Salon has an interesting article called How the secular humanist grinch didn’t steal Christmas.
I’d like to share some selections from the article and a few thoughts.
“In 1959, the recently formed John Birch Society issued an urgent alert: Christmas was under attack. In a JBS pamphlet titled “There Goes Christmas?!” a writer named Hubert Kregeloh warned, “One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas — to denude the event of its religious meaning.” The central front in this perfidious assault was American department stores, where the “Godless UN” was scheming to replace religious decorations with internationalist celebrations of universal brotherhood.
“The UN fanatics launched their assault on Christmas in 1958, but too late to get very far before the holy day was at hand,” the pamphlet explained. “They are already busy, however, at this very moment, on efforts to poison the 1959 Christmas season with their high-pressure propaganda. What they now want to put over on the American people is simply this: Department stores throughout the country are to utilize UN symbols and emblems as Christmas decorations.”
Forty-six years later the conversation sounds very similar to what we hear today. And speaking of today here is another remark from the article.
“the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian right legal outfit co-founded by James Dobson, has ramped up its three-year-old “Christmas project,” organizing over 800 lawyers to defend the sacred holiday. “It’s a sad day in America when you have to retain a lawyer to wish someone a merry Christmas,” says Mike Johnson, senior legal counsel for ADF.
Despite Johnson’s lamentations, one can in fact offer Christmas greetings without legal counsel. Christmas trees are permitted in public schools. (They’re considered secular symbols.) Nativity scenes are allowed on public property, although if the government erects one, it has to be part of a larger display that also includes other, secular signs of the holiday season, or displays referring to other religions. (The operative Supreme Court precedent is 1984’s Lynch v. Donnelly, where the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that a city-sponsored Christmas display including a crÃ¨che, reindeer, a Christmas tree, candy-striped poles and a banner that read “Seasons Greetings” was permissible. “The display is sponsored by the city to celebrate the Holiday and to depict the origins of that Holiday,” the majority wrote. “These are legitimate secular purposes.”) Students are allowed to distribute religious holiday cards and literature in school. If the administration tries to stop them, the ACLU will step in to defend the students’ free-speech rights, as they did in 2003 when teenagers in Massachusetts were suspended for passing out candy canes with Christian messages.
In fact, there is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can’t celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.
“You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. “It’s a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role.”
What we often see is the attempt by people to look at history through sentimental eyes. You rarely hear people speak about how good things are today, they always refer to the past as being better. But the thing is people self-censor and omit the negatives of the past and sometimes fail to recognize the privilege of the present.
“Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and the author of “Finding Common Ground: A Guide to Religious Liberty in the Public Schools,” is one of the heroes of Gibson’s book. Gibson writes about how he resolved a crisis that arose in Mustang, Okla., when, fearing a lawsuit, the superintendent of schools ordered a nativity scene cut from an elementary school Christmas pageant, infuriating many in the town. Haynes was eventually flown out to mediate. He had, writes Gibson, “made something of a career out of rushing in as if he were driving an ambulance, lights flashing and sirens blaring, after schools had made disastrous policy decisions on restricting religious liberty in schools.”
According to Haynes, though, there is no war on Christmas. “I certainly wouldn’t put it that way,” he says. “The big picture is that there’s more religion now in public schools than ever in modern history. There’s no question about that. But it’s not there in terms of the government imposing religion or sponsoring it, and that bothers some people on the right. They miss the good old days when public schools were semi-established Protestant schools.”
In the last two decades, says Haynes, “religion has come into the public schools in all kinds of ways … many schools now understand that students have religious liberty rights in a public school, so you can go to many public schools today and kids will be giving each other religious literature, they will be sharing their faith. You go to most public schools now and see kids praying around the flagpole before school.”
The reason fights over Christmas iconography recur, says Haynes, is that “there are still some school administrators who are so afraid to deal with religion that they go too far in keeping it out, and it only takes a few bad stories in this era of the Internet for many conservative religious people across the country to think that public schools are hostile to their faith.”
Ironically, when school officials do go too far, the ACLU is likely to challenge them, on the grounds that the government can neither promote nor restrict religious speech. “A lot of the things the ACLU does to help religious people and religious students are not high-profile cases; they don’t get much attention,” says Haynes. “The Christian student who is told she can’t bring her Bible to school, the ACLU gets those kinds of calls, and often it doesn’t become a lawsuit, but they will quietly tell the school you can’t do this, you have to treat everyone fairly.”
Indeed, one case that ACLU president Nadine Strossen loves to talk about is that of Rita Warren, a retired woman who calls herself the “Lone Ranger of the manger” and whose life mission is to put nativity scenes in public places. When she placed a plastic crÃ¨che on the lawn in front of the government building in Fairfax, Va., the government ordered her to remove it. Warren called the ACLU, and they discovered that the city of Fairfax had allowed others to erect displays on the property. “Once the government allows displays of any kind to be placed on public property, it can’t then discriminate against some display because of the viewpoint,” says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “The government could not discriminate against her religious display any more than it could take specific action to promote her religious display. It has to treat us the same.”
These stories rarely get much play, especially since the ACLU lacks a publicity apparatus that can compete with the religious right. “We’re not in the business to defend ourselves as an organization,” says Strossen.”
Pretty Interesting stuff if you ask me. Funny that you never see any of these things remarked about in print or elsewhere. Maybe O’Reilly needs some new material.