The war on (the war on) Christmas

It’s that time of year again, when Christmas cheer clashes mightily and noisily with the debate over the “war against Christmas.”  I am, and this probably won’t come as any surprise, a skeptic.

Not about the value and beauty of this holiday season, with all its many secular and sacred traditions, but about the political hub-bub that has come to festoon these weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

I generally share Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee’s sentiment about Fox News’ annual festival of hand-wringing and chest-thumping. “Your show, Fox News, you’re too angry,” he told a shouting, red-faced Bill O’Reilly.

Dan Alexander, publisher of Denton Publications in Elizabethtown, is far more reasoned, thoughtful and temperate in his latest essay on the whole matter.

But he clearly endorses the idea that faith is “under so much fire today. But it’s clear the non-believers and atheists have chosen to draw a line in the sand.”

Yes and no.  From the story Alexander tells in his column — which I urge you to read here — and from the narratives that inevitably accompany these debates, the issue isn’t really Christmas.

The issue is Christmas in government settings.  Public schools, courtrooms, city parks.  These are the places where non-Christians, atheists and civil liberties groups are, in fact, trying to draw lines in the sand.

More about that in a moment, but first some context.

Bill O’Reilly and Dan Alexander are — in their very different tones — absolutely right about one thing.  America is changing.  Dramatically.  The age when we were all various stripes and brands of Christian is over.

These days, we are a truly motley bunch, espousing a thousand different faiths and non-faiths.   People describing themselves as “non-religous” make up the fastest growing “faith” category in America.

Which means that new questions will inevitably be raised when, say, a public school in Arkansas organizes a class trip to a nearby church to see a play about Christmas — which is, after all, a holiday that celebrates the sacred birth of a deity.

Now it’s important to note that there have been times and places in the world where Christmas has actually been banned.  Churches have been forcibly closed, bombed, or burned.  There are countries right now where Christians face real persecution.

I have never met an American who would stand for that kind of behavior in this country.  The idea of an actual war on free individuals practicing their faith on their own property and their own places of worship is unacceptable.

We have nothing like that now, that I’m aware of. Which leaves us with a pretty narrow, but still complex, important and hopefully civil debate.

Should the beautiful, wonderful trappings of this sacred holiday be presented on government property?  How should school kids experience the Christmas season in classrooms and assemblies?

What part of the holiday is a valued American cultural tradition, and when might the activities of government employees be construed as the kind of proselytizing or evangelizing that might make non-Christians uncomfortable?

As a final aside, it’s worth pointing out that thorny questions of this type aren’t entirely novel to our evolving society.

In the 1840s, New York state was rocked by protests and debates between Christians over what type of Bible should be read in classrooms — with Protestants and Roman Catholics pitted against one-another.

In those days, it was Bishop John Hughes who wanted to keep public schools from using the Protestant King James Bible when teaching religion to Irish Catholic immigrants.

Archbishop John Hughes (Source: Wikipedia)

“If the public schools could have been constituted on a principle which would have secured a perfect neutrality of influence on the subject of religion, then we should have no reason to complain,” Bishop Hughes argued.

“But this has not been done, and we respectfully submit that it is impossible.”

Bishop Hughes wasn’t “waging war on the Bible,” as many Protestants claimed.  He just didn’t want taxpayer-funded public schools teaching a brand of faith to kids from his church that he was uncomfortable with.

This is the narrow, but still important conversation that continues today — and will likely continue as long as we are a free and evolving people.

Not a war over Christmas, but legitimate questions over how and when the trappings, symbols and messages of one particular faith should be taken up by government entities.


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119 Comments on “The war on (the war on) Christmas”

  1. Mervel says:

    In the long run however an economy is not built on how much stuff people want to buy, it is built on the productivity of the country and its people and how efficiently they all work together in both the private and public sectors.

    Government spending on infrastructure IS working on the supply side of our economy. I still think we need a massive public works program in this country to really get us out of this hole, that may mean spending less on consumption based public spending (i.e. entitlements) and much much more on building roads, bridges, airports, ports, basic research, and so forth.

