Christmas: Theater of War

I don’t know what possessed me to rent, and watch, Christmas with the Kranks. Apart from it being mostly uninteresting and unfunny, I did learn something. When the credits were rolling I was both relieved it was over and put off by the realization that not one Christian Christmas tune was used in the entire Christmas movie. And, upon further reflection, the central plot of the movie seems to undermine Christmas altogether. It begins with a couple sending their daughter off to the Peace Corps and having the epiphany that since their child will not be with them for Christmas, they now have no reason or obligation to celebrate it themselves. The main conflict in the story is the intolerance of all the other Christmas celebrants (presumably Christians, though not necessarily implied) at the Kranks’ refusal to participate in the season and all its traditions. It’s as if the whole town was locked into an unreasoned and unquestioned adherence to Christmas tradition. But not the Kranks. They were enlightened! They knew better than to be bullied or bothered by Christmas. And who could blame them given the theologically bare and, therefore, traditionally bland version of Christmas presented in the movie. In a predictable twist, their daughter ends up coming home for Christmas and the Kranks are forced to quickly conjure up everything their daughter had come to expect at Christmas time: from the decorations to the annual party. In the end, those intolerant Christmas mongers rallied together to help the Kranks make Christmas special for their daughter. And we learned what the true meaning of Christmas is. It’s not about decorations, or preparations or presents. It’s not even about the birth of Christ. It’s about family. And so I learned that (except for an inconsequential collared clergyman) you can make a cultural “Christmas” movie completely divorced from Christianity.

The Kranks illustrates a kind of de-meaning that has come to be characterized as an assault on Christmas. Fox News anchor, John Gibson, in his new book, The War on Christmas, says, “Millions and millions of Americans . . . feel that Christmas is under attack in such a sustained and strategized manner that there is, no doubt, a war on Christmas.” I agree that there is a sustained attack on Christmas that I feel gets worse every year. It happens now when Christmas merchandise is being sold before children have a chance to pick out their Halloween costumes! It shows a gross commercialization of a good and holy day. But this is not in the forefront of Gibson’s mind when he speaks of the war on Christmas. To him the plot is more sinister. He paints liberals and atheists as villains that prey on the powerless in the name of inclusion. And though there are instances where his argument is true, the strategy employed is too broad and sly to suggest such a coordinated human effort. Rather, I suggest that the schemes being played out are satanic. In fact, as Gibson admits, “The war on Christmas is worse that I thought . . . because it’s really a war on Christianity.” There is a constant spiritual war being waged of which Christmas is only one theater. Of course, not everyone agrees. Bruce DeBoskey, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Denver office, says, “The notion that Christianity is under attack in America is absurd . . . a way to mobilize and polarize America.” This points to an unfortunate misconception about Christians, particularly evangelicals, who are increasingly being stereotyped as a political rather than spiritual sect, as we can see in the following 2004 article from Salon.com:

“Fresh off Republican wins in November, [Fox News Anchor, Bill] O’Reilly and company have ratcheted up the rhetoric. Mixing a kernel of truth with a grab bag of unconfirmed anecdotes, as well as some outright falsehoods, and then repeating the dire warnings, they’ve helped manufacture the impression that a tidal wave of anti-Christian activity, fueled by Democrats, is threatening to drive Christmas underground in America.”

Here we have Christians lumped in with Republicans and Fox News anchors. And when our leading apologist in the culture war this Christmas is indeed a Fox News anchor it makes it hard to deny. Personally, I am an evangelical Christian who is a registered independent and watches both Fox News and the “faux news” of Comedy Central (what O’Reilly dubbed “secular central”). I am not one of those Americans who have internalized the war on Christmas, heeded the dire warnings, or demonized liberals. I offer this essay as a writer who has heard the rumors and is looking for facts.

With this in mind, I have found that insofar as there is a war on Christmas it is being fought most prominently this year in three specific battle zones— retail, government, and the church—which I will address in turn. Then I will discuss the underlying cultural assumptions that must be addressed in order for us to win these battles. Finally, I will offer a strategy that will give us the advantage in this war.

