Standing Up to the Religious Right’s “Christmas Police”

Source: Humanist Magazine

Author: Rob Boston

“For some reason the Jehovah’s Witnesses like to work my neighborhood. It’s not uncommon for me to come home at night and see a copy of the Watchtower or Awake! crammed under the doormat.

A recent copy of Awake! contained several articles attacking Halloween, a holiday the Witnesses really don’t seem to like. They’re not big fans of Christmas either. In fact, I don’t know if there’s any holiday they enjoy. Devout Witnesses aren’t even supposed to celebrate their own birthdays.

The Witnesses are wasting their time with me. Putting aside their idiosyncratic theology, I could never be part of a religion that frowned so much on fun and celebration.

But their recent literature drop did me one favor: it caused me to stop and think about holidays, specifically how Americans celebrate them now and might do so in the future—and why some people are so threatened by those changes.

This can be a dicey topic for humanists and advocates of church-state separation. Christmas has undeniable Christian connections, but it also has significant secular elements—think snowmen, candy canes, and fruitcake—not to mention Pagan roots. What to do about it? Is it permissible for government to get involved in Christmas at all?

For years now, the Fox News Channel and other right-wing media have been carping about a so-called “war on Christmas.” The implication is that some nefarious force—usually described as a cabal of radical nonbelievers—is seeking to drive the holiday from public life.

The reality, of course, is more nuanced. Christmas is pretty ubiquitous. Trees, Santa figures, elves, tinsel, and so on often start appearing in stores not long after the leftover Halloween candy is put on deep discount.

Some Americans (Christians among them) object to the emphasis on commercialization and money. Others say they don’t celebrate the holiday at all and are weary of the “Christmas creep” that occurs every year.

Then there is a third category, one that a lot of humanists I have talked to over the years fall into: people who celebrate Christmas, but not in a manner approved of by fundamentalist Christians.

Many humanists grew up celebrating Christmas because they were raised in some variant of Christianity. As adults, they see no reason to let it go, so they retain the features they like (family visits, gift giving, parties, etc.) and discard the rest (midnight church services, hymns, prayers, and nativity scenes).

It’s this picking and choosing that so infuriates the religious right. They get so worked up by it that every fall they morph into a force that I call the “Christmas Police.” Religious right groups are certain there’s only one way to celebrate Christmas—theirs—and they don’t want to hear about people who dare to cherry pick. We’re doing it wrong!

Religious right groups take this matter very seriously. Every year, the American Family Association actually enlists people to pore over holiday sales circulars and catalogs produced by retailers and tally up how many times the word “Christmas” is used as opposed to more generic terms like “holiday” or “season.”

From this data, the AFA produces a “Naughty & Nice” list so upstanding Christians will know where to shop. AFA supporters are also instructed to harass any hapless store clerk who dares utter “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” at the checkout.

It all sounds just a tad obsessive. And furthermore it’s silly. Giant box retailers, after all, are hardly the place to go for a spiritual Christmas experience. Who cares what words they’re using? Most of us just want to know what the prices are like.

Humanists, of course, know their history and understand that Christmas was originally a celebration from the classical Pagan era that was given a quick Christian varnish during the time of Constantine the Great. Although we’re not classical Pagans any more than we are Christians, humanists recognize that a winter celebration—when it’s dark and cold in half of the world—fills some human need. If nothing else, it breaks up the monotony and gets people out of the house.

Whether the Christmas Police like it or not, Christmas is now a holiday with significant secular aspects. Government can acknowledge these, but it’s supposed to leave promotion of the religious side where it belongs—with the churches.

That’s never enough for the Christmas Police. Thus, to them, a nativity scene, which would look just right nestled in some greenery in front of a church, must instead be transplanted to the sterile, marble steps of city hall.

At that point, it’s no longer about celebration. By insisting that the government display the crèche or acknowledge other religious activities, the religious right changes the debate in a profound way. The state is being asked to endorse and promote a specific interpretation of Christmas, and it just happens to be the one favored by conservative Christians. That’s a constitutional no-no.

To the Christmas Police, the government’s refusal to embrace its interpretation of Christmas amounts to a “war” on the holiday. Never mind that people are still free to attend services at the church of their choice, decorate their living space as they see fit, pray as much as they like, and so on.

