The War on Christmas and the Kingdom of Christ

It’s that time of year again—the time when we light advent candles, celebrate our savior’s birth, and complain about how people don’t say “Merry Christmas” anymore. Every year, I hear Christians bemoaning the secularization of our country evidenced in hearing “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” This year the “war” even made it into one of Rick Perry’s campaign advertisements where the republican candidate claimed that “our children can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Since I don’t personally know anyone whose children have been forced to celebrate Christmas in secrecy, I have to wonder if American Christians have fundamentally misunderstood the Kingdom of Christ in their appropriation of their most treasured religious holiday.

Each year the Liberty Counsel publishes a “Naughty and Nice list.” The list reports on retailers that acknowledge Christmas and those that do not. “Naughty” companies include, American Eagle, Old Navy and Staples while Walmart, Target, and JC Penny are made the Christmas-loving “nice” list. The Liberty Counsel, however, is not just letting us know what companies celebrate Christmas but also calling upon Christians to boycott those that do not.  For instance, the LC describes The Gap like this:

Naughty for six years over flagrant disregard for “Christmas.” Web site: “the GIVE JOY Shopping Event,” “GIFT me” and “Shop Perfect Holiday Presents” on home page. Search revealed only two secular items listed under “Christmas.” Printed ads in popular magazines “I Want Candy.” Company purged “Christmas” in stores or other advertisements. Contact Gap to politely explain why your Christmas dollars are spent at competitors who embrace “Christmas.”

The persistence of things like the LC’s “Naughty and Nice List” tells us something about the state of evangelicalism in America. If we really think that pressuring businesses into using proper terminology in their advertisements is going to accomplish anything for the kingdom of Christ we are being terribly naive.

In America, we are blessed with religious liberty—a freedom that many people across the globe do not enjoy. Yet it seems we are constantly looking for ways that our religious liberty is being denied. Perhaps the lack of persecution in America causes us to feel as if something is lacking in our religious practice. As a result, many Christians manufacture persecution and spread rumors that the white house was going to ban Christmas trees and rename them “Holiday Trees”. Many claim our religious freedoms are being denied when private companies exercise their free speech by refusing to promote Christian products.

If we really believe in the principle of religious liberty, we must believe that it applies to all people, including those who do not celebrate Christmas. Deliberately replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” may be motivated by a refusal to celebrate the Christian aspects of Christmas, but should we be offended by non-christians refusing to acknowledge our savior or businesses attempting to sell products in neutral, inoffensive ways? One of the great blessings of being an American is our constitutional right to refrain from celebrating all kinds of things. Our non-christian neighbors have the right to “take Christ out of Christmas” if they so choose.

Most Americans don’t care how you greet them at the mall and very few businesses are deliberately removing “Christmas” from their holiday marketing. Most businesses understand that Jesus sells. Evangelical groups like the Liberty Counsel and the American Family Foundation have been surprisingly successful in getting businesses to “put Christ back” in their holiday advertisements. This is troubling for two reasons.

First, when we express personal offense over the refusals of others to celebrate Christmas we misunderstand Christ’s kingdom and how He calls us to advance it. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and his baptism is not with water but with the “Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). To participate in His kingdom, you “must be born again” (John 3:5). Jesus’ most direct command on our part in advancing this kingdom is to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them everything that [Jesus] has commanded.” (Matt. 28:19-20). These spiritual realities of Christ’s kingdom illustrate the folly of trying to shame anyone into it. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) not to chide them for refusing to celebrate his holidays.

Secondly, I fear that evangelical groups like the AFA and the LC don’t realize what they are asking for when they demand that businesses include religious terminology in their advertisements. If we want Christmas to retain its spiritual significance in our hearts, surely we want to avoid conflating its commercial aspects with its religious ones. If there is any force that has succeeded in “taking Christ out of Christmas,” it’s American consumerism. The fact that some evangelicals want companies to recognize our holiday when they sell us their products is at best naive and at worst hypocritical.

We need to admit that in fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” we have embraced consumerism and neglected to love our neighbor. If we have any hope of infusing the holidays with spiritual significance, we must stop shaming those who don’t celebrate Christmas and start serving them instead.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.

