The argument between atheists and religious advocates has, of course, been going on a long time. All that has happened is that, in the United States today, the atheists have acquired at last the critical mass, or perhaps just the intestinal fortitude, to engage their adversaries openly. The dispute has promptly taken political form, and most of the atheists have found haven in the Democratic Party, which tends to treat them as just another victimized minority. The Republicans, conversely, have benefited from the support of many religious advocates, who respond favorably to sympathetic references to "family values," etc. (There is, however, an ultra-libertarian wing of the GOP that leans toward atheism, and of course many Democrats haven't yet given up on religion.)
The upshot is that the battle is now out in the open. The loud complaints you hear in the media about the "theocons," the Religious Right, etc., are simply the view of the atheists and their allies (people who, though not atheists themselves, have bought the argument that the First Amendment requires them to behave that way in public). Throughout its history, the United States has tolerated a good deal of public religious activity -- all of it well short, it should be stressed, of establishing an official religion. But a battle has now begun to eliminate all such activity, and the courts seem disposed to look on the attempt with favor.
Of course, in a nation as overwhelmingly religious as the United States, one impulse is simply to disregard such efforts as beneath notice. And it is certainly true that, as a people, we oppose the official establishment of any religion, and seek only comity among the many religions represented here (and for that matter with the atheists, too). But it surely cannot be terribly offensive to wish even non-Christians a "Merry Christmas," when all that means is that the wisher believes that something happened in a Palestinian manger 2,000 ago that, properly understood, would give everyone reason to be merry.
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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