Holiday Humbugs: It’s Time To End The Religious Right’s War On Civility

December 24th, 2008
By Barry W. Lynn
Government-Sponsored Religion, Religion in Public Life

Note: This opinion column by Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, ran in the Vacaville (Calif.) Reporter on Dec. 12, under the title “Let’s End This War on Christmas.”

Christmas is supposed to be a season of peace, love and goodwill. I have to wonder, then, why some conservative religious groups persist in using this time of year to divide Americans and stir up interfaith tensions.

It has become an annual event. Every year, religious right organizations start squawking about a so-called “war on Christmas.” This year, they even took to whining about the type of language that appears in catalogs, blasting some retailers for saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

At the same time, we’ve seen the usual rows over seasonal decorations at government buildings. In Washington state, hundreds of people have been whipped into a frenzy by Fox News scold Bill O’Reilly, who is on a tear because an atheist group has been allowed to erect a Winter Solstice sign alongside a Nativity, a menorah and a Christmas tree at the Capitol.

It’s time to stop this fussing and fighting. What we need are some sensible ground rules. And here they are:

* Don’t expect government to celebrate the religious aspects of Christmas for you. America operates under the separation of church and state. The government is constitutionally prohibited from promoting religious worship or elevating one faith over others. Want an authentic religious experience at Christmastime? Go to a house of worship.

* Remember that all religious and nonreligious groups must be treated equally. If a private citizen is allowed to place a Nativity scene in front of ┬áCity Hall, that means Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Scientologist, Mormon — and yes, atheist — organizations have the same right. The First Amendment requires equal treatment for all points of view.

* Accept that retailers just want your money. Times are tough economically. Many retailers make a huge portion of their yearly profit in December. They are worried sales will be off this year and will do what it takes to bring people into the stores. They would put out advertisements highlighting the Seinfeld show’s Festivus if they thought it would get you to buy.

* Don’t fret over store circulars because you won’t find an authentic Christmas experience in these temples to commercialism anyway. Where might you find that spirit? I recommend a church or even volunteering for a few hours at a soup kitchen.

And by the way, that harried store clerk making minimum wage who fails to wish you “Merry Christmas”? She’s trying to keep her head above water just like you are. It’s nothing personal, so cut her some slack.

The truth is, I love Christmas as much as the TV preachers and radio ranters who send me coal instead of greeting cards. But I know something they don’t: The true meaning of the December holidays won’t be found racking up debt in a mall or putting religious figurines on the cold marble steps of a government building. Look for it in your heart, your home, and, most important, inside any number of houses of worship that would love to see you this time of year.

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