Obama dodges a 'Christmas wars' bullet

WhiteHouseCrecheUnless you have been on another planet for several decades, you have heard the phrase "War on Christmas" tossed about in the mainstream press and Fox News, too (cue: rim shot and cymbal). Well, imagine the outcry if the beleaguered White House cultural staff had carried through on the following idea for President Barack Obama's first Winter Solstice in the people's house. Please consider this an elaboration on that Pew Forum report (.pdf) that Sarah mentioned earlier today.

So, once again, let's head over to The New York Times and check out the Style piece on White House social secretary Desiree Rogers. The headline proclaims, "The Spotlight's Bright Glare." Imagine if the Times had led with the following section of the piece, instead of letting this detail slide down in the body of the article:

... Washington is a city that likes its traditions, and Ms. Rogers has raised a few eyebrows by trying to bend them. When former social secretaries gave a luncheon to welcome Ms. Rogers earlier this year, one participant said, she surprised them by suggesting the Obamas were planning a "non-religious Christmas" -- hardly a surprising idea for an administration making a special effort to reach out to other faiths.

The lunch conversation inevitably turned to whether the White House would display its creche, customarily placed in a prominent spot in the East Room. Ms. Rogers, this participant said, replied that the Obamas did not intend to put the manger scene on display -- a remark that drew an audible gasp from the tight-knit social secretary sisterhood. (A White House official confirmed that there had been internal discussions about making Christmas more inclusive and whether to display the creche.)

Now, is it a hard news story that the White House even considered not displaying the creche? I think, frankly, that this would depend on the publication and the editor. Then again, that "audible gasp" in a Washington gathering was certainly a clue that the White House staff was skating on thin public-relations ice, in terms of headlines, soundbites and even Saturday Night Live.

Why? The left wing of American politics is an interesting place these days, with growing numbers of true secularists marching next to the whole "spiritual, but not religious" crowd. And then you have Obama, who is a true believer when it comes to the progressive, postmodern, multicultural, oldline liberal Protestantism that is another key factor in American religion and politics.

As the Pew study reveals, this president has made a dent in the popular image that the Democratic Party is just a tad hostile when it comes to traditional religions, and Christianity in particular. Obama gets that. But do the people around him? How does he lead a marching band that includes people who, well, don't want to display the White House Christmas creche while also reaching out to a nation that includes millions of traditional believers, as well as millions more who are at least vaguely, emotionally attached to Christian themes and symbols?

That's an interesting story, one that is much more important -- for conservative and mainstream Democrats -- than the so-called Christmas wars.

Let me give another hat tip here to my friend Eric Metaxas, who, as a former editor of The Record at Yale University, knows a few things about satire, politics and culture. He is also the author of "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (but were afraid to ask)" and a bunch of other books. In his commentary at the Fox News website, Metaxas noted:

If President Obama wanted to fuel the fears of every serious Christian in America and actually prove that he is every bad thing they've ever heard about him on every crazy Web site, the idea of symbolically taking Jesus out of the White House at Christmas would be just the ticket! Let's face it: "Brand Obama" dodged a bullet by not going forward with this terrible idea, but only barely dodged it. After all, the facts of the story are right there in The New York Times for all to see.

Amen. A highly symbolic close call, for Obama and other Democrats who want to stay in touch with ordinary American who frequent mainstream church pews.

PHOTO: The White House creche, care of Flickr's Creative Commons.

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