COMMENTARY: The Christmas Wars are over, and Christmas won

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Guest columnist Charles Austin is a retired Lutheran pastor and a long-time journalist. Photo courtesy Charles Austin

Guest columnist Charles Austin is a retired Lutheran pastor and a long-time journalist. Photo courtesy Charles Austin

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(RNS) Television pundits, conservative politicians and talk-radio loudmouths who believe there is a “War on Christmas” should look around, withdraw their troops and quit screaming. Because if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas has won.

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  • Nate

    Great job. You strike the right balance. Thanks for your words. I will have to borrow your “Two Christmas” theory for my congregation. Or to put it in Episcopalese: Christmas the secular holiday, and the Feast of the Incarnation Holy Night.

  • Susan Papera

    Terrific commentary.

  • Duane Lamers

    To the editor: No liberal slant in the above piece, eh?

    To the posters and readers: After taking slams at conservative media “loudmouths,” perhaps Austin ran out of energy to take a good look around him, specifically at the continued court challenges being made or threatened regarding placing of religious decorations on public land. No mention of this. Perhaps eyelids so drooping from all the early slamming that even the “elephant in the room” couldn’t be seen.

  • Duane Lamers

    A retraction is in order. There’s no cause for my calling attention to a liberal slant in Rev. Austin’s piece, if it even exists in fact. Contributors are not subject to any review of their work from a politico-cultural perspective. My note to the editor has no place here and I welcome its removal.

    Rev. Austin has every right to exhibit his bias regarding talk-radio loudmouths, and perhaps it is not even bias. I listen to them; they are loud. I’ll continue listening, turning down the volume if necessary. I stand by my comments regarding what I believe is a major oversight in the article, however.

  • Charles Austin

    Religious displays do not belong on public land if they give the impression that the government agency responsible for that land favors religious belief. The court challenges do not threaten religion at all. And I do not like the “compromise” in which we Christians say the crèche is “cultural” rather than religious.

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  • Duane Lamers

    Mr. Austin, who says that displays on public land “give the impression” that a government agency favors A religious belief. You left out the article “a”. There is no such thing as abstract “religious belief.” The state cannot possibly sponsor “religion,” it can only sponsor a specific religion. If a public agency permits various religions to use public space for displays, that agency is not favoring a religious belief.

    I agree that the creche is religious and not cultural. So? Keep in mind, though, that the vast majority of Americans claim to be Christians. They were when the country was founded, too. That in no way restricts other religions from enjoying their First Amendment rights.

    As I’ve said before, liberals do not like the Constitution as written. Their first order of business is to make religion irrelevant and invisible in our society. We’ve no business siding with them on important Constitutional issues.

    By the way, I find most Christmas religious displays to be in poor taste, and I dislike them. That is beside the point, however.

  • Larry

    So your whole concept of civil liberties depends on “might makes right” No consideration beyond Christian privilege. Nobody’s rights are being infringed except that their religion is being ignored, marginalized or discriminated against in a public space by its omission. A display of only one religion gives the impression than nobody else should expect to be treated fairly by government. In fact most of the local government officials who call for Christian images in public spaces actively oppose those of other religions. Obviously establishment of religion and attacking religious exercise of others is their goal.

    A crèche by itself is endorsement. A crèche + menorah, FSM, crescent or any other religious imagery = free exercise of religion and not establishment of religion.

    Maybe you should take a civics class. Learn about avoiding the “tyranny of the majority” which informed all of our rights in this country. Conservatives like to pretend that the founders were fundamentalist Christians and that the 14th Amendment was just a myth. They have no stomach for the Constitution being interpreted in a good faith honest manner.

  • Larry

    Reality has a liberal bias.

  • Charles Austin

    I believe we should listen to our fellow citizens, quite large numbers of them, who feel that religious symbols on the lawn of the town hall or in the town’s parks, are indeed offensive to those who have other religious beliefs or no religious beliefs at all. I believe we should listen to those who argue that these displays on government property risk entangling government and religion in ways that are inappropriate.
    The manger scenes belong in front of our churches; the menorahs in front of our synagogues; and we are free to put them there. A Christian’s celebration of Christmas is not diminished if there is no creche in front of town hall.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Some people seem to go “Bonkers” when they see a Christmas display on public land. They seethe and writhe and run for the ACLU or the courts, or congenial media pulpits.
    But when someone reacts strongly– sometimes almost violently– this way to a crèche scene, shouldn’t the question of the complainer’s bigotry and intolerance be examined by the media.