Deep inside themselves, religious right leaders know that Americans aren’t going to stop celebrating Christmas and that there is no “war.” (Have you been to the mall lately?) Rather, what’s really bothering them is that people are celebrating the holiday in a manner that the religious right does not approve of. And the possibility exists that even more people may do this, especially if fundamentalism begins to lose its grip on the nation and the “nones” keep growing in number. That’s what’s keeping the Christmas Police awake at night.

Humanists are a special threat because so many of us are old hands at celebrating Christmas in a non-religious way. That “have-it-your-way” holiday style is our signature, and it really torques off the religious right.

Humanists are leading the way—perhaps brandishing a “Festivus Pole”—and more and more Americans are taking notice and saying, “You mean I can have all the fun with none of the dogma? Sign me up!” It’s a real threat as far as the Christmas Police are concerned. We’ve spiked the wassail bowl with the forbidden fruit of doubt; one delicious sip and there’s no turning back.

The right to celebrate Christmas in a way that is meaningful for you (or not celebrate it at all) is an extension of the right of conscience as codified in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Just as you can read the Bible as a religious tome or as a book of ancient stories and myth, you can infuse Christmas with as much or as little religious content as your conscience dictates.

At the end of the day, that’s what’s really bothering the Christmas Police. It’s not that there’s a war on Christmas, it’s that some people decline to celebrate it as a 24/7 Jesus-a-thon. To them I say, “Get over it.” And to the American Family Association I’d like to add a hearty, “Happy Holidays!”


Rob Boston is director of communications at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and a board member of the American Humanist Association

– See more at: http://thehumanist.org/november-december-2013/holiday-hassles/#sthash.OMNKWVK2.dpuf

Emphasis Mine

See: http://thehumanist.org/november-december-2013/holiday-hassles/

 

How Christian Fundamentalism Feeds the Toxic Partisanship of US Politics

From: AlterNet

By: Katherine Stewart

“Mix It Up at Lunch Day is one of those programs that just seems like a nice thing to do.

The idea is that on one day of the school year, kids are invited to have lunch with the kind of kids they don’t usually hang out with: the jocks mix with the nerds, lunch tables are racially integrated, et cetera. Sponsored by the Southern Poverty Law Center as part of their Teaching Tolerance [3] division, it arose out of a broad effort to tackle the problems of bullying in the schools [4] and bigotry in society – and it appears to have been effective in breaking down stereotypes and reducing prejudice. Over 2,000 schools nationwide now participate in the program, which is set to take place this year on 30 October.

You can argue about how permanent its effects are, or whether other approaches might be better, but the idea of making new friends in the lunchroom seems utterly benign. Right?

Wrong, as it turns out – at least, according to the American Family Association, a radical rightwing evangelical policy group. Mix It Up at Lunch Day is, in fact, part of “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in public schools,” according to the AFA literature [5]. The program “is an entry-level ‘diversity’ program designed specifically by SPCL (sic) to establish the acceptance of homosexuality into public schools, including elementary and junior high schools,” warns the AFA website. “See if your child’s school is on the list.”

The AFA has urged parents to keep their kids home on 30 October, and claims that at least 200 schools have responded to its charge by canceling the program.

There’s a backstory here. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which has fought for civil rights causes since its founding in 1971, conceived and promoted Mix It Up at Lunch as part of their Teaching Tolerance program. The SPLC also, as it happens, named the AFA, along with a dozen other “pro-family” groups, as a “hate group” in 2010, citing, among other factors, AFA’s expressed views on same-sex relationships. The “homosexual agenda” is not the only factor in the SPLC’s decision to include AFA on the list. AFA’s director of issues analysis, Bryan Fischer [6], has appeared to suggest that what is biblically deemed “sexual immorality” merits punishment by death [7]. He evidently hates Muslims, too, having recently opined that “allowing a mosque to be built in town is fundamentally no different than granting a building permit to a KKK cultural center.”

So, now it’s payback time. The AFA’s jihad against Mix It Up at Lunch Day [8] is its way of saying “I’m rubber, you’re glue.” It has come up with its own list of boycotts and hate groups, and sure enough the SPLC, on account of its “incendiary language,” is on that list.

