would read their favorite Christmas Story to the rest of the class and then have that teacher read everyone else’s story EXCEPT the religious one? (That sounds like outright persecution to me.) Since when is it privilege to fight for the very soul of this country?

        • I appreciate that this country was founded upon a belief in religious freedom; I honor that founding principle by not forcing my religious practices or traditions on captive audiences who may or may not be of the same faith.

          A private school is welcome to sing religious carols at Christmastime. Are you arguing that children and youth who are atheist or of other faiths should sing about Christ as the savior? Or have to listen in assembly as others sing them?

          Do you want Muslim stories read to your child? Hindu? Is a story about the Winter Solstice okay? Most schools find it much less trouble to exclude religion from education than to be certain that all are included.

          • This country was founded on the freedom to worship God as one sees fit. Our founders were Christian men who saw no problem with hiring a Christian chaplain to open up sessions of Congress with prayer and who thought that such “intrusions” into the lives of those who did not believe were minor. After all, if they did not like the fact that Christian prayer were being offered in Congress, there were plenty of other places they could go.

            When I was in public school I sang secular Christmas songs. That did not make me an atheist. When I was in public school, our global studies class learned about the five pillars of Islam. That did not make me a Muslim. To sing religious songs at Christmas or to be part of the audience where such songs are being song will not make you Christian or force Christian beliefs upon anyone.

            Rather, the singing of religious songs to celebrate a religious holiday simply acknowledges what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas found that “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a supreme being. . .When the state encourages religious instruction…it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs.” Zorach v. Clauson (1952). After all, as the Court noted in the 1892 case Holy Trinity v. US “This is a Christian nation.”

            And maybe, as a Christian, I am offended that Christmas in school would be mentioned at all without a mention of the Birth of Christ. After all, this IS what the season is all about. (no, I am not making this up, I know people who believed this way). Suppose I do not like the secularization of the holiday. The entire red and green, lights, Christmas Trees (or whatever you decide to call them), Santa Claus and Rudolph all are offensive because they detract from the true message of Christmas, that God sent his son to Earth to be the savior of us all. If we really are going to try and be “all inclusive” then how can we exclude those who detest how secular and commercial Christmas is getting. Let’s just have school right through, take a three day break for New Year and just not even bother acknowledging that December 25 has any special meaning at all.

            And let’s not stop at Christmas. I have many friends who keep their children out of school on Halloween because of the spiritual overtones of that day. Even if you remove ghosts, witches, and monsters, the holiday is one which celebrates evil. Let’s stop mentioning that day and prevent all teachers from decorating their class on Halloween because we would hate to offend people.

            But no one talks about removing mention of Halloween or removing those decorations because it is silly that people would be offended at those things. But the same people who think Christians are silly to be offended at Halloween take great offense when someone says it is silly to be offended at Silent Night sung at Christmas. Why is one silly and the other worthy of offense?

            The bottom line is we cannot prevent offense to everyone, nor should we. The Constitution does not demand complete neutrality nor complete separation of church and state. As Justice Douglas concluded “To hold that it may not [acknowledge religious observances] would be to find in the Constitution a requirement that the government show a callous indifference to religious groups. That would be preferring those who believe in no religion over those who do believe.”

            • There is some discussion as to whether the founders of our country were all Christian. Some may have been deist. In any case, we do see a diversity of belief even among the Christian founders.

              I am glad that you do not oppose comparative religion classes where students can learn about various religious schools of thought–or get an overview, anyway.

              I believe that a comparative religion class can be an appropriate part of a public school curriculum. Obtaining an overview of some of the world’s most practiced religions is different from practicing a religion, and from exposing a captive audience to the practice of a religion. These differences may be underlying reasons why you do not oppose such classes; yet you support the practice of your religion in a school building, in front of a captive audience.

              Singing religious songs in front of youth who must attend a performance doesn’t make them Christian, I agree. But that was never my position. I fail to understand how it is not forcing a religious practice/observance on the students, though, for the time they are there and leaving is not an option for them.

              It is interesting to note that Zorach v. Clauson was not about a religious practice or observance that took place inside or at a public school, or involved faculty members. Zorach v. Clauson was about this, “New York City has a program which permits its public schools to release students during the school day so that they may leave the school buildings and school grounds and go to religious centers for religious instruction or devotional exercises.” Outside of that context, the quotes you include seem to support your view. In context, however, I am less certain.

              Why is it important for public school teachers to risk being, during and at school (some may be Sunday school teachers outside of school, of course), a part of a child’s religious education? Sure, the teacher can read a book about the birth of Christ, but then how does she answer questions that students may ask?

              Why is it important for Christianity to have official, government recognition?