  • Duane Lamers

    So I should take a “civics” class from some liberal who disdains the actual words of the Constitution and wants to give the class his own perspective on it? Is that what you did? If so, “you learned good.”

    Your pronouncement that “a creche by itself is endorsement” is simply your not-humble-enough opinion. Civil authorities who would deny other religious sects the opportunity to use the public square would be wrong. Perhaps what you really want to suggest is that all religions should put up displays together in one place at the same time. This, of course, would highlight “religion,” which is an abstraction and likely carry no meaning with anyone. Perhaps that is really what you want.

    It is only your opinion that “conservatives like to pretend that the founders were fundamentalist Christians and that the 14th Amendment was just a myth.” Perhaps you learned this from one of your esteemed liberal civics teachers. Or at the university where “civics” becomes political science..

    The notion of interpreting the Constitution in a “good faith honest manner” is code for saying “the Constitution as written be damned.”

    Can you cite any local authority that has attempted to give Christians use of the public square while denying it to other religions? I doubt it; but were this the case, I’d condemn it, too.

    Straw is part of a traditional creche. You’ve chosen to make a straw man of it.

    If there is any substance to the liberal perspective on this matter of freedom of religion, it has yet to make itself known in these pages. In keeping with the season, perhaps we can hope for an epiphany by those folks in this regard!

    A point for the “anti-religionists” to ponder: Are you upset that some believers do not act on what they believe or are you upset with the very principles of the creed themselves? All the ranting is directed toward those actions that are seen as dispicable even by others in the same sect. Doesn’t sound like a very strong attack on religions themselves, but “you do with what you got.” Sometimes that’s next to nothing.

  • Duane Lamers

    Mr. Austin, if the “quite large numbers of them” have no Constitutional footing for their whining, then they ought not be listened to. Rather, they ought to be sent back to school to learn from a legitimate teacher what the Constitution actually says about our freedoms and government power.

    It is true that Christians can and will celebrate Christmas in any case. That’s not the issue. The issue is anyone’s denying anyone else’s Constitutional rights.

    The politico-cultural war in this country centers on the Constitution. Liberals, being no friends of that Document unless it is interpreted by other liberals, care little about what it says. Their “feelings” are hurt, and in their minds they have a Constitutional right not to be upset.

    It is the tyranny of a minority, illegitimate from the start, that is trying to refashion the country. It is succeeding, as is evidenced by the increasing moral decay and eroding social fabric. This is what liberals call “success” or “improvement.”

  • John McIntos

    Is this the same ELCA that believes in cherry picking the Word of God (keep what it likes, rationalize away what doesn’t fit in with modern sensibilities), suggests that the Lutheran Reformation was a mistake (since it now agrees with Rome on Justification, the key reason for the Reformation to start with), and supports abortion rights?

  • Charles Austin

    You unfairly mischaracterize the position of the ELCA on almost every point you mentioned. But you probably know that. And the issues are of such complexity that it is probably impossible to sort them out here.

  • Duane Lamers

    In any event, Lutheranism in this country managed to subdivide itself. Some evangelicals are noting that this has not been positive for either side.

    I subscribe to “First Things,” parts of which are also available on line. I wait for each monthly issue.

  • Earold Gunter

    Deacon, I would advise you not to put up Muslim imagery on public land down south on any day of the year, or you will get a much better perspective of how people (Christians) would go “Bonkers” (Bonkers means violent action in this case), and display bigotry and intolerance.

    The root of the issue is the interpretation of the 1st amendment. Christians feel that this country was founded as a Christian country, so they should have a right that applies to no one else, like the public display of religious imagery, like the ten commandments and nativity scenes.

    Others, whom based on your previous comments would refer to as Liberals or maybe Libruls, or Progressives, interpret the 1st amendment to mean that either all religions should have equal rights to display their religious imagery on publicly owned property, or none should be displayed at all.

    What I think Mr. Austin points out so correctly, is that the war over Christmas is a war the Christians are picking themselves by trying to push the envelope of the 1st amendment. I think they have a need to feel they are martyrs for their God, and this drives this behavior. However Christians already have great influence on how this country is managed, case in point, Christmas is a federal holiday, and the only federal holiday based on a religious belief, and our money has “In God we trust” on it, just to name but a few.

