Last year around this time I posted a short little tongue-in-cheek piece on this blog about Christmas, and the ubiquity of Christmas symbols. I tried to make the point that for people who celebrate Christmas, for whom these symbols are their own, it’s very difficult to understand how those same symbols feel and appear to those of us who do not celebrate the holiday. I made the whimsical and ironic suggestion that if most Christians could spend even one day a year, not by choice but by requirement, walking through a world with Jewish symbols everywhere, they might gain an important perspective and understanding.

Well, that one blog post touched off a bit of a firestorm in my online relations! One member of another forum named me “Assman of the Day” in a post on her own blog, and another member of that same forum decided I was an anti-Christian bigot, and said that he would never again be a part of a forum where I was a member. My one little blog post (not all by itself, but in combination with a lot of other factors, including other of my own errors) resulted in me being insulted and ostracized in a forum that I really valued. Later I was even banned from that forum after breaking a rule–but I was baited into breaking that rule by a member who was looking to get rid of me, specifically because of my “anti-Christian” bigotry. Of course, it was my choice to take the bait–but my membership there had been so poisoned that it was almost inevitable that some way would be found to get rid of me, or that I would find such a way myself. That ban didn’t last as long as it was intended to. I saw my own role in bringing it about, and some others there were open-minded enough to reconsider. But it was very painful, and disturbing.

So I’m understandably a bit nervous about saying anything at all about the “Christmas Wars” this year. But, as the loud arguments on this issue continue this year, I couldn’t resist weighing in once more.

One of the things I value most about this country is that it is, by law, a secular country–a place where all religions are free, and none is favored, none established, by the government. That was a revolutionary principle at the time of the country’s founding (although very much in the tradition of the Enlightenment). The founders realized that they were starting a country that was going to be diverse, that was going to have a need for people of many different faiths and religions and origins to be welcome and equal, and that the only way for that to work would be if the government did not represent or favor any one faith.

Justice Brennan, writing for the majority in Larson v. Valente in 1982, said

The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.

A little later, Justice Blackmun, writing for the majority in County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, wrote that the Establishment Clause

means at the very least that government may not demonstrate a preference for one particular sect or creed (including a preference for Christianity over other religions).

And in the same decision, (answering Justice Kennedy, who wanted to permit a Creche on the courthouse steps), he wrote

The Constitution mandates that the government remain secular, rather than affiliating itself with religious beliefs or institutions, precisely in order to avoid discriminating against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths. Thus, the claim that prohibiting government from celebrating Christmas as a religious holiday discriminates against [492 U.S. 573, 575] Christians in favor of nonadherents must fail, since it contradicts the fundamental premise of the Establishment Clause itself. In contrast, confining the government’s own Christmas celebration to the holiday’s secular aspects does not favor the religious beliefs of non-Christians over those of Christians, but simply permits the government to acknowledge the holiday without expressing an impermissible allegiance to Christian beliefs.

To me, these principles are eminently reasonable, logical, and essential to our constitutional protections and freedoms. (And I should note that the Allegheny v. ACLU decision is now over 15 years old).

In the New York Times last week, Adam Cohen gave a very perceptive discussion of how it is really commericialism and materialism, rather than secularism, which are the main threats to Christmas in this country. In the course of that discussion (which I recommend–you need to have “Times Select” to read it–that’s free to home delivery subscribers, and should be free to everyone, in my opinion, but that’s another subject), he raises some very interesting historical facts.

The “war on Christmas,” contrary to the common perception and the hysterical hyping of Fox, is far from new, and far from secular or liberal in its origins. The Puritans in Massachusetts, in fact, tried to outlaw Christmas entirely (an approach which would, happily, be prohibited by our Constitution), and

The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas ”and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing.” Throughout the 1800’s, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because ”they do not accept the day as a Holy One.” On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.

Not only that, but some of the exact disputes and struggles we’re still fighting now are at least a century old.

as early as 1906, the Committee on Elementary Schools in New York City urged that Christmas hymns be banned from the classroom, after a boycott by more than 20,000 Jewish students. In 1946, the Rabbinical Assembly of America declared that calling on Jewish children to sing Christmas carols was ‘an infringement on their rights as Americans.’

