"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.
"The fear of religion in the public arena is all too typical of Americans, and particularly the intellectual class," Judge Robert Bork, who died just days before Christmas, wrote in his 1996 book, "Slouching Toward Gomorrah." In it, the author provides a reality check:
"Religious conservatives cannot 'impose' their ideas on society except by the usual democratic methods of trying to build majorities and passing legislation. In that they are not different from any other group of people with ideas of what morality requires. All legislation 'imposes' a morality of one sort or another, and, therefore, on the reasoning offered, all law would seem to be antithetical to pluralism. The references to 'bigotry' and 'demagoguery' seem to mean little more than that the author would like to impose a very different set of values."
Whatever the Department of Justice might argue in court about health-care regulation, and whatever Planned Parenthood needs to say to feed a climate of fear, a religious figure in Rome is never going to impose anything on American women or men. But he does protect a gift that he believes we've been given, that most of us have at least a nostalgic motive to believe in. Christmas offers with it a grand, perpetual proposal. The rest of the days of the year are the test of whether it's simply a matter of holly and ivy or the greatest love story that can transform our lives.