Hold the 'Holy' in Happy Holidays

Posted: Dec 02, 2005 12:05 AM

In 1984, the Supreme Court launched one of America's worst traditions: Christmas Agonistes. This is the ritual where everyone goes batty about what to "do" about Christmas. The court invented it in a decision called Lynch vs. Donnelly, the upshot of which was that if someone is offended at a creche or Christmas tree at City Hall, they can go whining to a judge about it.

Just this week, the Capitol performed its own minor Christmas miracle of transubstantiation. At the beginning of the week, House Speaker Denny Hastert unveiled a "Holiday Tree." But a few days later, after some entirely predictable bah humbugs, he re-christened it a Christmas tree. (Similarly, when the city of Boston tried to unveil its official "Holiday Tree," the premier of Nova Scotia, which had provided it as a gift, called it a nifty trick since, "when it left Nova Scotia, it was a Christmas tree.")

These miracles aren't exactly up there with keeping lamp oil burning for eight days, never mind rising from the dead, but they're pretty good for government work.

Personally, I take no offense at the government unveiling a Christmas tree on the grounds of the "People's House." Besides, a place that in love with pork is hardly kosher to begin with.

Lamenting the war on Christmas has become something of a cottage industry for conservatives, just as lamenting the perfidious intrusion of Christianity on the public square is a grand source of fundraising and TV time for segments of the left. Fox News' John Gibson has even come out with a definitive brief on the war on Christmas aptly titled "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought."

And for some it does seem like Christmas is under siege. Not just Christmas, of course, but religious expression generally.

Traditionalists of a certain bent are at a particular disadvantage because they have a handy label to define their morality: religion. And religion has a special status in our society.

Secularists, misreading history, claim that the Constitution requires that wherever government and religion intersect, religion must vanish. This is terribly wrongheaded in my opinion, but we've all heard those arguments before.

What I think secularists don't appreciate is how unfair this feels to religious people who believe that the secularists have, for all intents and purposes, a moral faith of their own. For example, back in the Dark Ages when John Aschroft ruled with an iron fist, and decent people everywhere quaked at the prospect of borrowing "Catcher in the Rye" from the library lest they land in the Gulag under the Patriot Act, Ashcroft was unable to ban a Gay Pride Month celebration at his own Department of Justice. I don't think that celebrating Gay Pride Month would lead to the end of civilization, but I don't think Christian Pride Month would either. And yet we all understand that Christian pride is a nonstarter on government premises.

The idea that liberalism operates - or should operate - like a secular religion, complete with its own dogmas, rites and customs, has a very old pedigree stretching from ancient Rome to such modern figures as August Comte, Herbert Croly, John Dewey, Thurman Arnold up to the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty. Without wading out into those weeds, I think secular liberals could work harder at understanding that contemporary liberalism, whether it is a secular religion or not, for its non-adherents it might as well be one.

Liberals use the state to impose their morality all the time, and they get away with it because their faith isn't called a religion.

Yet conservatives should be wary of launching a backlash. Just as it is counterproductive for a secular liberal to take offense at a well-intentioned "Merry Christmas," it doesn't help if a conservative says "Merry Christmas" when he really means "Eat yuletide, you atheistic bastard!" If you're putting up a Christmas tree in order to tick off the ACLU, you've really missed the point.

Of course, none of this would be problem if judges in Washington minded their business to begin with. But that's the real heresy for some liberals.

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