    No one is going into your churches trying to stop you from celebrating your religious holiday, or coming to your church or private property kicking down your religious imagery, which I would support as a crime. All the people want, who you so obviously disdain, is for your kind to recognize that on land that is paid for by all through taxes, we must all be treated equally. Some see this as either allowing all displays, or allowing none. My preference would be none, as I am not a believer, so have no imagery to display.

    Have a very Merry Christmas!

  • Charles Austin

    “First Things” is a fine publication. I do not often agree with it, but respect its editors and their intellect.

  • Duane Lamers

    Earold, Merry Christmas to you!

    Your second paragraph addressed to Deacon Bresnahan errs. The Constitution protects the right of everyone regarding religion in the public square. If, in fact, local authorities prohibit any religion other than Christianity to be displayed in public places, those authorities should be challenged.

    Regarding your third paragraph: The Constitution gives no authority to anyone to ban entirely religious displays or expression in public places. That courts have so interpreted the Constitution is what constitutes the very heart of the politico-cultural war in our country. Appealing to court decisions, including SCOTUS, begs the question.

    “Pushing the envelope” (your fourth paragraph)? Sorry, but that is a liberal interpretation, the “a priori” of which is that there should be no public display. Again, this defies the very words of the Constitution and, therefore, begs the question. It is not true that Christians have picked this war. Theirs is a reaction to those who refuse to accept the First Amendment for what it says–not to mention the actual past history of religion in the public square, even in the national Capitol itself. Again, the liberals want to say Christians have started this “war.” Sorry, liberals themselves have started it and object that they’ve actually encountered push-back. Their noses are out of joint because they cannot understand how anyone would interpret plain words of the Constitution in any way other than the “expanded” meanings of words that the left demands. How about reading the words for what they plainly say? No, that won’t do, especially for folks who simply don’t like the Constitution and want to remake the country into something resembling other failed governments and societies.

    I suggest Christmas is not the only holiday based on religious belief. What about Thanksgiving? You disagree with the fact that this country in its laws reflects to some degree the religious afiliations of 90% of the population? Can you reference any other society that does not at least to some degree do the same thing?

    That your preference, Earold, is for no displays in the public square is entirely personal. That you would support any enforcement of your view, however, is unconstitutional. Lawbreaking.

    But we all have strong feelings in some regards. One of mine, along with yours, is that child abusers deserve death as their sentence, (maybe you don’t go quite that far) despite the fact that there are state laws outlawing such punishment. I’m not entirely opposed to “vigilante justice” if some frequent application of it leads to more laws and juridical opinions that most of the public, I’m sure, would find more acceptable than what we currently have.

    By the way, I find most Christmas religious displays to be horrid, ugly. I”d ban them on those grounds alone, but I know that’s not Constitutional, either. I wait for the season to be over. I suspect we are in common agreement on that.

  • Larry

    My pronouncement about a creche being endorsement is not my opinion, it was the Supreme Court’s, more than 20 years ago. They took the view that a singular religious image on public property = endorsement while having many did not. [Allegheny v. ACLU and Lynch v. Donnelly]

    Yes I do want all religious groups applying to have the space at the same time. There is no way to parse out which ones can be rejected or not based on anything short of sectarian bias. The whole point is to show that government is not the sole province of one faith. Something you have no problem endorsing, but the 1st Amendment strongly frowns upon.

    “Can you cite any local authority that has attempted to give Christians use of the public square while denying it to other religions? ”

    What is happening in Oklahoma right now is a perfect example. A 10 commandments statute (which violates 1 of its own commandments ironically) is there singularly and the state legislature is hemming and hawing about how to avoid any other religious displays on the same property. They suddenly had a moratorium on applications after Hindus filed an application. I would have loved to hear the excuses for excluding a display for a religion of over a billion people.

    You really are too hung up on an attempt to hijack government for Christianity and partisan sniping to get my point. You really like using canned arguments rather than reading and thinking skills.

    I have zero objections to a creche on public property as long as it is not THE ONLY RELIGIOUS SYMBOL PRESENT. The more, the merrier. Inclusiveness when it comes to religion is a good faith reading of 1st Amendment religious rights.