              • The US Supreme Court thought the quotes I gave did, in fact, support my view as they stated in Lynch v. Donnelly. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supremecourt/text/465/668#writing-USSC_CR_0465_0668_ZO

                Lynch was a case where, as part of a larger Christmas display, a Town included a Nativity scene. In holding that it was permissible for the town to include the Nativity the Court quoted directly from Zoarch stating “Nor does the Constitution require complete separation of church and state; it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. See, e.g., Zorach v. Clauson, 343 U.S. 306, 314, 315 (1952); Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education, 333 U.S. 203, 211 (1948). Anything less would require the “callous indifference” we have said was never intended by the Establishment Clause. Zorach, supra, at 314. Indeed, we have observed, such hostility would bring us into “war with our national tradition as embodied in the First Amendment’s guaranty of the free exercise of religion.” McCollum, supra, at 211-212.”

                The Lynch Court further stated “There is an unbroken history of official acknowledgment by all three branches of government of the role of religion in American life from at least 1789. Seldom in our opinions was this more affirmatively expressed than in Justice Douglas’ opinion for the Court validating a program allowing release of [p675] public school students from classes to attend off-campus religious exercises. Rejecting a claim that the program violated the Establishment Clause, the Court asserted pointedly: We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

                The Court went on to list numerous “official references to the value and invocation of Divine guidance in deliberations and pronouncements of the Founding Fathers and contemporary leaders.” The list is too long to provide here, but I have provided a link to the case, you can review it yourself if you so choose.

                What I fail to understand is how you think the singing of a religious song IS in fact forcing a religious practice/observance on a person or child. Obviously the Court in Lynch thought the placement of a Nativity scene, as part of an overall Christmas display, did not force a religious belief or practice on the observer. The Court also discussed national days of prayer, art galleries containing religious works, the national Motto, and the religious engravings on the court and around Washington, to name a few. The court held that these were part of the ” countless other illustrations of the Government’s acknowledgment of our religious heritage and governmental sponsorship of graphic manifestations of that heritage.”

                If the Government can permissibly do these things, and these things can be done without forcing any religious belief or practice on anyone, why then, when a religious song is sung by a school choir, as part of a Christmas concert, does it force a religious belief or practice on those in attendance?

                You ask how a teacher who reads the Christmas story should respond to questions asked by students. The answer should be obvious. Respectfully. Read the story and respond to any questions by stating that this is what some people believe is the true meaning of Christmas and if they have further questions about the story or the meaning of the story they should discuss them with their parents. (However, this case involved so much more than just the Christmas story, when the teacher asked students to bring in a Christmas story, the teacher opened a limited public forum and by not reading the Christmas story, the teacher was not just trying to keep church and state separate, rather, they were infringing on the student’s rights of free speech.)

                You end asking why it is important for Christianity to have official, government recognition. While I guess by the way you ask the question you are attempting to be more provocative than actually seeking the answer, the answer has already been provided. “When the state encourages religious instruction…it follows the best of our traditions.” Zoarch. I would add “Through this accommodation, [p678] as Justice Douglas observed, governmental action has “follow[ed] the best of our traditions” and “respect[ed] the religious nature of our people.” Lynch.

                Aside from the recognition of our history, I would note that you have the question backwards. It is not important for Christianity to have official government recognition. Rather, it is important for our government to continue to observe the religious Christian traditions established by our founders. The Bible is clear that “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.” Psalms 33:12. Ben Franklin noted that “if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without [God’s] notice, is it probable that a nation can rise without his aid.”

                Our founders were Christians. (You mention deists, there may be a case for two of them, but the rest were clearly Christian.) They established a government based on Christian principles. They sought God’s hand of guidance and protection. I would be afraid of what comes if our Nation ever stopped seeking God. The answer to your question is that Christianity does not need official government recognition, rather, our government needs God.

                • Ah, okay. Thank you. Yes, I was being a bit pejorative. I was also asking the wrong questions.

                  I wonder why some people are upset by the line schools walk when it comes to religion. As a student, I was free to wear a cross or a crucifix around my neck or in my ear lobes, and there was at least one Christian club (“fellowship”) that met at the school, with a faculty advisor like the other clubs, that I could have joined (I was not an athlete so the Fellowship of Christian Athletes was out, though there may have been other Christian clubs of which I was unaware) and I did visit. And no one could stop me from talking with my friends about my faith, so long as I was not talking at a time when I was not supposed to be. No one ever stopped me from praying silently. So long as a child or youth has faith, there is certainly room to practice that faith within their daily life, even at school. Not joining in bullying other kids, or even encouraging others not to bully would be an example of putting faith in practice school.

                  But it doesn’t sound like it’s about the students, at least not so directly.

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