A Critical Reflection on and Response to the “War on Christmas” Narrative

In the United States, Christmas has traditionally been considered a religious holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, whom Christians believe is the Son of God and humanity’s Lord and Savior. 

But for many religious Americans, there is a war going on or, more specifically, a putative “War on Christmas” garbed in measures to increasingly disassociate Jesus Christ and Christianity from the Christmas holiday. According to William Franklin Graham, an evangelist, 

“Stores, schools and communities across America continue to find new and intolerant reasons to remove any religious references to Christmas, stripping it of any holy or historical significance. Christian songs, prayers and other spiritually vital connections to the Lord Jesus Christ are deleted or diminished” (1).

The War on Christmas narrative gained traction when in 2005 John Gibson, an American radio talk show host, appeared on The O’Reilly Factor to discuss his book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (2005). Gibson singled out companies and retailers that refused to use Christmas in their advertising. 

The War on Christmas narrative subsequently experienced a spike in internet searches and has since gained traction on Fox News on what has been declared, among many things, a “culture war issue”.

Cited Evidence for the War on Christmas

Where do Christians maintain the War on Christmas is apparent?

Many Christians identify the replacing of traditional salutations like “Merry Christmas” with other religiously neutral or non-religious statements such as “Happy holidays” or “Seasonal greetings”.

There is resentment toward the various lawsuits that have been filed against local governments to have them remove Nativity scenes and other Christian symbols from public spaces. 

War on Christmas has been supposedly declared by popular retailers who have decided to cease using “Christmas” in their promotional materials and/or have their staff avoiding saying “Merry Christmas” to customers. Rather than Christmas trees, there are now “Holiday Trees”.

The controversy over Starbucks in 2015 sparked significant outbursts from devout Christians. Starbucks decided to remove Christmas-related messaging and imagery from its coffee cups. The cups had previously depicted Christmas symbols (a snowflake, reindeer, or snowman) but this time was only red and had the Starbucks logo on them. Starbucks was condemned by some Christians for despising Jesus and Christianity. There were calls to boycott the coffee brand.

Political Entanglement

The War on Christmas narrative has become politically entangled and employed strategically to garner support from religious voters.

In 2017, Donald Trump, the former American, speaking in Washington, declared that the “word ‘Christmas’” is not used “because it’s not politically correct”. Speaking to conservative and evangelical supporters, Trump promised that they would be “saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again”.

Invoking the War on Christmas (and Christians) narrative, Trump spoke to the fears of many Americans. Manipulating emotions has typically been part and parcel of politicking and political campaigning. Fear is especially a strong emotion that can be exploited by political actors to shape and influence the opinion of their audiences regarding specific matters. Activating this emotion was a core strategy of Trump’s for “legitimizing his coming as a savior, as a strong president who can stand up to those threats” (2).

The tactical insertion of the term “War” (on Christmas and Christians) activates consternation among evangelical and conservative Americans, and is “intended to generate both a sense of urgency and a sense of responsibility”.

Many Christians believe that disassociating Jesus from the Christmas holiday is an assault on their religious freedom and an attempt to turn the United States into a “godless” nation. Pat Buchanan, a conservative journalist, has referred to the War on Christmas as a hate crime promoted by “Christmas-haters”, anti-Christian “bigots”, and those who “detest Christmas and what it represents” (3).

Theologizing the War on Christmas 

Working from theological premises, the War on Christmas is alleged to be the rotten fruits of Satan who toils day and night to keep the focus off of God and therefore places the individual’s salvation at risk. The War on Christmas is, in fact, not about Christmas. It is waging a war against the Son of God; Graham explains that,

“[A]t its root and core, the war on Christmas isn’t really about Christmas at all—it’s about the Son of God. The war on Christmas is a war on Christ and His followers. It’s the hatred of our culture for the exclusive claims that Christ made: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6).

