There is (still) no "War on Christmas"

Henry Ford started it. And like absolutely nothing good ever, the modern War on Christmas began with Bill O'Reilly

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published December 25, 2019 10:00AM (EST)

Christmas lights in the American suburbs (Getty Images/Peter Dazeley)
Christmas lights in the American suburbs (Getty Images/Peter Dazeley)

I have yet to meet a single Jew who gets upset if you say "Merry Christmas" to them.

I'm not saying that there isn't the rare Jew out there who will make such a stink — just as there are people who will take offense at any potential slight — but the way Fox News and other right-wing institutions bray on about a supposed War on Christmas, you'd think that every Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, pagan, agnostic, atheist and other non-Christian from the Penobscot River to Mauna Kea was threatening to ban Christmas trees and jingles from our homes, schools, prayers and thoughts.

Earlier this month, Eric and Lara Trump appeared on Fox News to proclaim that thanks to President Donald Trump's election, "we now don't have the political correctness we used to. People are actually saying 'Merry Christmas.'" Last week Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch said "Merry Christmas" to "Fox & Friends" host Ainsley Earhardt, who with a smug tone replied, "I love that you say that." We still have a cottage industry of Christian movies claiming there is a War on Christmas ("Last Ounce of Courage," "Christmas with a Capital C," too many others to mention) and — of course — we can't seem to shake off Fox News' annual tradition of bleating about the supposedly existential threat to Christmas.

I still have vivid memories of one Christmas party in which two people approached me, knowing I was Jewish, and said in an insistent tone, "Merry Christmas, Matt!" When I politely returned the greeting without protest, they nodded as if I had passed some unspoken test and began talking about the latest Fox News clip they had seen about the war on their beloved holiday. I listened — no, I endured — in uncharacteristic silence.

To be clear: There is nothing wrong with — and, as I've argued in the past, quite a bit that is beautiful about — celebrating Christmas. Anyone prattling on about a War on Christmas is continuing a tradition of bigotry.

1. The American tradition of secularizing Jesus Christ can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson.

Whether you love or hate Thomas Jefferson, it is hard to argue that he wasn't one of the most important figures in creating modern America. He was the primary author of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and, as America's third president (1801-1809), led America through some of the most formative events in its early history, including repealing the un-Constitutional Alien and Sedition Acts, acquiring the Louisiana Purchase, authorizing the Lewis and Clark expedition, reducing government spending and waging war against the Barbary Pirates.

He also rewrote the New Testament to remove the religious elements from it.

The so-called "Jefferson Bible," which was officially titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," was created by Jefferson in 1820 to chronologically and thematically reorganize Christ's teachings into a single volume that could better clarify the man's story and philosophy. I emphasize "man" here because Jefferson deliberately removed all mention of miracles and most of the supposedly supernatural aspects of Christ's life. While Jefferson's views on religion were complicated, he did not subscribe to the theological aspects of Christianity, and thought Christ's teachings would be improved if he was perceived as a secular moral philosopher rather than a divine figure.

Jefferson also had strong opinions about maintaining a separation between church and state. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, he wrote that "believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."

He was not, in short, a person who would have wanted one of America's major political parties to regularly claim that any secularization of the Christmas holiday and season — or any removal of Christmas iconography from the public buildings that are owned by all of the people, Christian and non-Christian alike — would constitute a "War on Christmas."

2. The notion that there is a "War on Christmas" can be traced back to the anti-Semitic writings of Henry Ford.

While best known for his role as a pioneering automotive manufacturer, Ford was also a notorious anti-Semite, one who spent the last few decades of his life promoting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and developing a relationship with Adolf Hitler. Ford blamed Jews for many things — from Communism and treason to immoral movies and corruption in baseball — and, not surprisingly, pushed the idea that Jews were trying to destroy Christmas.

In his infamous book "The International Jew," which was compiled from anti-Semitic articles he composed in the early 1920s, Ford wrote that "not only do the Jews disagree with Christian teaching — which is their perfect right, and no one dare question it — but they seek to interfere with it. It is not religious tolerance in the midst of religious difference, but religious attack that they preach and practice. The whole record of Jewish opposition to Christmas, Easter and certain patriotic songs shows that."

He also wrote a passage that, if one swapped the words "broad-mindedness" with "political correctness," could very easily pass for an alt-right monologue today.

Ford wrote, "Americans are very sensitive about infringing on other people's rights. The Jews might have gone on for a long time had they not overplayed their hand. What the people are now coming to see is that it is American rights that have been interfered with, and the interference has been made with the assistance of their own broad-mindedness." This has resulted, he argued, in "the Jews' determination to wipe out of public life every sign of the predominant Christian character of the United States," which he described as "the only active form of religious intolerance in the country today."

Ford later claimed that "it is time to limit our 'broad-mindedness' until it will fit within the limits of the Constitution and the traditions which made America what it is — the desired haven, even in preference to Palestine, of all the Jews and every other race." He added that, according to Jews, "the 'full constitutional rights' of Jews demands that we effect 'the complete secularization of the public institutions of the country.'"

Notice that Ford did not mention how Jefferson himself believed in the importance of separating church and state, so that all religious groups could feel welcome. Insisting on Jeffersonian ideals was, in Ford's mind, a plot by sinister non-Christians to eliminate Christianity from the public sphere — one abetted by too much "broad-mindedness" among Christians toward the most conspicuous non-Christian religious group in the country.

