Is There A ‘War On Christmas’?

Religious Right Holiday Campaign Raises Money And Members By Distorting Reality

October is usually the time people’s thoughts turn to ghouls, ghosts and goblins as leaves change colors, the air gets nippy and Halloween approaches.

In Berkley, Mich., however, some people decided that would be a good time to start fussing over Christmas decorations. Local Religious Right activists, angry because the city’s December holiday display was not religious enough the previous year, proposed a change to the Berkley city charter.

The wording is quite specific.

It says, “[T]he city council shall ensure that each year the city displays on city hall property a Christmas holiday display from the Monday following the Thanksgiving holiday through the following January 6th.

“The Christmas holiday display,” it continues, “shall include symbols and objects that depict or relate to the national holiday of Christmas and that includes a depiction of a nativity scene, which at the minimum includes proportionally-sized figures of the infant Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. The overall nativity scene display shall not be smaller in size than 4 feet by 4 feet.”

A coalition of local citizens and religious leaders pulled together to oppose the mandate. Calling themselves Citizens for Religious Freedom, the activists worked to educate the community about ways in which the Religious Right was using the controversy to stir up discord.

On Nov. 6, voters spurned the Religious Right ploy and rejected the proposed change 55 percent to 45 percent.

The Berkley fight was an early skirmish over what the Religious Right calls the “War on Christmas.” It’s not likely to be the last.

For advocates of church-state separation, the period from the end of Thanksgiving until early January can be frustrating. For the past few years, national Religious Right groups have used claims of a “War on Christmas” to raise huge amounts of money and assail the church-state wall. They complain about everything from holiday pageants in local public schools to what terms retailers use in their ads.

Nothing escapes the gaze of the Religious Right’s Christmas Police. Last year, Liberty Counsel, a legal group associated with the fundamentalist empire of the late TV preacher Jerry Falwell, went so far as to issue a “Naughty and Nice” list of retailers, based on what type of language stores used in sales circulars, print ads and Web sites.

Shops that advertised “Christmas Sales” were deemed “Nice.” Those that offered a “Holiday Shopping Catalog” and the like were branded “Naughty.” Liberty Counsel is already working on this year’s list. On Oct. 30, the group issued an e-mail alert about it, accompanied by a request for donations.

“Liberty Counsel pledges to be a ‘Friend’ to those entities which do not censor Christmas and a ‘Foe’ to those that do,” blared the statement. “ABC’s Good Morning America observed that Liberty Counsel’s Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign in past years had ignited a ‘movement.’”

Liberty Counsel released the list on Nov. 12. “Nice” retailers include Amazon.com, Cabela’s, Dollar General, Sears and Target. Those pegged “Naughty” include Circuit City, Ebay.com, Food Lion, Old Navy and K-Mart. (The latter is guilty of this horrible infraction: “They are selling ‘Christmas Decorations’ and ‘Christmas Trees,’ but they are calling Christmas ‘The Holiday.’”)

At the same time, public schools have come under relentless fire for putting “Winter Holidays” on school calendars or offering “Holiday Concerts.” Religious Right legal groups also scrutinized the content of school pageants and harped incessantly about programs that failed to meet their benchmarks for religious correctness.

Religious Right groups usually start promoting the “War on Christmas” long before Halloween. Fund-raising letters roll off the presses, and legal groups like Liberty Counsel and the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) start ramping up the “War on Christmas” machine.

Last year, for example, the ADF vowed that it had more than 900 attorneys standing by to defend Christmas and, in a press statement, said it had mailed letters to more than 11,000 public schools nationwide, purporting to explain the law relating to Christmas celebrations in the schools.

“Of course it’s ridiculous that Americans have to think twice about whether it’s okay to say Merry Christmas,” ADF Senior Counsel Joe Infranco said in the statement. “It’s time to repair the damage organizations like the ACLU have done to America’s favorite holiday. It’s a sad day in this country when you have to retain an attorney to wish someone a Merry Christmas. And an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose censoring Christmas.”

Infranco did not say exactly where people have been ordered to stop saying “Merry Christmas,” and research by Americans United indicates that the ADF’s army of attorneys may have had little to do last year. A search of the comprehensive news database Nexis for ADF-sponsored Christmas lawsuits in 2006 returned no results. A search of the ADF’s site brought up two cases dealing with religious displays, one of which was later settled out of court.

James Dobson’s Focus on the Family (FOF) is also getting in on the action. A cheeky FOF video released Nov. 1 shows Stuart Shepard, who does radio commentary for the group, blithely throwing catalogs that don’t use the word “Christmas” into a trash can. Shepard says he’s celebrating “Tossmass.”

