"The greatest gift which America has received from the Lord is the faith which has forged its Christian identity," Pope John Paul II wrote in a document on the Church in America in 1999. Here at the end of 2012, the words might be the rallying cry of the season -- a reminder, a challenge, a warning -- and a gift to be pondered born of a grotto in Bethlehem.
And it's not just something for Christians. As the pope wrote at the time: "The evangelization which accompanied the European migrations has shaped America's religious profile, marked by moral values which, though they are not always consistently practiced and at times are cast into doubt, are in a sense the heritage of all Americans, even of those who do not explicitly recognize this fact."
We used to value these roots. We used to encourage their protection and embodiment in life. Today, the "holiday" season has been marked by an array of court decisions deciding whether or not religious-affiliated charities and schools will be protected from the narrowing of liberty that the Obama administration's health-care policy has wrought.
Christmas reminds Christians of who we are and why we are. But it's also a calendar date ripe with distraction. There's, of course, the much-commentated-on busyness of it all. Black Friday and Cyber Monday, eggnog and iPad purchases trumping the prayerful, holy aspect of the season.
But 'tis also the season for news stories on how religious America actually is. Frank Newport, president of Gallup, proclaims: "God is Alive and Well" in a new book of that title, something I am certainly not going to rebut. "Eighty percent of all Americans are Christians, and 95 percent of all Americans who have a religion are Christian," he writes. Even with the rise in "nones" -- people who do not have a distinct religious identity, nine in 10 Americans answer in the affirmative when asked if they believe in God.
Let's look at how God and religious faith were described one Sunday morning during one of our secular political services, "Meet the Press." "There is a difference between God as a sense of comfort and safe harbor and inspiration, and God telling you to take a particular action," host David Gregory said last year.
There sure is a difference. It's easy to understand why people might be skeptical of those who claim to have a calling from on high, be it religious, political or otherwise. But in a society that has succeeded in cordoning off religion from public life, it's not just Christians who will be asked to keep their archaic notions about sacrifice, penance and redemption to themselves.