[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]
After enduring eight years of a president who was determined to impose his religious beliefs on the country, I've just about had it with people trying to shove religion down my throat. Maybe that is why I have no patience for the (completely ludicrous) claim that there is a "War on Christmas," made by right-wingers like Bill O'Reilly. But what put me over the top is that now a deputy editor of the once reputable Wall Street Journal has weighed in on the issue, actually equating the current economic crisis with the fact that people say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas."
Daniel Henninger wrote in the WSJ yesterday:
"This year we celebrate the desacralized 'holidays' amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin -- fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed. People wonder, What happened? One man's theory: A nation whose people can't say 'Merry Christmas' is a nation capable of ruining its own economy."
Henninger's point is that the economic downturn was caused by "borrowers, lenders and securitizer shamans" who were "operating in a zero-gravity environment, aloft on moral hazard," which was due to a loss of "responsibility, restraint and remorse." He goes on to say that "responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments," and that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." He claims that the "disappearance of 'Merry Christmas'" is indicative of this "dereligioning." Thus, the link between not saying "Merry Christmas" and the failing economy.
Convinced? Me neither.
Somehow, people like Henninger and O'Reilly think it's important that people say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays." But what Henninger and O'Reilly don't seem to want to understand is that the United States of America, as much as they would like it to be otherwise, is not a Christian nation. The majority of its citizens may currently be Christian, but, again, that does not make the country, as an institution, Christian.
(Full disclosure: I am a nonreligious Jew, so the "War on Christmas" crowd will, no doubt, dismiss all of my opinions.)
The last time I checked, the First Amendment was still in full force and effect. As a reminder, it says:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
You will notice in the very first words of the Bill of Rights that the founders made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that there was to be no one religion "established" for the country. The First Amendment makes clear that everyone should be allowed to practice his/her religious faiths ("or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"), but that no one faith was to be elevated above the others by the government. Being Christian does not make one more American.
And yet that is exactly what the O'Reillys and Hennigers of the world seem to want. I'm sorry to report this fact to them, but not everyone in this country celebrates Christmas. According to a Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study from earlier this year, 1.7 percent of the population identified themselves as Jewish, 0.6 percent as Muslim, 0.7 percent as Buddhist, 0.4 percent as Hindu, 0.7 percent as Jehovah's Witness, and more than 0.2 percent as from "other world religions." On top of that, according to the Pew study, more than 16 percent of Americans do not consider themselves any religion.
All of that translates into millions of people who do not celebrate Christmas. Do O'Reilly and Henninger think that these people should be made to feel "other," outsiders in the American experience? I hope not. That is not what America is about. Many of the founders of the country moved here to flee religious persecution. They just wanted to be free to practice their own religion here. And that doesn't mean that only they get to do so.
This country has some tragic history when it comes to its treatment of minorities. We enslaved African Americans as recently as 145 years ago, and we had laws on the books repressing them until quite recently. It was only 65 years ago that we rounded up American citizens who just happened to be of Japanese descent and placed them into internment camps solely because of their country of origin. And it was only two weeks ago that three states voted to amend their constitutions to ensure that homosexuals cannot enjoy the same marriage rights as heterosexuals.
In light of that history, it seems to me that we, as a nation, should be looking at more ways to come together and make everyone feel a part of the American family, not stressing our differences and making those in the minority feel as though they are not true Americans. And through the simple act of saying "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," we, as a country, can show our tolerance for other faiths and make everyone feel a part of the holiday season.
If nothing else, doesn't it come down to simple manners? Why would you want to say "Merry Christmas" to someone that doesn't celebrate the holiday? Clearly, such a greeting is only going to make the recipient uncomfortable, pointing out that he/she does not practice the same religion that the majority of the country does. Meanwhile, the dreaded "Happy Holidays" invocation is actually inclusive and polite, saying, in effect, "There are a lot of holidays this time of year, so if any of them apply to you, we hope it's a nice time for you." Isn't such a tolerant attitude more in keeping with what the United States is supposed to represent?
Of course, nothing I've said would stop those who observe Christmas from going to church, decorating their houses (inside and out) and celebrating with their families and friends. And certainly, saying "Happy Holidays" in public venues doesn't stop two people from greeting each other with "Merry Christmas" when they both observe the holiday. My only point is that in public displays, when not all of the recipients will be Christian, there is nothing wrong with using the more inclusive "Happy Holidays." That idea hardly constitutes a "War on Christmas."
There is also a dangerous, insidious strain to the movement complaining of a "War on Christmas." Go back to Henninger's words in the WSJ. He says that "the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous." I refuse to accept that the immorality of finance professionals is due to a lack of religious piety. The implication is that without religion, there can be no morals or ethics. I, and I'm sure many others out there, absolutely reject such an assumption. Moral behavior does not have to come from the teachings of a religion. An atheist is every bit as capable of drawing on his/her beliefs to lead an ethical life as a religious person.
And by turning to an argument about Christmas, Henninger is also implying that it's not enough to be religious, you have to be an adherent of his religion. That is certainly a dangerous idea, and it is also completely sanctimonious, given the myriad scandals that have enveloped U.S. churches in recent years. Being religious didn't stop, for example, priests from molesting boys (and the church covering it up), nor did it prevent Rev. Ted Haggard, the founder of the New Life Church, from getting caught buying crystal meth and patronizing a male prostitute (after crusading against homosexuals).
I would further argue that the injection of religion into politics has not produced the kind of moral and ethical behavior Henninger longs for. It seems to me that the emergence of an argument that if you oppose the Republican party and support the Democrats, you are somehow not righteous in the eyes of the church, is a pretty dangerous way of thinking. I don't think it's helpful that a South Carolina priest would tell his parishioners that they should not accept Holy Communion if they voted for Barack Obama. And I don't think the national interest is served by actions like the recently deposed Republican North Carolina U.S. House of Representatives member Robin Hayes saying during the campaign that "liberals hate real Americans that work and achieve and believe in God."
Clearly, I'm not making the argument that all religious people are bad. (Sorry, but I can't help but anticipate the potential "he is criticizing religion!" charge of those who believe there is a "War on Christmas.") What I am saying is that there is nothing in being religious that makes someone inherently more moral and ethical than someone who is not religious.
So you'll forgive me if I don't buy into the Henniger/O'Reilly view of America. I see this country as a place in which we respect the religious beliefs of all of our citizens, and, more importantly, we would not seek to impose our faiths on our neighbors. And yes, I would like to see a country where we don't seek to make non-Christian citizens feel like they are not part of the national fabric by pointing out to them, again and again, that they are different than a majority.
Or, put another way, I want to live in a tolerant, respectful country that says "Happy Holidays," rather than a divisive nation that seeks to make people uncomfortable by saying "Merry Christmas." Isn't that what "peace on earth, good will toward man" entails? There is no war on Christmas. We only ask that those who celebrate the holiday not insist that those who don't celebrate with them. Actually, that statement of my belief is my declaration of war on the war on the "War on Christmas."
Happy holidays everyone.