In Tupelo, Miss., the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association (AFA) told OneNewsNow, an AFA-sponsored Web site, “I think you’re going to see this Christmas season, a handful of advertisers and stores that refuse to use the word ‘Christmas.’ Now, I’ve got news for them – some of our volunteers are ready to let them know they’re not going to do business with them if they censor Christmas out of Christmas.”

The story went on to note, “AFA has kicked off ‘Project Merry Christmas,’ which includes buttons and car magnets, which say ‘Merry Christmas: God’s Good News.’”

Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, finds all of this overwrought.

“If there’s a ‘War on Christmas,’ why aren’t our courts bulging with lawsuits?” Lynn asks. “Why aren’t all of these people who have been ordered not to say ‘Merry Christmas’ knocking down the doors of our courts?”

Continued Lynn, “The fact is, this ‘war’ was conjured up by Religious Right groups with visions of big checks from donors dancing in their heads.”

It’s undeniable that the “War on Christmas” has become an extremely lucrative enterprise for the Religious Right. Last year, the ADF sold “Christmas Packs” for $29 apiece. The pack consisted of a three-page legal memo – a document one could download for free on the ADF’s Web site – and two lapel pins.

Not to be outdone, Liberty Counsel and the American Family Association offered a “Help Save Christmas Action Pack” – essentially a fancy name for the sale of buttons, stickers and other items reading “Merry Christmas: It’s Worth Saying.” (This year, the Liberty Counsel has rolled out a new button: “I ♥ Christmas.”)

The Religion News Service reported last year that Religious Right groups raised tidy sums selling such material in 2005. With so much money at stake, it’s imperative that the Religious Right keep the myth of the “War on Christmas” alive.

What’s really going on? A number of factors, some legal and some cultural, explain the role Christmas plays in contemporary American society and why the Religious Right does not hesitate to exploit the holiday for its own gain.

Public schools and government entities, bound by law and court rulings to avoid promoting religion, are free to acknowledge the secular aspects of Christmas, and most do. The purely religious elements of the holiday, however, are left to houses of worship.

But even that does not tell the whole story. The Supreme Court and lower federal courts have ruled that government bodies can include some religious elements in a holiday display alongside secular ones. Furthermore, private groups can erect religious symbols on public property under certain conditions.

The rules for public schools are a little stricter. Schools can teach about the religious aspects of Christmas and other holidays from an objective standpoint but not engage in celebration of Christmas as a religious holiday. School concerts can include a mix of religious and secular music.

Within these parameters, church-state separation advocates say, there is plenty of room for public acknowledgment of Christmas. Indeed, anyone venturing out to a downtown shopping district or mega-mall in December would have to wear blinders to miss evidence of the holiday.

Houses of worship, of course, are free to celebrate the holiday as they wish. Many erect elaborate nativity scenes; some even do “living nativity” scenes, where the birth of Jesus is reenacted by church members and augmented by live animals.

This is never enough for the Religious Right, which insists that government get in on the game as well.

Groups like the ADF make a big deal out of the fact that more than 90 percent of people tell pollsters they celebrate Christmas. But that still means there are millions of Americans who do not, and the public schools and arms of government must be welcoming to them as well. (In addition, many Americans celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday.)

Some schools, in an effort to be more inclusive, now use language that refers to “Winter Breaks” or the “December Holidays.” What the period is called would seem a minor point – the schools are closed either way, after all – but such language is enough to drive the Religious Right’s Christmas Police batty. In recent years, they have actually been pressuring local school districts to reintroduce terms like “Christmas Break” and “Christmas Holiday.”

The Christmas Police also fixate over school pageants, parties and decorations. Not surprisingly, celebrations in public schools tend to focus on things like snowmen, candy canes and Santa Claus. To the Religious Right, public school officials’ understandable reluctance to embrace and promote the birth of Jesus as a religious event becomes de facto evidence of “hostility toward religion.”

But often, the Religious Right can’t even get its facts right. In 2005, Americans United received a list of alleged examples of the “War on Christmas” from a producer at the Fox News Channel, which was interested in discussing the issues on the air. AU staff members spent an afternoon researching the incidents. Some were entirely fictitious. Others failed to tell the whole story, omitting key facts.

In one celebrated incident, Religious Right activists accused officials at Ridgeway Elementary School in Dodgeville, Wisc., of rewriting the song “Silent Night” to remove religious references. The story was publicized by Liberty Counsel, which led to a torrent of phone calls at the school, some of them threatening.

In fact, the school was presenting a play titled “The Little Tree’s Christmas Gift.” The 1988 play, written in part by a church choir director, is about a scraggly Christmas tree that worries it will not find a home for Christmas; it uses several Christmas carols with different lyrics to make it easier for children to learn the words. “Silent Night” was sung during the play, and an alternate version called “Cold in the Night” was recited.