The War on Christmas is associated with persecution and abuse, which are major biblical themes and archetypes. For Christians, the source material for these archetypes is rich. The New Testament and Gospels contain frequent references to the persecutory experiences of the earliest devout members of the nascent Jesus movement. Graham cites 2 Timothy: “in the last days perilous times will come” (2 Timothy 3:1), which is a text that elicits a sense of urgency and immediacy. Ultimately, Christ will conquer,

“He will come with undiminished power and glory, as a conquering King who will cast Satan and unbelievers into an eternal lake of fire. His kingdom will be finally consummated with the new heavens and the new earth”.

Reflections on the War on Christmas Narrative

Several reflections are offered regarding the War on Christmas narrative.

The insistence of persecution alleged by Christians in the United States, based on an appropriate definition of the term, is false and, at the very least, an overstatement. Properly defined, persecution is the,

“widespread and ongoing persecution of persons on account of their religious beliefs or practices” through means of “abduction, enslavement, killing, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion or other forms of torture, or the systematic imposition of fines or penalties which have the purpose and effect of destroying the economic existence of persons on who them are imposed” (4).

Likely few would assert that in the United States religious individuals are experiencing “abduction, enslavement, killing, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion” as means of blotting out their faith communities.

The term “War” (on Christmas) is therefore a misnomer in the American context. The “secularization” of Christmas cannot be likened to a “War” (on Christmas) because Christmas is not outlawed for being celebrated as a religious occasion should individuals, churches, and families wish to. Freedom of religious belief and practice is a First Amendment right. 

Assertions that disassociating Christian religious symbols from Christmas in the public space is intended to make the United States a “godless nation” must be considered silly when the majority of the population is devoutly religious and believes in God. Further, most within the growing unaffiliated demographic (consisting of agnostic, atheist, and “nothing in particular” groups) detaching themselves from the Church still affirm a wide array of religious values and beliefs (reincarnation, God, ultimate reality, life after death, etc.). That the United States will ever be “godless” is more baseless rhetoric than fact. 

Rather, the so-called “secularization” of Christmas affirms cultural and religious inclusivity that avoids privileging one religion and its symbols over and above others in the public space. This is the rationale behind the impermissibility of displaying Nativity scenes and the symbols of the Christian religion in public spaces just as it is impermissible for the government to construct a monument dedicated to Islam with the shahadah (profession of the Islamic faith) displayed on it, which, it is worth noting, would be condemned to no end by the same Christians promoting the War on Christmas narrative.   

The “secularization” of Christmas is not a hatred for Christ or the Christian religion on behalf of most Americans, or an attempt to undermine religious doctrines such as salvation for sinners. The claim that it is is an exaggeration. In his article, Buchanan, for example, singles out a small group of atheists picketing in a public space mocking religion and Christmas as proof of this hatred and “anti-Christian bigotry” in the United States. However, singling out a tiny group of picketers contained within a demographic that makes up but a small percentage of the overall American population far from establishes any widespread hatred for Christ, Christmas, or the Christian religion. To suggest so is little more than clutching at straws.

Rather, according to Pew Research Center data, 90% of Americans celebrate the Christmas occasion (5). Apparently, the offense taken by Buchanan and others is that many people do not celebrate the occasion in the religious way he and other Christians want them to, by them all celebrating the birth of Christ and Christ’s role as Lord and Savior theologically and religiously.

The War on Christmas narrative promoted by many Christians is the product of widespread fear over former religious privilege and entitlement being challenged in the public, social, and cultural spheres of American (and Western) society. Groups who have traditionally been accustomed to privilege often experience equality as oppression, which explains the conservative and evangelical backlash to what is an increasingly culturally and religiously inclusive American society. 

References

1. Graham, Franklin. 2014. The War on Christmas Is a War on Christ. Available.

2. Reyes, Antonio. 2011. “Strategies of legitimization in political discourse: From words to actions.” Discourse and Society 22(6):781-807.

3. Buchanan, Pat. 2011. Are the Christmas-Bashers Winning? Available.

4. Castelli, Elizabeth A. 2005. “Praying for the Persecuted Church: US Christian Activism in the Global Arena”. Journal of Human Rights 4:321-351.

5. Pew Research Center. 2017. 5 facts about Christmas in America. Available.

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