Unless you are just in from Mars, you can hardly have escaped noticing the nationwide campaign to eliminate all references to Christmas from the public square. Not only is government allegedly forbidden, under the First Amendment, to countenance the erection of Christmas trees, let alone creches, on public property. Even purely private institutions dealing with the public, such as department stores, are under heavy pressure to avoid participating in activities involving Christmas symbols (Christmas trees, again). Even ordinary public chatter is being cleansed of allusions to Christmas, supposedly to avoid hurting the feelings of non-Christians. Hence "Happy holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," and so on.
Who is behind this campaign, and why is it happening just now? By far the biggest institutional promoter of the purge of Christmas from the public square is the American Civil Liberties Union, which endorses the interpretation of the First Amendment as forbidding the slightest taint of religion in our public life. (There are other interpretations, which conclude that the First Amendment merely forbids the federal government to establish an official state church, as several of the original states had done; but in the 20th century the courts adopted the ACLU view, and lately have been enforcing it with increasing vigor.)
This position has the effect of making atheists the default beneficiaries of the First Amendment. Now, atheists represent only a small portion of the population (numbers are difficult to come by, but 10 percent would be a generous estimate), but they are an extremely influential group, heavily represented in various intellectual elites. Hitherto they have chosen to stay safely below the radar screen of public consciousness, but in recent years a significant number of them have begun speaking out more frankly. (The Dec. 17 New York Times Book Review contains a full-page ad by Alfred Knopf & Co. urging readers to "This year, give the gift of reason: the courageous, bestselling book that challenges religious dogma -- 'Letter to a Christian Nation' by Sam Harris.")
William Rusher is a Distinguished Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy and author of How to Win Arguments .
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