Probably seeking more TV appearances and speaking gigs, Sarah Palin has decided to enter the overcrowded “War on Christmas” market sector with a new book. Like all the other screeds on the subject, Palin’s version — Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas — takes up arms against a cast of alleged scoundrels frequently denounced by conservative talking heads.
Is Palin sick of the commercialization that has wrenched the season from its roots? Is she tired of Christmas sales that start before Thanksgiving? Has she had it with the bickering over parking spaces and shoving to get the most popular toy that inevitably accompany shopping at this time of year?
Ah, not so much. As Palin tells it, the gravest threats to the seriousness of the season are atheists who sue over public displays of the creche and shopkeepers who call out “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Just like every other right-wing talking head who comes out swinging at this time of year, she sees the problem as Americans who believe in the First Amendment, who speak to Allah when they pray, who understand the difference between public spaces and religious ones.
Her diatribe is not only ridiculously overwrought and paranoid, but it’s also redundant. Hasn’t Bill O’Reilly thoroughly covered this ground?
Still, we’re bound to be subjected to a month-long outcry over school calendars that mention “winter holidays” instead of “Christmas,” so it’s worth repeating the many ways in which Palin and her compatriots are wrong. Let’s start with history.
For the most part, the earliest American Christians did not celebrate Christmas at all. They didn’t believe celebrations were appropriate. The Puritans were a dour bunch who rebelled against the traditional Christmas festivities that had marked the season in 17th-century England: caroling, eating, drinking, carousing.
The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed any celebrations of Christmas, fining those who dared show any hint of merry-making. That likely would have included the errant greeting of “Merry Christmas!” (Increase Mather, the Billy Graham of his day, had a point about the December 25 anniversary, which he noted coincided with a pagan Roman celebration. Historians doubt that Jesus was actually born on that date.)
But the far bigger flaw in the “War on Christmas” arguments lies in a fundamental misreading of the U.S. Constitution and its traditions. Palin and her ilk claim to be faithful readers of the founding document, but their view of it — like their interpretation of the Bible — is narrow, limited and eccentric.
The United States was not created as a “Christian” nation. In fact, the Founding Fathers were acutely aware of Europe’s bloody and destabilizing religious wars, and they sought to create a nation that would thrive as a pluralistic republic, allowing all citizens to worship as they chose. That is explicit in a treaty unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1797 and aimed at ending piracy along the Barbary coast. One of its articles begins, “As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion …”
Thomas Jefferson, who coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state,” was a believer, but not of the sort that Palin would recognize. While he had great respect for Jesus’ moral teachings, for example, he did not believe in Christ’s divinity.
Jefferson might be surprised by the religious pluralism of the nation he helped to birth, but his wisdom has held up well through the centuries. Government does not endorse any religious view, so public school teachers should not lead public prayers. (Let me also clear up a common misunderstanding: Students are free to pray on their own in public schools, and many do.) Government buildings should not include any Christian inscriptions unless they include those of other religions. Churches, mosques and synagogues, however, are free to display what they like, and they do.
I know many committed Christians who struggle to keep sacred the meaning of the season. But they don’t do that by railing against what they hear clerks say to patrons in the malls. They try to stay out of the malls.
When the “war” focuses on the real enemies of Christmas — endless commercialization and mindless consumerism — I’ll enlist.
(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Gage Skidmore via Flickr