Parsing that Jesus and Santa joke

20051206 4 p120605kh 0147 515hLet me jump in with a note about Mollie's post about the White House and the raging armies of Christmas, since all of us here at GetReligion are getting boat loads of email about this topic. For me, there are two newsworthy topics linked to this (in addition to all of those that discussed by Mollie, such as the interesting Americans United angle). First of all, it is a sign of how tone deaf the whole Bush clan is about the cultural style and lingo of evangelical Christianity. I know there are people who think that George W. is a raging theocrat, but I just don't see it. I still think of him as more of a Texas pragmatist who had a personal experience with God linked to kicking alcohol, yet he remains married to a tough Texas country club lady and his girls, well, do not seem to be Campus Crusade chicks.

Meanwhile, my all-time favorite Bush-ite story about religion and the Bush clan remains this one, as I told it in a column about George Bush, the elder:

George Bush never did learn to open up when anyone asked about his faith, salvation, family values and all those messy spiritual issues. On one campaign stop, he was asked what he thought about as he floated alone in the Pacific Ocean after his plane was shot down during World War II. His response was chilly: "Mom and Dad, about our country, about God ... and about the separation of church and state."

Now there is a guy who is comfortable in his own skin, when it comes to faith. Not.

So what can you say about that joke that George W. Bush tried to pull off the other day at the lighting of That Tree? It seemed that he was trying to wink at the ACLU and Focus on the Family at the same time and just could not pull it off:

"The lighting of the National Christmas Tree is one of the great traditions in our nation's capital. Each year, we gather here to celebrate the season of hope and joy -- and to remember the story of one humble life that lifted the sights of humanity. Santa, thanks for coming. Glad you made it."

Actually, if you read the White House text for that remark, it seems obvious -- or perhaps punctuation spin -- that the speechwriters were trying to gently nod to Jesus in one paragraph and then veer into a new paragraph that opened with a Santa gag. However, if your run the two paragraphs together, you get the now infamous one-humble-life-equals-Santa joke.

It is, however, interesting to contrast the president's remarks this year with those from 2002, which used stronger language while still managing to avoid the call-the-lawyers J-word:

The simple story we remember during this season speaks to every generation. It is the story of a quiet birth in a little town, on the margins of an indifferent empire. Yet that single event set the direction of history and still changes millions of lives. For over two millennia, Christmas has carried the message that God is with us -- and, because He's with us, we can always live in hope.

The second point that I find interesting about this whole flap is the degree to which, in the post Harriet Myers-world, many MSM journalists are paying attention to alternative conservative media -- including blogs -- as a way to gain insight into that key subculture in the wider Republican Party world. You can see this by noting who gets quoting in the big papers. To some degree, this trend started with Rush Limbaugh and the 1994 revolution, but it seems to me that we are now in a second wave.

This is perfectly valid, to me. If you are covering the left, you read the left -- all kinds of people on the left. If you are covering cultural conservatives, you need to find out what they are talking about, both the good, the bad and the angry.

So is this a case of the Washington Post chasing WorldNetDaily? Stranger things have happened.

P.S. About the photo with this post. Someone needs to tell the White House that the lighting of the first Hannukah candle or lamp this year will be at sundown on Dec. 25th and, by the way, you are supposed to light them one day at a time. I believe that Dec. 25th is also a holiday in another major world religion.

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