Christmas Wars 2004: Why not try equal access?

So what do you think? Should Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer create a national network called "Jews for Christmas"?

Personally, I think it would be a great idea. I would volunteer to help start "Christians for Hanukkah" and I think lots of other traditional Christians would sign up immediately.

As Krauthammer's recent column -- "Just Leave Christmas Alone" -- made clear, many of this year's Christmas culture war skirmishes have nothing to do with tolerance and very little to do with the separation of church and state. They are simply cat fights between armies of liberal fundamentalists and conservative fundamentalists. He chose to pick on the anti-Christmas left, but pick up almost any newspaper these days and there will be a story in it somewhere about the latest outbreaks on the right. (More on that in a minute.) As always, anyone seeking a tidal wave of links to these new reports can hit the Christianity Today Weblog.

From my outpost in South Florida, I took special delight in Krauthammer's salute to an especially insane rationale given for the banning of one nativity scene in a public place down here in the subtropics. Here is the item in context:

School districts in New Jersey and Florida ban Christmas carols. The mayor of Somerville, Mass., apologizes for "mistakenly" referring to the town's "holiday party" as a "Christmas party." The Broward and Fashion malls in South Florida put up a Hanukah menorah but no nativity scene. The manager of one of the malls explains: Hanukah commemorates a battle and not a religious event, though he hastens to add, "I really don't know a lot about it." He does not. Hanukah commemorates a miracle, and there is no event more "religious" than a miracle.

Then again, the cultural steamroller called "The Holidays" has done almost as much damage to the actual religious traditions of Hanukkah as it has to the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Once upon a time, Hanukkah was a smaller Jewish holiday reminding Jews not to compromise their faith when facing pressures to assimilate into a dominant culture. Today, Hanukkah is a giant, major holiday because it is close to the holiday previously known as Christmas. Religious history doesn't get any more ironic than that.

The key to the current Christmas wars, according to Krauthammer, is that some Americans seem uncomfortable with the concept of equal access to the public square.There are a few right-wing Christian yahoos out there, but the overwhelming majority of traditional Christians are not furious about the emergence of other religious symbols in public life. They are mad about something else. Here is Krauthammer on this reality:

Some Americans get angry at parents who want to ban carols because they tremble that their kids might feel "different" and "uncomfortable" should they, God forbid, hear Christian music sung at their school. I feel pity. What kind of fragile religious identity have they bequeathed their children that it should be threatened by exposure to carols?

I'm struck by the fact that you almost never find Orthodox Jews complaining about a Christmas creche in the public square. That is because their children, steeped in the richness of their own religious tradition, know who they are and are not threatened by Christians celebrating their religion in public. They are enlarged by it.

Within the past few days, both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times have spilled lots of ink on this topic and others related to it. The news hook right now has been provided by evangelical groups that are striving -- to one degree or another -- to use protests and their economic clout to push Christmas back into the marketplace -- literally. Here's the lead from reporter Ellen Barry's feature in the Los Angeles Times.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- This year, as Christmas season swung into gear, Pastor Patrick Wooden's followers fanned out to shopping malls across Raleigh to deliver a muscular message of holiday cheer: As Christian shoppers, they would like to be greeted with the phrase "Merry Christmas" -- not a bland "Happy Holidays" -- and stores that failed to do so would risk losing their business.

Nearly six weeks later, some citizens in Raleigh are seething over what they see as an attempt to force religion into the public square. But others say "Merry Christmas" is rolling off their tongues more easily and more often than in previous years.

There are stacks of other anecdotes through which avid readers can chew in this report and in its New York Times counterpart, with spears being rattled left and right. I was especially struck by the calm, constructive Episcopal priest who compares evangelical efforts to push shoppers toward pro-Christmas businesses to Nazi Party requirements that Jews identify themselves by wearing yellow stars. Oh, that and the Maplewood, N.J., school district's decision to ban instrumental versions of Christmas carols. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" was zapped for the sin of mentioning the words "Christmas Eve."

What is going on? New York Times reporter Kate Zernike has the best summary I have seen so far:

. . . (The) demands to bring back Christmas are not simply part of an age-old culture war, with the A.C.L.U. in one corner and evangelicals in the other. There is also a more moderate force, asking whether the country has gone too far in its quest to be inclusive of all faiths. Why, they ask, must a Christmas tree become a holiday tree? And is singing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" in a school performance more offensive than singing "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel"? ...

Over the years, schools, governments and even department stores have toned down the mention of Christmas after complaints from Jews and others who felt excluded by a holiday they did not celebrate. "The basic proposition is that people have the right to send their children to the public schools without having them evangelized for someone else's religion," said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas in Austin. Those opposed to even secular celebrations of Christmas, he said, "see the increasing strength of the religious right and worry about everything they've gained over the last generation being rolled back."

That's the ticket. There is, you see, a valid cultural reason to discriminate against any expressions of Christianity, even the most watered-down, commercialized and secularized -- because an oppressive Christian majority is on the march.

Beware the slippery slope that leads to theocracy. Tolerance and our nation's actual equal access laws are too dangerous. Ditto for free speech, even if that free speech offends almost no one.

So is there a solution to all of this? No way. Anything anyone does right now is going to stir up more venom and that will produce more headlines. Let me stress that these stories are valid and that reporters need to strive to find sane voices on both sides. Believe me, they are out there.

But for starters, what would happen if church leaders stopped whining about the lack of an equal-access creche in the public square (even though their complaints are often valid) and simply put glowing decorations wherever they wished on church properties and private land? What if they organized choirs of carollers to sing on public sidewalks and in other acceptable open-air environments? What if schools offered students a chance to study the actual contents of the religious traditions that touch this season? Why not? It's worth a try.

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