  • Earold D Gunter

    Duane, by not addressing my comments in the first paragraph, can I take it to mean that you agree with my assessment?
    In my second paragraph I find no err. I whole heartedly agree with you that “The Constitution protects the right of everyone regarding religion in the public square. If, in fact, local authorities prohibit any religion other than Christianity to be displayed in public places, those authorities should be challenged.” I stated that “Christians feel that this country was founded as a Christian country, so they should have a right that applies to no one else, like the public display of religious imagery, like the Ten Commandments and nativity scenes.” This statement in no way is contrary to yours, but I do express my opinion of how I feel Christians view the 1st amendment.
    As far as my third paragraph is concerned, thank you for the clarification, but I needed none. I made no statement that disagreed with your interpretation, just that Liberals interpret it to mean an all or nothing deal, which in retrospect, I should have added “some”, in order not to group everyone into the same bucket. Personally, I would like to see the 1st amendment amended to just say none can be displayed, so this component of our “politico-cultural war” can be put to bed once and for all.
    As to my 4th paragraph, first I have a curiosity; do you see all interpretations of the constitution other than your own as liberal, or are their other people who interpret it differently that you call something else? I find it interesting how so many interpretation can be derived from the same text. Your Bible is a prime example. So many people think it means so many different things. Some passages are taken literally, some or not, most “adjustments” done by all for convenience sake. Quite the another subject though.
    I will answer most of your response, and I sincerely mean no offense, but this paragraph was a little “ranty” (Another new word for the lexicon please);-). Mr. Austin’s article, in my view pointed out, as did your words “not to mention the actual past history of religion in the public square, even in the national Capitol itself”, that for a very long time Christians have had no “competition” in the public display of religious icons. Like when I was a child playing “king of the hill” in the winter snow of my great home state and yours, when once reaching the top, you only defended not picked the fights, they came to you. Christians have been on the proverbial “top of the hill” for a very long time as far as display of religious imagery in public spaces, and on other public items, like money. It is my opinion that it is Christians who have been reactionary to others demanding that the constitution be followed, (in agreement with your interpretation, of course) and have created what they, and only they by the way, have termed a “war on Christmas”. This is because they oppose sharing the public space, which they have not had been told to in the past, constitution be damned. I did add, “I think they have a need to feel they are martyrs for their God, and this drives this behavior” because martyrdom is a commonality in many religions, Christianity not excluded, and I stand by this position as I’ve been one (Christian) before, so I know how many of them view themselves, as I once did.
    Although the Pilgrims were a religious group, and were the first participants of Thanksgiving, I really don’t consider it a religious holiday, but more of a secular American celebration of separation from the British. I would agree, sadly however, “that this country in its laws reflects to some degree the religious affiliations of 90% of the population”. I don’t think this was the intent of our forefathers, it was simply majority rules, and it was a small majority, mostly of the same or at least similar superstitious beliefs, save for Pane. It is an interesting mental exercise to consider how the constitution would have been written if they knew the modern day truths that science has revealed. Unfortunately, as you point out societies make laws based on their beliefs at the time they are made. However, they also amend them as they learn they were wrong as well. This is applicable for all societies, that I’m aware of. As I pointed out, it is my personal preference that no religious icons be displayed in publicly owned spaces, and I agree that currently, it is unconstitutional. However, so was a lot of other things we all now consider wrong, but amendments have been made as we grow wiser. Perhaps I’m on the cutting edge ;-).
    Onto our commonalities which is my favorite part. I agree with you. Based on past comments we both share similar beliefs when it comes to abuse of children. I think mine goes also into the general direction of the abuse of anyone those who are vulnerable in our society as well, old, mentally or physically challenged. In my opinion, it takes a mind so depraved to do harm to those who can’t defend themselves, that it does our society absolutely no good for those minds to exist among us, so they should be eliminated. Act subhuman, get treated as such is how I feel. I think in my own case, if anyone were to hurt any of my grandchildren, I would not hesitate in making sure they never had that opportunity again. I would not consider it vigilant justice though, as I would reserve that term for humans, and once someone has committed an act as heinous as that, they have gave their right up to be considered as such.
    Finally, I do not find Christian Christmas displays ugly, but I do find them somewhat amusing, once again a whole other discussion. As far as the holiday as a whole is concerned, once I don’t have any little faces to see delight in when opening gifts, it will no longer have importance for me. Hopefully once my grandchildren are grown, and married with children of their own, I’ll get to enjoy that day for just a little while longer.
    Merry Christmas!!!!