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  2. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    It is such a simple concept that I don’t understand how conservatives don’t seem to get it.
    When you spend on infrastructure, even though it may be deficit spending in the short term, the benefit of getting more people working and paying taxes instead of drawing unemployment or welfare benefits helps build the economy, saves money on future infrastructure repairs, saves individuals money on in many ways and builds the country in ways that make it easier to be productive in the long term future.

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  3. Walker says:

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” — Upton Sinclair

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  4. Walker says:

    A comment by Enobarbus37 from the latest Krugman column on the NYTimes:

    In England, the Right has “made good” on its promises of spending cuts and achieved US Republican policy nirvana.

    Spending has been cut viciously, and taxes have been lowered for the rich.

    Has the deficit been reduced? No, it has increased.

    Has business, brimming with confidence at the Government’s good sense, boomed? It has not.

    George Osborne, the Treasury Secretary, has made an unmitigated disaster of the British economy with the very policies Republicans currently embrace.

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  5. mervel says:

    Not just conservatives Knuckle, liberals have little interest in it either. There is no conservative or liberal interest groups that really pushes infrastructure spending thus it does not happen on a big scale. We had a great chance to really do it with the stimulus but failed. I mean some did happen but it was at the state level; we need a massive WPA federal program to build things.

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  6. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Does anyone ever stop and and look at the current conditions and relate that to willingness to invest? Look around and tell me what you see that would spur you to invest in the US or NYS? There are all sorts of news headlines about people buying and selling now to avoid the upcoming tax increases in 2013. There are also numerous stories outlining companies cold feet at letting go of any cash reserves simply because the future for them is dismal. Why invest if the bottom is going to fall out? I don’t think most people are going to invest in the US until they feel certain the risk is worth it. Right now, and for the past few years, the environment has been pretty poor. Who in their right mind would invest in GMC or Chrysler now? Read the papers, we’ve created a toxic environment for growth and the current Congress and WH aren’t doing anything to help it.

    I know this much for certain- if you leave more money in the hands of Joe Sixpack, he will spend it on his home, his auto, his clothing and food and hopefully save some. If you take it from him it’s gone forever. I see people here talking about gov’t revenue, but no one talks about gov’t fiscal discipline. Spending is the problem. No one is willing to do with less in gov’t, but we’re expected to do with less ourselves. That adds up to problems and nobody is even considering that.

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  7. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Lets say we did enter into a massive infrastructure building plan. First off, where do we get the money to do it? What do you build? Where do you build it? We’ve seen the bridges to nowhere plans. We’ve seen Obamsa “shovel ready” projects that didn’t exist. You need thoughtful, honest leadership to implement large scale projects. This isn’t 1932 where paved roads were rare and hungry people were willing to spend all day on a shovel handle for below minimum wage and board and unions were almost non-existent. So where and what do you build and for what purpose? Do you sink $100 million in the Port of Ogdensburg, for instance, only to find out 5 years later that is sits unused? Do you build new rail spurs and lines to try and reintroduce rail shipment only to find out no one is willing to use them? Do you build a giant new airport and find people can’t afford to fly?

    I don’t care what the project is in infrastructure or in research or whatever the Next Great Idea is, none of it works without real planning and input from the private sector and investment from the dirty, wealthy investment class. Do I need to mention Solyndra? You won’t get the right siders to go along without some actual, workable long term plans.

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  8. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Mervel, I though Unions were supposed to be a liberal interest group. I find it hard to imagine that no Unions pushed for infrastructure spending. And the federal stimulus provided funds to the states for shovel ready infrastructure projects. We don’t need a WPA program; all we need is for the feds, state and local governments to catch up on routine maintenance, and rebuilding of worn out infrastructure.

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  9. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    And I have a new word: stimulust.

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  10. Walker says:

    Arlo, business conditions suck because people aren’t buying, and people aren’t buying because they’re unemployed, underemployed and underpaid. We don’t need to worry about what new infrastructure we’ll build, we have plenty of infrastructure to repair. You’ve seen the stories about our crumbling roads and bridges.

