December 17, 2008

How Christians Have Secularized Christmas

Christmas tree
Christmas tree (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Once various Christian extremist groups realized that their made-up "war on Christmas" would be a massively successful fundraiser, it was obvious that we would be treated to hearing about battles in this war each and every year. While it is still not clear how (or if) atheists should participate in this "war," I do believe that Christians are largely managing to secularize Christmas all on their own with minimal involvement on our part.

For decades, the preferred strategy of groups seeking to preserve the separation of church and state involved asking governments to remove Christmas decorations from government buildings. This approach always had reason firmly on its side because it stressed the inappropriateness of religious symbols in government buildings. Advocates of this position sought to preserve freedom of expression and freedom of religion in homes and religious institutions while recognizing the perils of allowing religion to encroach upon government.

The problem with such an approach, as would soon become clear, was that some Christians were determined to get their symbols in government buildings. They argued convincingly that certain symbols had become sufficiently secularized over time that they could no longer properly be considered religious symbols. The prime example of this was the Christmas tree. Persons with a modicum of education recognized that the tradition of the Christmas tree predated Christianity and was a pagan symbol co-opted by early Christians. Others pointed to the number of atheists who erected Christmas trees every year. It became exceedingly difficult to argue that these trees, renamed "holiday trees," held any religious significance. They were permitted in government buildings.

Then the Jewish community came forward and reminded us all that not everyone celebrates Christmas. They reminded us that the government has no business picking one holiday over the rest for special treatment. "What about Hanukkah?" they asked. They sought acknowledgment for their holiday and wanted their own symbols represented.

When some Christians objected to this, and others began to protest the use of "holiday" instead of "Christmas," it became clear that a real can of worms had been opened. As soon as Christians started to whine about "happy holidays" being anti-Christian, their real agenda became transparent. It is not about promoting tolerance or fostering plurality; it is about promoting their religion over all others.

Christians are now stuck in an untenable situation of their own making. On one hand, they demand recognition for their holiday and want to see its symbols in government buildings. On the other hand, they oppose efforts to promote tolerance and religious pluralism through the inclusion of other holidays and symbols. It is precisely this second point (i.e., inclusion and pluralism) which has allowed the courts to permit the first point (i.e., the presence of Christian symbols). In other words, the courts have permitted Christians to have their Christmas displays in government buildings as long as other groups who want to be represented may do so.

This means that we now have Jewish and atheist displays alongside Christian ones. It also means that we could potentially have Wiccan or Satanic displays added to the mix. This type of circus is clearly not what Christians want, but they have so far refused to take the one step that could prevent it from happening: removing their own displays and working to keep religious materials out of government buildings. The good news is that some are beginning to consider this step.

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