Holiday Target practice

kettlesIf you have picked up a newspaper in the past week or so, you have surely noticed that we are well into our culture's annual Christmas Wars. This is that magical time of year when lawyers on both sides of the culture wars get to earn overtime pay, making the world safe for secular menorahs and faith-neutral holiday trees. Meanwhile, many people who think of themselves as conservative Christians do their best to make innocent store workers feel guilty if their corporate bosses will not let them say "Merry Christmas." Meanwhile, most churches are worn-out with "Christmas celebrations" a week or more before Dec. 25th -- the first day of the 12-day Feast of the Nativity.

It's a mess. It makes you want to fast and pray, or something.

Even with his snarky tone, I have to admit that Adam Cohen of the New York Times is on to something with his essay entitled "This Season's War Cry: Commercialize Christmas, or Else."

Here's the opening:

Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it.

The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using the words "Merry Christmas" in its advertising. (Target denies it has an anti-Merry-Christmas policy.) The Catholic League boycotted Wal-Mart in part over the way its Web site treated searches for "Christmas." Bill O'Reilly, the Fox anchor who last year started a "Christmas Under Siege" campaign, has a chart on his Web site of stores that use the phrase "Happy Holidays," along with a poll that asks, "Will you shop at stores that do not say 'Merry Christmas'?"

Bah, humbug. The story that actually interests me this year is related to the Christmas wars, but actually has some content. It also concerns Target, Wal-Mart and a bunch of other people. It focuses, of course, on the decision by Target -- perhaps honoring a request by gay-rights groups -- to start enforcing its ban on solicitations outside its doors by "Merry Christmas" whispering bell-ringers at those offensive red kettles. The result is a PR professional's nightmare in a competitive economy, which you can see by clicking here.

I wrote about the Salvation Army a week ago for Scripps Howard and mentioned some of this, while focusing on this organization's battle to retain or regain some of its public identity as a church. Religion-beat veteran Ken Garfield of the Charlotte Observer also published a thoughtful column on this standoff that included the following:

... (For) some who view the bells and kettles as a symbol of Christmas compassion, the ban by Target rankles -- especially after Katrina and the other disasters to which the Salvation Army has responded. The debate is also deepened by the fact that other retailers, such as Harris Teeter, welcome the Salvation Army to their front doors.

Charlotte's Susan Chaffin shared her embrace of the Salvation Army, and a warning to retailers, in a letter to the editor after Katrina: "To deny their traditional places and opportunities is to deny their efforts and contributions to these and other needy people in America. So just remember, no bell-ringers, no me."

saltargetSure enough, folks on the anti-Target right are cheering a recent dip in the company's stock, while those folks at Wal-Wart are singing glad tidings (to the sound of Salvation Army bells).

Meanwhile, my friend Simon J. Dahlman at Milligan College recently, in his "Face to Faith" column, addressed a topic that I believe should get more coverate this time a year -- the religion of commercialism and the sacraments that people consume at the mall. Here, friends, is the war at Christmas that matters the most and, yes, it is spiritual. Would that more churches were concerned about this. Dahlman writes:

"Consumerism serves as a form of religion," says the Rev. John Kavanaugh, a Roman Catholic priest who teaches philosophy at St. Louis University. "The mall serves as the new parish church, the new gathering place. People go there to socialize. It's a community center, centered on shopping."

Kavanaugh, who has written several books that examine the complex relationships between American culture and religion, including "Following Christ in a Consumer Culture," notes other similarities between religion and retail.

"It's amazing how many products are associated with values and with self-esteem," he said in a phone interview this week, rattling off brand names to illustrate his point: Boss, Freedom, Joy, Easy to Be Me.

I could keep quoting, but I suggest that you read it yourself. If you see similar stories on this theme, please let me know.

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