At the time of the controversy, Diane Messer, administrator of the Dodgeville School District, told a local newspaper, “Somebody totally misunderstood and had the belief that one of our teachers took it upon herself to rewrite the words to ‘Silent Night.’ This program is well within our district’s policy which allows us the use of both religious and secular content in our curriculum and in our productions and performances.”

The school tried to correct the facts through public statements and its Web site, which called Liberty Counsel’s version of events “a fraud.”

The following February, officials at the school wrote to Liberty Counsel and requested a public apology as well as $23,899.48 in compensation for costs that the district incurred in refuting Liberty Counsel’s claims.

“Your dissemination of false and misleading information and your threats of specious and frivolous litigation resulted in enormous cost to the district,” wrote school attorney Eileen A. Brownlee, in a letter to Liberty Counsel. “You have yet to present the facts either through a press release, one of your ‘alerts’ or through any other means. You used this red herring to attempt to collect money through the form of donations.”

Editorializing on the matter, the Capital Times in Madison wrote, “Dodgeville officials have decided to hold groups such as the Liberty Counsel to account. And that is an appropriate act. Hopefully, by pressing for a very public apology and a retraction, Dodgeville will force the ‘war on Christmas’ crowd to be a little more responsible next year. But, at the very least, the Dodgeville School District is serving its mission as an educational institution. By challenging the Liberty Counsel, it is teaching students to stand up to bullies.”

Liberty Counsel President Mat Staver was defiant.

“They ought to be glad they didn’t incur a lawsuit,” Staver blustered. “It is ridiculous they even think we would pay a bill.”

Contacted last month, Messer told Church & State that the school never received an apology or a dime from Liberty Counsel.

As they pump up the “War on Christmas,” groups like Liberty Counsel and the ADF have a strong ally in the media: the Fox News Channel. Last year, even before Thanksgiving, Fox staffers were trolling Web-based news sites, looking for any story about a Christmas controversy they could put on the air.

Three Fox hosts, Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and John Gibson, seemed obsessed with the “War on Christmas.” Gibson, in fact, has written an entire book about the subject: The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. (The tome did not exactly set the bestsellers’ list on fire. Used copies can be found online selling for the grand sum of one cent.)

O’Reilly kicked off the season Nov. 8, blasting a holiday symbols proposal forged by a committee of clergy in Fort Collins, Colo. The task force recommended a mix of religious and secular symbols at a local museum and in government buildings.

As the Coloradoan newspaper noted, “The radio and TV news commentator got some basic facts about the committee wrong – including its name and number of members – and generally mocked its recommendations.”

Fox’s unholy trinity is guilty of bait-and-switch tactics as its members promote the alleged yuletide war: They attack church-state separationists for allegedly demanding the removal of religiously themed Christmas material from the public square when this is not what First Amendment advocates seek.

The Supreme Court, in a series of rulings from the 1980s, has stated that government bodies may include some religious elements in their holiday displays, as long as secular items are included as well. The so-called “Plastic Reindeer Rule” can lead to jarring displays, such as Santa and elves flanking a nativity scene.

Americans United and other separationist groups have merely pointed out that such bizarre decorative results can be avoided if religious decorations are left to houses of worship. The groups have also noted that government cannot display religious symbols standing alone.

The high court has also ruled that public space that is an open forum can be used by private individuals, who may erect religious displays at their own cost. AU and other organizations do not oppose this, but note that all groups must be given access – including non-Christian organizations or groups that oppose religion or whose message is deemed controversial.

Another trick of the Fox gang is to shift the discussion to what retailers are doing in December. Some stores use generic holiday language such as “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” because they don’t want to run the risk of offending potential customers. Others mention Christmas.

Most people don’t dwell on the type of greeting they get from a clerk in a big-box store, but to Fox and its Religious Right allies, failure to use the proper religiously correct language is further evidence of hostility toward Christmas. (Ironically, last year the Fox News Channel’s own online store sold a variety of “holiday ornaments” for use on your “holiday tree.”)

Americans United points out that retailers, as private entities, are free to use whatever decorations and terminology they like. Retail stores are not arms of government and are not subject to the commands of the First Amendment. In other words, if some shops are using generic holiday language, their owners made that decision, not government officials or church-state separation advocates.

AU’s Lynn said it’s ironic that Religious Right leaders use the “War on Christmas” as just another club in their culture war.

“Christmas is supposed to be a season of peace, goodwill and building bridges of understanding,” Lynn said, “yet the Religious Right uses it to inflame passions, divide Americans and increase tension in society.”

Continued Lynn, “If any group has desecrated Christmas, it’s the Religious Right with its incendiary cries of ‘war’ and shameless hucksterism. I hope Santa leaves them a lump of coal in their stockings.”