Monday, November 21, 2005

The War on the War on Christmas

Michelle Goldberg reports in (subscription/Day Pass req.) that the right-wing’s hue and cry over the “secular humanists” attempts to keep religion out of Christmas is mostly paranoid fever and an attempt to bolster their attempts to turn America into a theocracy.

In 1959, the recently formed John Birch Society issued an urgent alert: Christmas was under attack. In a JBS pamphlet titled “There Goes Christmas?!” a writer named Hubert Kregeloh warned, “One of the techniques now being applied by the Reds to weaken the pillar of religion in our country is the drive to take Christ out of Christmas — to denude the event of its religious meaning.” The central front in this perfidious assault was American department stores, where the “Godless UN” was scheming to replace religious decorations with internationalist celebrations of universal brotherhood.


At the time, the campaign to save Christmas was not widely treated as a matter of great national import. The John Birch Society was generally regarded as a crank, far-right outfit whose paranoid conspiracy theories (it believed fluoridated water was part of an evil communist plot to poison America’s brains) put it outside the pale of reasonable discourse. Staffers on the ultra-right 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign tried to prevent Birchers from volunteering because they carried the taint of extremism. The John Birch Society didn’t have access to a major television network. But a lot has changed since then.

Last December, warnings about a war on Christmas — a war whose central front was the nation’s department stores — once against emanated from the right, but this time, they were on national TV and talk radio. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly began running a regular segment called “Christmas Under Siege.” “All over the country, Christmas is taking flak,” O’Reilly declared on Dec. 7. “In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor [Michael] Bloomberg unveiled the ‘holiday tree,’ and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores — that’s Macy’s — have done away with the Christmas greeting ‘Merry Christmas.'” Instead, Macy’s was using the malign phrase “Happy Holidays.” Noting this, Pat Buchanan wrote, “What we are witnessing here are hate crimes against Christianity.”

This year the War on Christmas canard has come early, and with it the latest opportunity for religious conservatives to cast themselves as the oppressed victims of secular tyrants. In October, Fox News anchor John Gibson published a book titled “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” which envisions a vast conspiracy with tentacles reaching into many aspects of American life. “The plot to ban Christmas itself is anything but secret,” writes Gibson. “It is embedded in the secular ‘Humanist Manifesto’ (in its three iterations from the American Humanist Association) in the philosophy of teaching of John Dewey, in the legal opinions of Laurence Tribe, in the rulings of the Nine Circuit Court of Appeal on which sits the most liberal jurist in the land, Stephen Reinhardt, who is married to Ramona Ripston, the southern California ACLU executive director and the national group’s most liberal and effective leader.”


In fact, there is no war on Christmas. What there is, rather, is a burgeoning myth of a war on Christmas, assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends, exaggerated anecdotes and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. It’s a myth that can be self-fulfilling, as school board members and local politicians believe the false conservative claim that they can’t celebrate Christmas without getting sued by the ACLU and thus jettison beloved traditions, enraging citizens and perpetuating a potent culture-war meme. This in turn furthers the myth of an anti-Christmas conspiracy.

“You have a dynamic here, where you have the Christian right hysterically overrepresenting the problem, and then anecdotally you have some towns where lawyers restrict any kind of display or representation of religion, which is equally absurd,” says Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates and one of the foremost experts on the religious right. “It’s a closed loop. In that dynamic, neither the secular humanists or the ACLU are playing a role.”


The right’s melding of concrete documentation and wild speculation is common to conspiracy theorists; as Richard Hofstadter wrote in his classic essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” “The typical procedure of the higher paranoid scholarship is to start with such defensible assumptions and with a careful accumulation of facts, or at least of what appear to be facts, and to marshal these facts toward an overwhelming ‘proof’ of the particular conspiracy that is to be established.”


The war on Christmas trope lets the right pretend to be playing defense when it’s really on the offensive — against the ACLU, separation of church and state, and pluralism, to name just a few targets. “The revolution against Christianity has been under way for a few years,” writes Gibson, “and now the counterrevolution is gearing up.”

Leave it to these uptight and humorless busybodies to make the John Birch Society look like a reasoned debating society, and of course they will exploit this to their own financial benefit. As with all their other campaigns against anything that might run contrary to people thinking freely and possibly having any fun, they prove the point that no one ever went broke by exploiting the fear, ignorance, and paranoia of the American public.