Battle Zone: Retail

This year the real hubbub (or should I say humbug) is over how we do, or do not, address Christmas in the private sector. As one reporter put it, the “Christmas-or-else lobby this year is calling for boycotts of any retailers who fail to hustle Jesus along with every Xbox.” Some of the biggest offenders, according to American Family Association (AFA), are Target and Nordstrom. The AFA asserts that, though Target does sell Christmas items, it “does not use the word ‘Christmas’ in any of their in-store promotions or advertising,” and that, “the company itself does not display the word ‘Christmas’ anywhere.” They further contend that “Nordstrom shows a blatant ‘Anti-Christmas’ bias,” because it “simply refuses to use the word ‘Christmas’ all together. Even on their ‘holiday shipping’ section of the website, they only refer to ‘December 25.’ A search on their website doesn’t even acknowledge ‘Christmas.’” But there is hope for the Christmas crusaders who got the taste of victory this year when Macy’s, boycotted for this same reason last year, announced in a letter to the Committee to Save Merry Christmas that they have changed their tune in 2005 and decided to use the word “Christmas” again in their print and television ads and feature the theme “Christmas Time in the City” at one of their major stores. Said Tim Wildmon, AFA president, “If you are going to make your earnings on the year because of Christmas, why should you be ashamed to call it Christmas? People don’t buy Thanksgiving gifts.”

People like Gibson say, “Christmas is under siege from people whose faith is political correctness.” They say that retailers who replace “Christmas” with a neutral word “take away the very essence of what is being celebrated.” But in reality, these businesses have a different motive than ruining Christmas. In fact, promoting Christmas is to their benefit. They want to capitalize on it and they are willing to appeal to as many people as possible to do so. What is strange is that “this year’s Christmas ‘defenders’ are not just tolerating commercialization—they’re insisting on it.” And while some politically minded pundits say “it’s all part of the relentless campaign to inject religion into everything” in order to dull the separation of church and state, I think it’s part of Satan’s campaign to inject politics into everything and so dull the Christian mission. But, as we know, Christmas is not a product to be sold but a story to be told. The story does not get any clearer when Sears decides to display “Merry Christmas” on its doors. Insisting on retailers using the word “Christmas” is another step in de-meaning the holiday. But it wasn’t our idea! It is the political action groups who have mobilized and manipulated their Christian base toward the end of flexing political muscle and planting in our minds the false hope of political power. The retailers are not our enemy.

Battle Zone: Government

One of the recurring questions in America is whether we should observe Christmas, or any religious holiday, in public places. Even in civic matters, the issue tends to revolve around the name. In 2004, Denver mayor, John Hickenlooper, got accused of humbuggery for suggesting that the lights on the City and County Building that say “Merry Christmas” should be replaced with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” But, due to public derision, the plan never came to fruition. Another mayor, Nelson Harris, of Roanoke, Virginia, was cast as an “anti-Christ,” even though he is a Baptist minister, for allowing the city Christmas tree to be called a “holiday” tree. And at Auburn University in Alabama, the Christmas tree was also renamed to the “holiday” tree in an effort to be more inclusive of those who celebrate other religious holidays. As one student explained, Auburn “is a public university and they’re under a lot of social pressure from various ethnic and religious groups and they have to appeal to all of them.” But Laura Steele, an Auburn Student Senator, saw it differently: “All I am asking is that the tradition of Christianity and the traditions of Christians are tolerated too.” Also, in Covington, Georgia, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) threatened legal action against the Newton County school board if they went through with using the word “Christmas” on their school calendars when referring to what they now call “Winter break.”

But the issue extends beyond mere name-calling. Last year, a well-meaning superintendent of schools in Mustang, Oklahoma, Karl Springer, following what he considered to be conservative legal advice, cut the nativity scene from a school Christmas pageant so as not to chance violating the law, specifically, the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Even so, he did not pull the Kwanzaa and Hanukah elements from the production. He was getting chided by the community and media until he consulted Dr. Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C., who helped Springer develop a policy that allowed for “education, not celebration” of religion, with which everyone now seems to be happy.

These are just a sampling of similar stories that have been played out in America recently. The issue is usually the First Amendment and concerns the balance between non-endorsement and free-exercise of religion. The general consensus, based on legal precedents, is that religious Christmas symbols, like nativities, may be displayed on government property as long as secular Christmas symbols, such as reindeer, are also displayed. And Christmas performances at public schools may include Christian songs, like “Away in a Manger,” if songs like “Frosty the Snowman” are also included. “The underlying thinking is that by recognizing many symbols of the season, the government is not unconstitutionally endorsing a particular faith.”

One problem with this arrangement is that what the law allows is not always allowed for in practice. Some school and government officials, as was the case with Karl Springer, are simply ignorant or misinformed about the law. Others conveniently take advantage of the ignorance of those around them. For some “even the commercial version [of Christmas] is objectionable because it has Christian roots. In their view, that makes it religious, and all religion should be forbidden from the public square.” So we fight. And, though it is true that some Christmas standoffs have ended in our favor, a battle won through sheer force (that is, by being the loudest voice) is not a decisive victory and leaves open the possibility of an enemy counteroffensive with even bigger guns (more pressure).