Historically, and factually, and rationally, I see nothing at all wrong with any retail store, individual, or private institution of any kind wishing me a “Merry Christmas” or “God bless you.” I think people have every right, and it’s a good thing, and perfectly American, to decorate their homes or places of business with Creches or Crosses or Santas or Reindeers (I do hate those plastic flamingos, though! ;)). Similarly, I think people have every right not to do any of those decorations, or make any of those wishes. In a nation where it’s OK for private citizens or businesses to say “Merry Christmas” or “In Jesus’ Name,” it has to be also OK for them to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” or to have a “Holiday Tree” instead of a Christmas tree.

But if a symbol is religious–as a Creche certainly is, or a cross certainly is–if it represents one particular religion, and if the government is promoting or displaying it, then the Constitution and the Supreme Court have been eminently clear that that is a violation. It’s a violation of all of our rights–not because it feels bad, or anyone’s offended, or because there’s anything wrong with Christianity, but because the government must not show favoritism to any one religion. When it does, when Christianity is presented as a “state” or “official” religion, that’s a clear violation of one of the most important civil rights and foundational principles we have. (There’s a reason it’s the first amendment ;)).

Now, of course, there are always grey areas. Is a Christmas tree a religious symbol? I think the courts have ruled repeatedly that it’s not. So if that’s the case, then no renaming of the tree can possibly be an insult or attack on religion. Is a snowman or a snowflake or a candy cane religious? Clearly not. Anyone trying to ban or forbid these symbols in public schools or elsewhere is over-reacting–and is wrong. What about if the city or state gives some kind of “equal time” to several different religions? The courts have ruled that that’s OK, and although the practicalities can get difficult, it seems to be a reasonable kind of compromise.

I acknowledge that many Christians, and other religious people, feel that their faith is under attack, that the broad forces of “secularism” or “humanism” are threatening what they see as essential to the enjoyment of their faith and traditions. That fear is very real, I know, but it’s also, I think, misguided and misdirected. People who are at least nominally Christian make up some 85% of the American population, as well as a percentage at least that high of every branch of government. Christmas is not really threatened, Christianity is not really threatened…in fact, quite the opposite. But the fear seems not to be about numbers, or power, but about something much deeper–and I think the whole “Christmas Wars” discourse really misses the point of that fear. The threat to spirituality and religion in this country is, I think, (ironically) very closely to connected to the much more serious and real threat to learning, reason, and science.

People who have a deep religious commitment to Christmas specifically or Christianity generally are not threatened in the slightest by the Constitution or the secular nature of our government. They are much more threatened (as Cohen points out in the Times piece, as others have pointed out, and as we see in the stories of people being trampled when the stores opened on Black Friday) by the materialistic, consumerist, immediate pleasure, new toys and supersize fries, culture in which we live. That culture is a major threat not just to deep spirituality and religion, but to deep thinking or feeling of any kind. And that culture is not a product of our secular system. In fact, it’s the exact opposite of the enlightenment tradition from which our secular system springs.

And that’s a trend I see in all kinds of areas of our culture, and it’s a trend that worries me more than almost anything (it may be a far stretch, but that’s actually, in my view, the same trend that gives rise to violent Islamism and other fundamentalist terrorisms).

We all have to live together and we should be able to get along with mutual respect and tolerance. The government should not ever show preference to one religion over others, or to religion in general over the lack of religion. That’s my bottom line. In the blog post that got me into so much trouble last year, I was not trying to promote any kind of “reverse discrimination” or converse bigotry, or anything of the kind. I was only trying to comment on the fact that when people are part of a majority group, their own religion becomes transparent to them–so much so that it’s hard to even understand what it’s like for those who do not share that majority religion. I was hoping that if people in the majority could actually see the world from the perspective of the minority, it might add to their understanding…and it might subtract from the mistaken belief that that minority, just by existing and by having guaranteed, reasonable, Constitutional rights, was somehow an attack or a “war on Christmas.”