On Monday I received an email from Nancy French asking me if I would be interested in reviewing Sarah Palin’s new book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. For those of you who don’t know Nancy French, simply receiving an email from her was a bit flattering. Mrs. French is the editor of the Faith and Family Channel here on Patheos and a best-selling author. She’s also the co-author of Good Tidings. I assume that Sarah Palin needs no introduction after running for Vice-President of the United States and serving as Governor of Alaska for a time.
When this strange opportunity first presented itself, I took to Facebook to share the news with my friends. There was a real sense of excitement from people. “Jason’s going to review Sarah Palin’s book and carve her up!” I didn’t begin reading the book with that objective in mind, but there is some truth to it. I certainly didn’t think Mrs. Palin and I would find ourselves in agreement on much, and I was right; I even got angry a few times while reading Good Tidings (I guess all the tidings aren’t “good” depending on one’s perspective).
While Palin and I are never going to agree on very much, I do have this sort of weird respect for her. If one bothers to research her approach to governance before her Vice-Presidential run, they’ll find a very different Sarah Palin from the one we’ve seen the last eight years. In addition, there’s a down-home folksiness to Palin that I sort of like in small doses (it’s almost always ruined by her tendency to say ridiculous things, but I like it for a moment or two). After Palin’s failed bid for Vice-President, I had a secret hope that she might turn into the “Conservative Oprah,” tone down her politics, and become the talk show host for women who love chili made out of moose meat. Sadly, Palin went the Tea Party route, where she became Saint Sarah to those on the fringe-right and “the fringe” to the rest of America.
Some of the Palin I like is in Good Tidings. There are charming stories of Christmases past full of family and genuine warmth. Some of the traditions in her household had me wishing that my family had thought of them. I bet Mrs. Palin’s living room looks (and even feels) a lot like mine does this time of year: Christmas Trees, twinkling lights, maybe the scent of bayberry from a Yankee Candle, mugs of hot chocolate near the fireplace — those are the kind of things I can respect and understand. Sadly the other two-thirds of Good Tidings and Great Joy reads like an uninformed political and historical rant.
I don’t have a problem with people celebrating the birth of Jesus. I legitimately believe that Christianity often makes some people better, and the imagery of the Nativity is lovely (though some of it was undoubtedly stolen from pagan myth). What I don’t like to read is that Jesus is the sole reason for the season and that “Heart of Christmas” is the birth narrative of Jesus. From a historical stand-point, I just don’t think it adds up. Christmas has always been a combination of several traditions. It evolved from Midwinter Solstice Rituals (which to her credit, the former Governor does admit at one point), Germanic and Norse pagan traditions, secular impulses, and of course good old capitalism.
After a quick one and a half page history of Christmas Governor Palin writes:
” . . So fast forward a few years and jump over to a different continent. ‘Christmas’ became an American federal holiday in 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill the House and Senate had already overwhelmingly passed. In this country, our federal holiday does not honor the agricultural gods of Rome or the pagan rituals of the winter solstice. Here in America, Christmas marks Christ’s birth, a moment of unquestioned historical, cultural, and religious significance. (This is revealed in the actual name of the holiday: Christmas.)”
There are several problems here, and the biggest is a complete lack of context detailing why Christmas became a national holiday in 1870. As a holiday, Christmas slowly grew in importance throughout the 19th Century, and its growth had nothing to do with Jesus. Christmas exploded in popularity due to secular influences. One of those influences was literary. The popularity of both Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and Clement Moore’s A Visit From St. Nicholas played a large role in spreading the holiday, but neither work makes a mention of Jesus’s birthday. The impulse to “sell stuff” also played a huge role in creating our Modern Christmas. If Christmas had always been this hugely important thing about Jesus, wouldn’t it have been a holiday long before 1870? Don’t tell me that my boozy great-great-great-great-uncle was the first Christian with the willpower to proclaim Christmas a national holiday.
Instead of making her version of Christmas a celebration that all families can enjoy, she chooses to marginalize gay marriage:
“They even try to change the definition of marriage, to elevate adult desires over the societal cornerstone that’s built the family since the beginning of time.”
I’m not sure when Palin’s concept of time began, but was it back when her beloved Biblical patriarchs were marrying multiple women? How about when twelve-year-old girls were getting married? There were also gay marriages in antiquity, but admitting to that wouldn’t quite fit the narrative. Marriage has always been a continually evolving institution; proclamations that it’s changeless are dishonest and not backed by history.
Palin doesn’t just marginalize gay and lesbian couples in her book, she basically marginalizes anyone who disagrees with her. There’s no middle ground in Good Tidings, liberals are bad and conservatives good. Consider this passage:
” . . .This is frequently where liberals and conservatives part ways . . . . Liberals tend to believe people are good, and institutions like the church or the traditional family are actually oppressive . . . By contrast, conservatives tend to believe that people aren’t that great to start with. And without faith and family to guide us and reinforce values that often go against our selfish desires, we’ll drift towards our own destruction.”