    “…if you leave more money in the hands of Joe Sixpack, he will spend it on his home, his auto, his clothing and food and hopefully save some. If you take it from him it’s gone forever.”

    Gone forever? Not if you use it to hire people to repair bridges and roads. Money doesn’t disappear when the government spends it, unless to goes to some company that spends it overseas somewhere.

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  11. Mervel says:

    Yeah Knuckle, I thought the unions would be really out pushing for that? Maybe they did and I just missed it?

    Part of the issue may be the modern dominance of Public unions over Unions in the private sector-heavy industry. So the unions that were doing the most advocating did get what they wanted with the payments to the states.

    Arlo, I am not advocating make work style programs. The fact is we need to update our public infrastructure starting with transportation and moving toward electronic infrastructure and also really investing in basic research to include disease-health, physics, very basic science.

    I think we get used to dinginess, but travel even to Canada and you realize most of our airports are not up to snuff, the same holds for some of our highways. But infrastructure also includes our energy infrastructure. All of these things make our country more economically productive and in general they are not provided by the private sector.

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  12. Mervel says:

    One hot spot for the future is energy, it looks as if the US may be moving to be a total net exporter of energy, which is great news for manufacturing jobs. NYS will likely miss out on that boom, but then when it comes to supporting blue collar jobs we don’ t seem to worry too much.

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  13. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    Guy’s I’d love to believe my tax dollars would go to some project that I would actually see the benefits from. So far, that hasn’t happened much. So, you guy’s come up with far sighted, common sense leadership with fiscal responsibility being one of the hallmarks of the planning and some solid ideas on how to do this without it turning into another “Big Dig” or some debacle like that power house in Potsdam or Solyndra and I bet you’d see cranky right wingers liek me at least consider it. Do another TARP/Stimulus/Bail Out game and you lose us entirely. I’m done thinking even my county is capable of making good decisions much less Albany or Washington. Fool me once, etc.

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  14. mervel says:

    Well Arlo government is never overly efficient. But that does not mean it is not a good thing to invest in some of these projects. I mean we do need a national defense, government is the only entity able to provide that; yet as you point out it is really inefficient, the armed forces are some of the most wasteful spending in the entire federal government. Yet we need to do it, we are better off doing it than not. I would argue we spend far far too much on national defense, but not that we don’t need it at all.

    So we need our infrastructure in the same way as we need a national defense. We are a more productive country because we don’t have to worry about being invaded, our world is relatively safer due to our strength and thus easier to do business in. Consider the Persian Gulf it would be very probably that Iran would close the whole place down if our navy was the size of say Norway’s. But Norway and all countries get the benefit of having oil flowing freely around the globe due to the strength of our Navy, even though the Navy is every bit as inefficient and wasteful as any welfare program we have.

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  15. mervel says:

    In some ways the Navy is a welfare program.

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  16. Arlo T. Ledbetter says:

    I would argue that last point Mervel. You get nothing back for the money you put into welfare payments. The armed forces perform a variety of functions outside of just the military role, and even that gets us more return than welfare. Disaster assistance, search and rescue, fighting wildfires, community service, medical services, educational services, etc. Plus, the military pays income tax. I don’t mean to offend people with my welfare remarks, but I’ve heard that argument before and it doesn’t wash.

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  17. mervel says:

    Well what you get back is that people, but particularly children who are better fed, better educated and have some basic needs met are more productive in the long run.

    But I understand what you are saying, but consider that the point you are making would equally apply to building roads, bridges, airports, schools and so forth.

    The bigger issue is that why do we spend so much on defense? I could understand if we spent the most in the world on defense of any other country. But why do we spend more than ALL other major countries combined? Its nuts, it from a US taxpayer standpoint it is by far the most wasteful black hole we have going on. I think we should spend 15% more than Russia and China combined, I could live with that. That would mean we could cut our defense basically in half or more.

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  18. mervel says:

    I noticed that today the CEO of Boeing opened up the Business roundtable session with Obama. Really? A company that is I think at least 50% funded by the US government is going to talk to the President about “business”, what does this guy know about business beyond how to beg for a hand out at the government troth.

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