Another problem with the prevailing wisdom is its lack of common sense. Why must we go through the charade of displaying both Frosty and Mary, singing of both Rudolph and the three kings? I understand giving equal access to other religious symbolism. But why are we being forced to display a secularized version of our own holiday just to get the good stuff out there too? As one Jewish writer put it, “Christmas is a Christian holiday, and trying to eliminate the religious aspect is insulting. There’s nothing more annoying than people telling me I should get a tree and string lights in front of my house because these aren’t religious symbols. Or telling me that kids get off school for “winter break,” presumably so they can worship winter. It’s an infuriating inability to see through the eyes of the other.” Christmas is Christian. We should either acknowledge that and include it, or not acknowledge it and exclude everyone. But that is not what happens. Christians either get included as clowns or excluded as bigots. And though we must take what we can get, the current arrangement trivializes the Christmas message, effectively allowing only a secularized or relativized Christianity. Again, this is Satan’s subtle plan at work.

Battle Zone: Church

A cultural version of Christmas, like the one presented in The Kranks, is seeping into the Christian mindset as well. A number of mega-churches across America have consulted with each other and decided not to have services on Christmas, which falls on a Sunday this year. Of course they will have multiple services on Christmas Eve. Cindy Willison, a spokesperson for Southland Christian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, which has a weekly attendance of over 7,000 people, cites low attendance the last time Christmas fell on a Sunday, in 1994, as one of the reasons they will not have Christmas on Sunday this year. She said it’s “based on analysis of the number of people who attended in previous years and just a desire for us to emphasize family time on Christmas Day.” This may not be an issue for our Roman Catholic churches, many of which will be adding masses on December 25. But in the evangelical wing of the Church, it hits to the heart of a movement that largely defines itself by trying to be relevant to the culture around it. Robert K. Johnston, professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, remarks that this is really “a redefinition of Christmas as a time of family celebration rather than as a time of the community faithful celebrating the birth of the savior.” David Wells, professor of theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, says this is evidence of a cultural corrosion in the evangelical churches, saying, “That we would think that going to church is getting in the way of celebrating Christmas—that the family celebration shouldn’t be impeded by having to go to church—it seems to me that our priorities are upside down.”

It is interesting that one of the reasons for not having church on Christmas Day is the same reason given for not having school for two weeks in December: nobody will come. But when Christmas break was first conceived it was because we were all religious. Now, with this falling away from Christmas Sunday services it seems an irreligion could be creeping into the Church. This is the most alarming and disheartening battle zone of the three for, if Christians fail to take their own observances seriously, who will be left to argue for their public inclusion but the secularists who take Christmas to be nothing more than a family spectacle you put on for the kids? Who will stand up against corporate excess and instead insist on making known the story of the great Creator who humbled Himself for His creatures?

No one is condemned for staying home on Christmas. Scripture speaks specifically to this issue: “Say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience.” My concern is the reasons people have for not attending church on a day of the week they would normally have done so. Though family tradition should be honored, why should it not bend to Church tradition on Christmas Day? I would not be so bold as to accuse my Christian brothers and sisters of yielding to satanic influence. On the contrary, I believe they are acting in good faith, doing what they think will most effectively reach their communities for Christ. But that they felt they had to make such a drastic move points to the fact that America is a post-Christian nation, and Satan has already taken too much ground!

When Satan Attacks

It seems the many years of spiritual warfare on Christmas have been quite effective. Everyone knows it to be the commemoration of Christ’s birth, but few celebrate it as such. Nor have they for years. Family traditions, even company parties, may play a bigger role in the American experience of Christmas than do any spiritual observances. Though the data considered, in my view, does not show a full frontal assault on Christmas, the effect is no different. In the private sector, we’ve been duped into calling for commercialization in the name of “Christmas.” In the public square, we’re fighting for what is at best a secularized version of Christmas. And in some of our most influential churches, the idea of Christmas Sunday service is being trivialized to those who most need to be acculturated into Christian tradition. If Christmas is but one front in the war on Christianity, there is much to lose. Peter Kreeft, in his book, How to Win the Culture War, points out that the success and survival of any society is its morality, the knowledge of which must be built on religion.” Based on what he calls “Colson’s Law” he says any society that loses its religion and, therefore, its sense of conscience is left with two alternatives—cops or chaos—and “will necessarily become totalitarianism.” He adds that “popular opinion can be just as totalitarian as that of any king or tyrant, and much harder to topple, especially when manipulated by a powerful and ideologically united media.”