Funny word games aside, the SPLC is right. It is, by now, well known that the AFA and the kind of interests they represent spread conspiratorial falsehoods about the LGBT community, placing blame for a wide variety of social ills on a “gay agenda.” They also seem to support a certain type of bullying and bigotry in public schools – the faith-based kind – and believe there should be more of it.

One example comes from an AFA cultural ally: Gateways to Better Education, formed in 1991 by Focus on the Family in tandem with a rightwing Christian legal advocacy group that calls itself the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Gateways publishes a “Guide for Commemorating Religious Freedom at School.” But the freedom Gateways and the ADF have in mind applies only to those who share their religion [9].

“Religious Freedom Day is not ‘celebrate-our-diversity-day,'” members are reminded [10]. Gateways advocates a “Biblical approach to tolerance”, which apparently consists of intolerant attitudes toward what the ADF and Gateways call “pro-homosexual education” [11] and “the gay activist agenda.” [12] Parents’ No 1 goal, they say, should be to “encourage your children to be bolder” in expressing their faith at school.

The far right [13]’s fixation on same-sex relationships is so ludicrous that it defines a sub-category of camp. But let’s take a step back for a moment. The big question, the one that keeps coming back in every one of these skirmishes in the culture wars, is: why is the loudest religion in American politics today so much about hate?

Consider Mix it Up at Lunch Day from the perspective of the almost limitless other conceptions of the Christian religion that are out there. You could, for example, construe it as an exercise in “loving thy neighbor.” You could quote the gospel of John that “God is love.” You could view it as part of the religious mission of charity. I have no doubt that there are countless Christian and non-Christian people in the US who would view Mix It Up Day in just this way.

So why does the form of religion that seeks to claim the term “Christian” in the political realm have to focus so relentlessly on a “gay conspiracy” – not to mention sexually active singles and the purely evil Muslims?

I don’t believe for a moment that this hysterical voice that screeches in America’s political sphere is the authentic voice of religion in America. Most religious Americans want to mix it up at lunch! They want to make friends across party lines, and they want to help people who are less fortunate. A survey by the Public Religious Research Institute, released on 24 October, reveals that 60% of Catholics believe the Church should place a greater emphasis on social justice issues and their obligation to the poor, even if that means focusing less on culture war issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, in response to the Ryan budget, the United States [14] Conference of Catholic Bishops joined other Christian leaders in insisting that a “circle of protection” [15] be drawn around “essential programs that serve poor and vulnerable people.”

So why is it that the so-called “values voters” are urged to vote against the politician who supports choice, not the politician who wants to shred that “circle of protection” for the poor and vulnerable? Why is it that when politicians want to demonstrate just how religiously righteous they are, they talk about banning same-sex marriage and making contraceptives hard to get, instead of showing what they have done to protect the weak?

There is an obvious answer, and it is, in a sense, staring you in the face every time you watch a political debate or read about the latest antics of Focus on the Family and the AFA. The kind of religion that succeeds in politics tends to focus on the divisive element of religion. If you want to use religion to advance a partisan political agenda, the main objective you use it for is to divide people between us and them, between the in-group and the out-group, the believers and the infidels.

The result is a reduction of religion to a small handful of wedge issues. According to the religious leaders and policy organizations urging Americans to vote with their “Biblical values,” to be Christian now means to support one or, at most, a small handful of policy positions. And it means voting for the Republican party.

This type of rhetoric is also championed by a segment of Jewish conservatives. Alarmed that Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008, they accused Democratic Jews of being “Jinos” – Jews In Name Only. “They eat bagels and lox; they watch ‘Schindler’s List,'” writes Town Hall columnist Ben Shapiro [16], “but they do not care about Israel” – at least, not in the way that Shapiro thinks we should.

When religion is thus reduced to a single policy decision and support for a political party, it becomes shrill and bigoted. This abuse of religion for political purposes has been tremendously damaging for American politics. But it is worth pointing out that it has been destructive of religion, too. According to another poll this month, this one by the Pew Research Center [17], record numbers of Americans are now reporting that they have no particular religious affiliation. Perhaps that is because, right now, the God of hate seems to be shouting louder than the God of love.

Emphasis Mine

see:http://www.alternet.org/print/how-christian-fundamentalism-feeds-toxic-partisanship-us-politics