  • Earold D Gunter

    Sorry, realized I mispelled Paine.

  • dad21jedi

    At least one atheist says “amen!” and wishes you a very Merry Christmas.

  • Nancy Lee

    I love the Christmas displays, be they of Santa Claus, elves, angels, or a manager. I also love the Constitution of the United States. I guess you could call me a liberal because I am a member of a welcoming church …. ELCA Lutheran.
    I have family members that get all bent out of shape if a sales person says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. They think church pageants with live camels, and massive choirs, people being lowered from the ceilings are the essence of Christmas.
    Yet, somehow the meaning of the birth of Christ gets lost in all of the hoopla. Isn’t it all about loving your fellow man, no matter what they look like or where they live?
    I have seen nothing in our Constitution that claims the only religion protected is the Christian faith and nothing in the Bible that proclaims loving Christ means forcing people to adhere to only one way of celebrating Christmas.

  • m00tpoint

    So does arrogant, self-congratulatory sloganeering that masquerades as discussion.

  • m00tpoint

    “Maybe you should take a civics class.” Yes, because anyone who disagrees with you is clearly and evidently an ignoramus. Maybe you should take a class on how to win friends and influence people. Checking your arrogant sneering at the door would be a good place to start.

  • Duane Lamers

    Larry, regarding your remarks today. (Curiously, it often happens that there is no “reply” button below your remarks and I must respond this way.) Thanks for the note regarding the Oklahoma Court. What have you to say about SCOTUS’s own digs? I agree that there should be no special treatment given any specific creed. A case can be made, however, that a representation of the 10 Commandments is so widely seen as an endorsement of “natural law” concepts as to virtually without a religious tone at all.

    I never suggested that we ought to give preference to Christianity in the public square, and I fail to see how you arrived at that notion.

    As for using “canned arguments,” your concepts of “fairness” in the Constitution are right out of the liberal can, which uses “fair” to mean what it wants the term to mean. Perhaps here’s my license to accuse you of projection as you accused me.

    Quoting SCOTUS and its past decisions begs the question, as I’ve noted before. The whole culture war largely stems from liberal court majorities’ interpretation of the Constitution. Let’s hear you praise the Court for its opinions that rankle liberals.

    Many public places have square yardage that could be used for religious groups to temporarily place symbols relevant to important holidays. That’s true for my city. No, the taxpayers should not be footing the bill for the displays nor for their security or storage Let representatives of those groups handle all that. The degree of interest among the residents will determine whether any display is created.

  • Duane Lamers

    Earold, I must reply at this point because your latest note to me has no “reply” but at the end. I don’t understand the mechanics of “threadmaking,” I guess.

    Thanks for your long, detailed response. Perhaps we both drive some other posters crazy. I did not respond to your first paragraph because I do not know enough about the South (why just the South?) to be able to react. Muslims deserve the same respect granted our Constitution. However, were you to refer specifically to Muslims of the Islamist (fundamentalist) variety, I would not support them, for they are dedicated to the destruction of all civilizations but their own uncivilized hell. I have Muslim neighbors across the back fence, and we’ll get along even better now that they’ve cut down their dirty cottonwood tree!

    It perhaps is true that some Christians feel they own the public square to the exclusion of others, and I disagree with those who feel this way. I don’t find that to be the attitude among the people in my own neighborhood. We think the First Amendment as plainly written applies to all.

    I disagree with the “all or nothing” interpretation of the First Amendment, which prohibits the “nothing.” Every religious group has the right to the public square. Of course, small populations will be less inclined to “demonstrate” because of the effort or money involved. I suspect that enclaves of Chinese and other groups have prominent displays from time to time, displays that dispersed numbers in larger communities would find impossible or too onerous to undertake. Understandable, but the right to do so remains.

    I doubt you’d get an amendment to the amendment, precisely because a vast majority, I think, believe as I do. If anything, you’d more easily get articles of impeachment for a goodly number of jurists if petitions for impeachment submitted to Congress outweighed the current Constitutional provisions for this recourse.