About Drew Dixon

Drew is an editor at Christ and Pop Culture and editor-in-chief of Gamechurch.com. He is also a pastor, soccer coach, and writer. Drew also regularly writes for Think Christian, Bit Creature, and Paste Magazine. He has also written for Relevant Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @drewdixon82

  • Rich Guy

    1) Great image

    2) Great article

    3) I dunno about you, but this year because of the War on Christmas we have the windows in our living room blacked out so that no one will see our Christmas tree, and are having to furtively sneak down back roads to get to our church to celebrate the incarnation.

    On the other hand the one thing that actually does bother me about this stuff is the thought that whether we push to have businesses keep using the word Christmas, or we accept the removal as a positive, that we are somehow contributing to and forwarding the belief that religion “is a private matter” and should either be celebrated generically (and commercially) or not celebrated in public at all.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Thanks Rich!

    I agree the illustration is fantastic. And I agree with you on your latter point.

    I think its ironic that this article went up on the same day that we learn of Kim Jong Il’s death in a country where there is an actual war on Christmas and Christianity.

  • Carol

    @ Rich Guy – agree, great image and great article from Drew.

    I think this whole Christmas fight we’re fighting is distilling pretty much all the culture war issues into one – that Christians are upset that we don’t always get everyone to agree with us on the issues we think are important. But maybe we should remember that we live in a broken world that worships idols, be they self image or consumerism/materialism. I think it’s less important for Christians to be stressed out about which store is saying Merry Christmas or not. In fact, I want to say that it doesn’t matter because the local churches are where Christ should be preached. And Christians lives are where Christ should be trumpeted & magnified. If we’re relying on retail stores or politicians or TV pundits or Hollywood to proclaim Christ then I think we’ve missed the point of what Jesus told us to do when He said to go out and make disciples in His name.

    I have an uncle who is a Christian but he routinely sends out mass forward emails which are always either slanderous, inaccurate, misleading and/or full of poisonous lies and rage. He sends it to the whole family and many friends along with self righteous and sarcastic comments, usually out of context. I know of several family members on the mailing list who are agnostic, atheist, Muslim or disinterested Christians. He slanders those he doesn’t agree with and with the same breath proclaims Christ’s victory in his life. So whether or not my uncle says Merry Christmas this time of year doesn’t even register with the unbelievers in our family because what they remember is his rank hypocrisy all year round. Which in turns makes evangelising to them even tougher.

  • Greg P

    Let us not forget, corporations like the Gap Inc. are legally persons, and entitled to the same religious freedom and free speech as any other neighbor.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    @Carol

    ” If we’re relying on retail stores or politicians or TV pundits or Hollywood to proclaim Christ then I think we’ve missed the point of what Jesus told us to do when He said to go out and make disciples in His name.”

    Amen!

    Also, I get similar emails from some family members and I would die before I would forward any of them on ;)

  • Amy Webb

    Drew, I thought this was a great article. We aren’t living in a theocracy here and the religious freedom we extend to others will be extended back to us. When you insist that secular businesses “be Christian” you are shooting yourself in the foot. How is the Christian business owner going to respond if there’s a mass uprising insisting that his advertising embrace Kwanza or Hannakuh?

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    Thanks Amy!

    And yes I agree. If you really stop to think about it, this whole War on Christmas thing is pretty ridiculous because it’s like we know that these businesses are simply exercising their rights to advertise whatever way they want to but we want to bully them into saying things that vaguely point to Jesus.

    That is so bizarre. Particularly given how Christmas in America has morphed into a hodgepodge of commercialism and religion. We recorded a podcast the other day and one of our editors said he would rather stores didn’t appeal to the religious aspects of Christmas because to him it cheapens the spiritual aspects of the holiday when combined with its commercial ones. He would rather keep those two things separate in order to focus on Christ. I think he might have a point ;)

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.blogspot.com LCK

    Drew,

    Great post! I, too, am concerned that well-meaning Christians are aggressively trying to make sure that Jesus becomes as much of a Christmas huckster as Santa. While turning Jesus into a salesman may make sense within a purely capitalist paradigm, Christians aren’t (or at least, shouldn’t be) concerned primarily about what’s going on in the marketplace.

    I suspect (and hope) that this is a uniquely American phenomenon. We’ve been raised to believe that success is all about sales numbers and productivity, so it’s not unexpected when that worldview bleeds into our faith as well. Thanks again for a great post.

  • http://electexiles.wordpress.com/ Drew Dixon

    LCK,

    Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it. I think it is a mostly American or at least Western phenomenon and that is probably a good thing. But yeah, I definitely think this is symptomatic of lack of maturity in segments of American evangelicalism.


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