But what is that ideology? It is the message of “the wagers of this war on Christmas” who Gibson identifies as the “secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists, and liberal, guilt-wracked Christians.” They have all learned, formally through education and informally through media, to be open to anyone and anything. All lifestyles and ideologies are created equal. We should not discount anyone. “There is no enemy other than the man who is not open to everything.” This humanistic belief in cultural relativism has inclusion as its cardinal value. So when Christianity rears its head in public its exclusive message of Jesus Christ as the only way is a blatant blasphemy to this new religion. Even mentioning Jesus in any serious manner is considered an act of exclusion.

So, in this view, celebrating Christmas in public shows a total disregard for non-believers who might feel excluded. But Gibson retorts, “Feeling excluded is not being excluded. I do not feel excluded because Muslims go on a hajj, or because they observe the fasting of Ramadan in my presence. I do not feel excluded because Jews observe Passover. [But] in the schools, any appearance of Christianity is treated as a hazmat crisis.” In effect, “these liberal groups give lip service to religion, but only as a completely personal activity that should be practiced and celebrated behind the closed doors of privately held property.” Anything less than an utterly privatized religion is unacceptable. This flawed worldview has not only infected our culture. It has infiltrated the Church. It must be stopped.

Counterattack

“The neutrality of the state, vis-à-vis the religious sources and the religious expression of the particular culture, therefore can have in a sense only one option for detaching society from its sources, and that option is to support a different religious foundation in society.”

Francis A. Schaeffer warns us that, “if we as Christians do no speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state.” Right now the framework that allows for inclusion is precisely the religious framework of Christianity upon which Western societies have been built. Tolerance is a Christian ideal that “accepts difference in the way people conduct themselves . . . within its framework.” Once that framework is dismantled, we are almost certainly left with a totalitarianism of tolerance. “To cure this social disease we must,” says Kreeft, “infiltrate the psychology and sociology departments, along with the popular journalism and media production centers, that is, the mind-molding areas of the battlefield.” But what message should we bring?

Battle Plan

First, our defense of public displays of a Christian nature should not be solely based on historical claims. In Redlands, California, where I live, we voted on whether to keep a picture of the cross on the official city seal. Those opposed predictably cited tolerance and constitutionality as reasons for removing it. Those in favor argued that Christianity is a part of our city’s heritage. Though pointing to our Christian history may make a case for current Christian influence based on precedent, I think the opposite is true. An argument based on historicity relegates Christianity to the past and leaves no room for current religious expression. It, effectively, argues our way out of the war. It appeases the secularists and cultural relativists who fashion themselves as progressives and wish religion to remain in the past. Still, neither of the two groups would be happy if we won. And, in fact, in Redlands, we lost. Nevertheless, I believe our opponents will soon be willing to let us win a few of these battles as a concession—to pacify the crying baby of Christianity—and as a diversion from addressing the real issue of religious freedom for all faiths, including ours.

In the meantime, for the sake of even our opponents, we must renew the foundation of our society, which is our Christian faith. “The secularism of the modern European is a direct result of divisions in the Western church.” So, Christians here must start with unity. And what more appropriate way than by celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Let us together renew our commitment to emulate the attitude of Christ Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.”

“A Christian lifestyle is the best witness to an alienated society.” We must pray for our culture for we are not fighting the people, we are fighting Satan over them. Though we may be marginalized at times we must not be quick to demonize those whose souls we covet on behalf of Christ. We must re-imagine our mission in the world. When it comes to the war on Christmas, let us abstain from pointing fingers at the local municipalities and retailers. “Why can’t churches lead the way in celebrating Christmas?” How have we been using the word “Christmas,” if at all? As a friend of mine said, “I think as Christians we need to constantly remind people that Christmas is about the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and greet everyone with a joyful ‘Merry Christmas.’” Have our churches publicly displayed any Christmas symbols this year? How about on our own property, how have we represented Jesus there? If we are not so concerned about our own homes or houses of worship, how can we be so insistent on a neutral government and privately owned companies to spread the Gospel for us? If we are really intent on fighting for the cause of Christ, we must first commit ourselves. “The weapon that will win this war—this war’s atomic bomb—is saints.”

for Cultural Apologetics at Biola

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One thought on “Christmas: Theater of War

  1. Well done Shawn, well done. I agree and perhaps I have even been guilty in the past at attacking the front-man and not the mastermind of such problems. Indeed it is time we separate ourselves from politics and live lives that are becoming of the Gospel. Certainly if we want to further the kingdom it will not be won in battle over what banners are displayed in dept. stores. We are fighting for hearts and minds and that battle cannot be won by out shouting people we disagree with. The day we win will be the day when the Saints come marching in…

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