    I can’t respond to your question regarding my seeing “non-Duane” interpretations of the Constitution as liberal. There is debate among conservatives on many points. I would say, though, that any interpretation that is not grounded in the plain wording of the Document is a liberal. In some places where there is imprecision as to meaning, the Federalist Papers should help provide clarification. Where we still get no clarification, then an amendment is in order, not jurists’ decisions.

    Yes, I can be ranty. I no longer allow my ranting to affect my life in ways it once did. I can walk away from it. Some might see me as “spoiling for a fight.” Well, maybe that’s my verbal compensation for not having body mass and certain motor skills to have allowed me to compete athletically to “get stuff out of my system.”

    I don’t doubt but that Christians having owned the ground for so long has made some of us too territorial about it. That must be changed, of course, but not in the direction of excluding religion from the public square.

    As for the way we as a society have come to celebrate Christmas: I abhor it and can’t wait for 26 December. The season is nothing but a commercial display, but I admit that if people don’t buy ‘stuff,” the unemployment figures rise and we’re in more of a pickle. We have cut way back on the buying. One or two gifts among the 3 of us in the house. An item for the married one and a couple items for their kids. Enough already. Had I my druthers I would already have been in the Caymans by Halloween, not to return until shirtsleeve and shorts weather back here. The best sort of Christmas for me includes time spent in contemplating the meaning behind the story and what the Christ (not Christmas) message holds for all of us on this planet and to what end. I’d prefer doing the contemplation on a beach. Perhaps you also could find meaning in this approach, a meaning that has precious little to do with organized Christianity in its popular forms as we’ve come to know it.

  • Mick Sheldon

    The big deal of celebrating Christmas in the public square comes from a targeted hostility by secularists and political forces. , About 25 percent of the US Capital’s statuary incorporates a religious message . Including the the statue of Father Junipero Serra” The Apostle of California” holding a Cross in his hands as well as Marcus Witman , a missionary carrying a Bible in his hand . a 14 by 20 foot painting of the baptism of Pocahontas is located in Capital Grounds , as well as Pilgrims at prayer and Christopher Columbus holding a Cross while praying with his crew . A stained Glass Window showing Washington seeking divine guidance is in the Congressional Chapel . A line from Psalm 16.1 is etched into the stained Glass.

    “ In God we trust” is engraved in the Speakers rostrum . Moses is depicted in the House of Representatives . Our currency is engraved with the words “ In God We trust”

    If Our Founders put religious statues , symbols and paintings in our most sacred places of government , how could any reasonably conclude that our Constitution dictates they be removed from our classrooms , courthouses and other public places ?

  • Mick Sheldon

    We do not have freedom to worship in this country , we have religious freedom . Seems the problem is not religion , its those who have become so intolerant to consider it to be seen in the public square . What I find quite revealing in the fact people mock the view that there is a war on Christmas by mocking the beliefs of those who believe it is beneficial to allow it . Its a National Holiday , not a secret Holiday . Millions more who find nothing wrong with kids singing songs , sharing family traditions and cards. Its a day of joy , love and hope. Non Christians love it . If nothing else we showed more respect to each other when it was allowed in the public square . Look at what has happened , recent polls show religion in general has lost the trust of people , except those who identify as republicans . Leftist on the left more secular have a problem with God we know . And again we have school health clinics that provide abortion even , school policy that advertises confidentiality , and sex education that teaches any morality is equal with morality as along as safe sex is used . Many more parents object to this then the minority who complain about Christmas Trees , but the PC uses tactics that most find disheartening .

  • Mick Sheldon

    Duane I agree , seems the left because it so well intentioned believe any disagreement is based on ignorance or religious intolerance . They fail drastically to see their own lack of support for the First Amendment and see it as a means that government can prohibit religious holidays in the public square . The First Amendment was to limit the power of government , not to limit religion . .

  • Erik G

    So a holiday stolen from Pagans, yup, winter solstice predates Jesus by about 100,000 years. And you some how “won”? right… Have you seen church attendance in this country. Have you seen the growth of the atheist? The complete lack of god in the younger generation? Unfortunately, you haven’t won any more than the crying child that didn’t get its way has won. Your ways are dieing. Reason, sanity and science have won. Enjoy the last few years. Changes are here and no myth can stop it.