‘Tis the season, once again, for conservatives to bemoan de-Christianization of Christmas. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Daniel Henninger declares this to be the “year Christmas died.” His evidence, after a brief swipe at a University of Tennessee diversity notice, is the succession of shop windows along Fifth Avenue. “Forget public Nativity scenes as court fiat commanded us to do years ago.” Instead, he writes, the windows filled with suggestive manikins and objectionable references to Asian or Ancient Roman culture.
On its face, this complaint is hilariously incoherent. Shop windows are private property. Courts don’t forbid nativity displays, or any other religious representations, on private property. The restrictions they impose affect public land and buildings, and their rationale is the basic American principle of separating church and state, which Mr Henninger neglects to mention. What is even stranger about his rant is that the Wall Street Journal, and other conservative commentators, have tirelessly (and tiresomely) championed the freedom of private persons to do whatever they want with the property they own. But when they do something Mr. Henninger doesn’t like — such as appealing to modern sensibilities rather than outdated ones in order to maximize their profits — that freedom is suddenly objectionable.
There’s a much deeper problem with Mr. Henninger’s complaint, however. He has the wrong culprit. It’s not the courts that have killed Christmas, and it’s not private entrepreneurs, who would be more than happy to profit from its symbolism. Political conservatives have killed Christmas. They’ve done so in the process of assassinating the Christian religion in general by conscripting Christianity into an adjunct of the Republican Party, or perhaps the right wing of the Republican Party. What rational business would want to display Christian symbols in its stores when those symbols have become coded endorsements of a political position that a sizable proportion of its potential clients disagree with?
Many sociologists have asked why religion is so much stronger in the United States than it is in Western Europe. One theory is that European nations had established churches in the fairly recent past. As a result, people’s frequent dislike of government — something conservatives should understand — was transferred to the religion that the government endorsed. In the United States, religion has remained a private matter, a system of metaphysical and ethical beliefs that people could relate to independent of their political views. That’s what conservative politicians have undermined in pursuit of partisan advantage.
But the conservatives’ assault on the religion they purport to favor goes still deeper. The tide of public opinion is running strongly against conservative Republicans. In the past half-century, a relatively short time by historical standards, both law and public opinion have endorsed abortion, birth control, women’s equality and same sex marriage, and they are moving toward acceptance of assisted suicide. These are not passing trends and they are not moral lapses that will be recanted in the future. Instead, they represent a new morality, centered on human self-fulfillment. It replaces the old condemnations with an insistence that everyone be treated equally and provided with their minimal needs, such as subsistence, health and education, so that they have the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives. By linking their opposition to these developments with Christianity, conservatives have branded the Christian religion as the enemy of the emerging morality. In other words, they have succeeded in making Christianity itself appear immoral in the eyes of an ever-increasing number of Americans.
There is nothing inevitable about the conservative position. The Bible says absolutely nothing about abortion or birth control. It depicts a number of suicides, by good people and bad, but does not offer moral judgment on this issue. It was written in an era when there was overwhelming gender inequality, but the Old Testament depicts strong female leaders and the New Testament gives women crucial roles in the Christ story. There is one passing condemnation of homosexuality in the New Testament but it may refer only to promiscuity. In contrast, both the Old and New Testaments repeatedly insist on providing financial assistance to the poor, and possibly on income redistribution. The Book of Matthew says that if you don’t provide health care for the poor you will go to Hell. In other words, there is more support for the new morality of human self-fulfillment in the Bible than for the antiquated, punitive morality that conservatives tout. If they were to realize this, and if they were to stop using the Christian religion as a recruiting tool, we would all be glad to wish them Merry Christmas.