Bill O'Reilly hung up on me

Or I would have explained how in defending Christmas as a national holiday he revealed his -- could it be? -- secular side. And maybe worse.

Published December 16, 2004 7:01PM (EST)

Bill O'Reilly's looking after Christmas. The controversialist's spirited defense of the national holiday of Christmas caused some stir of late when he suggested on his nationally syndicated radio show to a Jewish caller that if one is uncomfortable with the public display of Christian symbols and offended by the United States being a predominantly Christian nation, emigration to Israel may be in order.

O'Reilly's remarks quickly traveled across cyberspace and sparked some controversy of their own, allowing O'Reilly to again take up his position as embattled defender of the nation's spiritual heritage. On Dec. 14, he devoted a good portion of his radio show to the issue, and to how Christmas ought to be publicly acknowledged.

In an effort to clear some of this up for myself, I called O'Reilly on his radio show. When he took my call, I suggested the following: The United States government is forbidden by the First Amendment to the Constitution to establish religion. Therefore, the establishment of Christmas as a national holiday cannot be the establishment of a religious holiday. As a national holiday, Christmas must have a clear "secular purpose." As far as the U.S. is concerned, Christmas has religious and secular dimensions. So, if one is concerned about the "secularization" of America, one need look no further than the U.S. government, which has transformed a religious festival into a secular holiday.

O'Reilly responded by stating that by deeming Christmas a national holiday the United States was honoring the "philosopher" Jesus. This recognition, O'Reilly continued, was similar to the recognition afforded to Martin Luther King Jr.

The problem with this view, of course, is that, to most Christians, Jesus is not a simply a "philosopher," a thinker such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, John Locke or even St. Thomas Aquinas, for that matter. Depending upon one's theology, one sees Jesus as the Messiah, the son of God, savior of fallen humanity, the second person of the Trinity, fully man and fully God. The history of Christian theology is a history of the struggle over just who Jesus was and is. Moreover, not all Christian churches have instituted a holiday to celebrate Jesus' birth. I assume that O'Reilly, a professed Christian, knows this very well. And that is why his insistence that Christmas celebrates Jesus the philosopher is so puzzling. Many Christians claim Jesus is God.

If one is merely celebrating Jesus as a philosopher, albeit as a philosopher whose thought has significantly shaped American values, one is recognizing him merely as a moral teacher and as a human being. To do so is to water down the theological claim at the core of the holiday. Which is, one might argue, a way of "secularizing" Jesus and his message. One would think that O'Reilly would denounce this as part of the secularist agenda. I tried to make this point with O'Reilly, but at that moment my call was unfortunately cut off.

Now, O'Reilly likes to fancy himself as a brave and lonely defender of "Judeo-Christian values" against the onslaught of a nefarious secular horde that strives to undermine all that is good and sacred to the American people. In O'Reilly's Manichaean universe, the secularists are bad folks. In a recent column, our paladin of virtue has opined that those who oppose the celebration of Christmas in the public sphere do so as part of a larger agenda: the destruction of morality itself. The assault on the public display of Christmas is merely a salvo in a larger culture war. The real goal of the secularists is the establishment of gay marriage, legalization of drugs, euthanasia and other sundry (and unmentioned) "secular causes." (Never mind that the question of whether gays ought to be able to marry -- as well as other so-called secular causes -- had been debated within many churches and synagogues long before the Massachusetts Supreme Court and the mayor of San Francisco took up the issue. There are religious people in America who support, for religious reasons, the kinds of policies that O'Reilly regards as so horrifyingly secular. So the secular/religious divide is not as clear cut as O'Reilly would have it. Or perhaps only some religions count as true religion in his book.)

Granted, O'Reilly does not claim that all those who are concerned with the public display of religion are depraved nihilists bent on dismantling the "Judeo-Christian" basis of American society. Many, O'Reilly suggests, are merely looking out for the feelings of the minority of Americans who don't celebrate Christmas. They failed to realize, until Bill opened their eyes, that however well intentioned, they are dupes of an organized secularist cabal with quite another agenda in place.

Now, many who oppose the government-sanctioned display of religion do so not only to protect the feelings of a religious (or non-religious) minority, but also to protect the separation of church and state that the First Amendment is interpreted as establishing. But insofar as the courts have determined that there is a "secular" purpose to Christmas, it is important to take into account what that purpose might be. This secular dimension, one might think, is to foster a communal spirit of good will, and to promote holiday spending.

O'Reilly may have missed the former but he clearly understands the latter aspect of the Christmas holiday, for he did not give up a chance to hawk his "Factor Gear," which he claimed would make excellent presents, not only for Christmas, but for Chanukah and Kwanzaa as well. Apparently, when it comes to cold, hard cash, these holidays are full-fledged American.

In the end, I wish that O'Reilly had kept me on the line so that we could have debated this question more fully. For one finds it somewhat paradoxical that in order to keep the Christ in Christmas, O'Reilly has maintained that the national holiday honors a philosopher. Unless he has been deliberately disingenuous here, self-professed Roman Catholic Bill O'Reilly may be something other than a mere secularist; he may be a heretic.

By Jerome Eric Copulsky

Jerome Eric Copulsky is Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies at Virginia Tech.

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