3. The modern "War on Christmas" began with Bill O'Reilly in 2004.

Like absolutely nothing good ever, the modern War on Christmas began with Bill O'Reilly. In a segment aired in 2004, the Fox News host argued that "all over the country, Christmas is taking flak. In Denver this past weekend, no religious floats were permitted in the holiday parade there. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled the holiday tree and no Christian Christmas symbols are allowed in the public schools. Federated Department Stores, [that's] Macy's, have done away with the Christmas greeting, 'Merry Christmas.'"

O'Reilly tried to cover his posterior by claiming that "the real reason it's happening has little to do with Christmas and everything to do with organized religion," but he proceeded to then target a number of policy goals at the time unpopular with Christian conservatives, including same-sex marriage, abortion access, the right-to-die movement, drug legalization and "income redistribution through taxation," which he argued liberals hoped to pass in order to create "a brave new progressive world."

Recognizing O'Reilly's conflation of policy with a supposed War on Christmas is absolutely crucial to understanding the conservative agenda here. There are millions of people who celebrate Christmas and are pro-choice, pro-same-sex marriage and pro-drug decriminalization and want economic policies that help the poor instead of the rich (that last policy, by the way, strikes me as particularly Christian). Yet O'Reilly and others on Fox News want — no, need — their viewers to believe that these things are in the same vein as being anti-Christmas because, in so doing, they delegitimize them. It is one thing to say that a particular policy position is wrong; by equating such a position with hating Santa Claus, Christmas trees, expensive gifts, egg nog and all of the accoutrements of America's most beloved holiday, however, they make those positions seem evil and un-American.

This is not an accident. It is the entire point of what they do.

4. It has gotten worse since 2004.

As Salon’s Chauncey DeVega wrote last year, “There is another dimension to the ‘War on Christmas’ and the broader right-wing obsession with the culture wars. Both are examples of white identity politics and a deep desire (and effort) to maintain the cultural and political power of white right-wing Christians over all other groups. In many ways, the ‘War on Christmas’ is actually a proxy war for white supremacy.”

Of course, the people who believe this will rarely actually admit that they are advocating for white supremacy. Instead they aim to convince others — and themselves — that they are actually victims. It allows them to cast themselves in the David role and their enemies as Goliaths, even though the vast majority of powerful political, cultural and social institutions in the Western world are controlled by people who are at least nominally Christian. It's why a 2016 survey from the Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings found that almost half of Americans say persecution of Christians in America is as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans or other minorities. Earlier this year, a Pew Research Center survey found that 30 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaners said there is discrimination against evangelical Christians, almost as many as thought there was discrimination against Muslims (34 percent) and more than those who thought there was discrimination against Jews (20 percent). By contrast, 75 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaners thought Muslims face discrimination in America, compared to 28 percent who say that happens to Jews and 8 percent who say that happens to evangelical Christians.

Yet what is the nature of this supposed persecution? A speech in May by Vice President Mike Pence to 8,000 graduating students from Liberty University, in which he said the following, gives us a clue: "You’re going to be asked not just to tolerate things that violate your faith, you’re going to be asked to endorse them. Throughout most of American history, it’s been pretty easy to call yourself Christian, but things are different now."

Last year when I interviewed the vice president's daughter about her book promoting her father, Charlotte Pence refused to directly answer my question of whether she believes Jews who refuse to convert to Christianity when the messiah returns will be sent to hell. In a way was all the answer I needed. To Christian conservatives, you are simply not a full human being with a soul worthy of salvation unless you follow their religious beliefs.

This brings us to my fifth point, and by far the most important.

5. Christians are not persecuted simply because they are told to stop persecuting or being prejudiced toward others.

Take the Pences: They are opposed to LGBT rights and, because they are part of America's largest and most influential religious group (Christians), have been able to use their political power to discriminate against LGBT individuals in a number of ways. As a congressman, governor and vice president, Pence has opposed same-sex marriage, tried to make it easier for businesses to discriminate against members of the LGBT community and supported keeping transgender people out of the military. In general, one of the signatures of Pence's career has been the attempt to create a society in which LGBT people are treated differently and worse than everyone else.

The same is not true in reverse: The LGBT community has not advocated that Christians like Pence be treated differently and worse than the rest of society. The only "right" that they don't respect is that of being able to discriminate against them.

It brings to mind a famous quote from President Abraham Lincoln's 1864 campaign address at a Baltimore Sanitary Fair: "The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty." While Lincoln was referring to the contrasting attitudes of slaves and slaveholders, the same principle can be applied to any group that has the power to persecute and then sees other people challenging it. In their minds, not being able to wrong others like they used to be able to do is somehow itself a terrible wrong. Whether they apply that principle to women who wish to use contraception, non-Christians who don't want to be taught Christianity in public schools or any other group, they cry foul not because they have been persecuted, but because they cannot persecute others without criticism.

The reality, whether purveyors of the War on Christmas myth want to admit it or not, is that they are trafficking in lies. There is no organized movement in this country that is stopping Christmas from being celebrated by anyone who wishes to do so, as long as it is not being paid for by taxpayer money and therefore in violation of our Jeffersonian ideals. (And even then, many governments celebrate Christmas on taxpayer-owned lands despite Jefferson's determination for the government to remain secular.) There is no organized movement in this country that wishes to make evangelical Christians, or any other group of Christians, into second-class citizens. There is no War on Christmas and there is no systemic persecution of Christians.

There are simply people who point out that conservative Christians go around persecuting everyone else. And every time they claim there is a War on Christmas, they prove us right.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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