I have never met a liberal who argued that families are “oppressive.” Some of the people I know most dedicated to family are politically liberal. There’s also the innuendo that liberals can’t be Christian. All liberals believe that “the church” is oppressive? Tell that to the folks who write in the Progressive Christian channel here at Patheos, or my friend Christopher Henrichsen who writes Approaching Justice over on Patheos Mormon. Maybe Palin doesn’t have any liberal friends and is relying on stereotypes from Fox News? If that’s the case, I’d be happy to buy her lunch next time she’s in the Bay Area in an effort to prove that we liberals (and Pagans) are people too!
Having lunch with Mrs. Palin would require her to visit California, a place she seems to hold a special contempt for. She seems to view it as a land of only godless liberals who take a special sort of delight in the misery of others:
“A few years back I read a startling story about a suicidal person about to jump from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, causing a traffic jam as the first responders tried to talk him down. While this was going on, some angry commuters started shouting ‘Jump! Jump!’ This happened in arguably the most liberal city in America-the birthplace of the ‘Summer of Love,’ for crying out loud. Some of those ‘loving citizens’-who may think of Christians as hate filled bigots-cared more about the convenience of their commute than a desperate man’s life.”
The implication here of course is that “godless liberals” were the ones yelling “Jump! jump!” even though there’s nothing to indicate that was the case. San Francisco is a diverse area, and there are a lot of Christians here. It might be hard to believe but we have Christian Churches in the Bay Area along with a large Catholic presence too. There are horrible Christians, Pagans, atheists, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Every faith group is capable of doing dumb things, no one group any more or any less.
Palin’s tendency to paint with broad strokes allows no room for understanding. She just can’t comprehend why a plastic nativity scene on public property might upset somebody. There’s no walking in someone else’s shoes in Palin’s world, she demands that we only walk in hers. What does it say to a Jewish person when the County Courthouse has a nativity scene on its front steps? As a Pagan, do I want my government declaring which religious choices are valid and which are not?
Palin seems to lack a firm grasp on the First Amendment of the Constitution. It begins with the words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Putting one person’s god on public property while ignoring someone else’s feels like an establishment of religion. No one is going to stop churches or individuals from putting up nativity scenes on their own property. How insecure must one be in their faith to want government (which many conservatives hate) to endorse that faith? Palin always paints herself as an opponent of government, yet she wants Jesus to sit in the middle of it. It boggles the mind.
The “if you aren’t with us you are against us” attitude of Good Tidings takes away from the few instances when I might have been sympathetic to some of Palin’s arguments. Palin brings up the battle in Santa Monica CA over religious displays in a public park, sneering not only at the over-zealous (and sometimes offensive) atheists in that battle, but against anyone wishing for inclusivity during the Holidays. I’m not a big fan of atheists making fun of religion either, but if my religion is going to belittled or disrespected during the argument, it’s gonna be hard for us to be allies.
In another section of the book Palin makes the assertion that “there’s a relationship between Christianity and a healthy civilization” that almost resulted in me spitting coffee all over myself. Was civilization “healthy” when the majority of Europeans worked as serfs? How about Christian Europe before the Renaissance when science and reason were dirty words? (Come to think of it, we seem to be headed back to that era.) How about when people were being burnt at the stake for witchcraft in the name of Christ? Slavery was healthy? All of that happened in an era when nearly everyone in Europe was a Christian. I’m not going to blame all of those problems on Christianity, but if those are healthy societies I’d like to see the sick ones!
Palin’s scorn for atheists almost feels like blood-boiling rage on occasion, and the idea that a person might do good just for the sake of doing good seems alien to her. At one point she states that “”The logical result of atheism is severe moral decay,” an assertion not supported by anything I’ve ever read or come across. I’m confused as to what she thinks these atheists are going to do to society.
Confusion and bewilderment plagued me throughout Good Tidings, especially during the bits about “The War on Christmas.” There is no war on Christmas, and the only wars on Christmas have generally involved Christians going after Christians. Christmas is bigger than ever, it’s practically inescapable, and if someone says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” they aren’t secretly honoring Satan under their breath. Christmas is one of the “Holidays” being referred to, I don’t think anyone believes it’s being left out. Perhaps the Palin family doesn’t celebrate the New Year?
When arguing her case that there’s a war on Christmas and Christianity, Palin conveniently leaves out information that is at odds with her narrative. When writing about the “cross” found in the wreckage of the World Trade Center, Palin mentions a court case filed to keep the cross away from Ground Zero and the National September 11th Memorial and Museum. What she doesn’t mention is that the cross is now housed in that museum and the group seeking its exclusion, the American Atheists, don’t really speak for all atheists.
In a later passage Palin writes about a Community College group being forced to change the name of its trees for sale from “Christmas Trees” to “Holiday Trees.” It doesn’t matter to Palin that the change lasted for about 48 hours before the school admitted to a mistake. Of course Palin has to point out the exclusion of Christmas from our public schools, but a quick Google search shows that High School Winter Concerts still sing odes to Jesus at their performances. (Really, it’s called Google, there are public schools singing Handel’s Messiah, it’s OK, really.) It’s all just red-meat to get a certain segment of America angry and riled up.
I’ve always liked to believe that The Holidays are a time to celebrate our commonalities instead of our differences. This is where Mrs. Palin and I disagree most on the subject of Christmas. For her it can only be a celebration about the birth of Jesus, and anything else diminishes the holiday. What Palin fails to understand is that the “reason for the season” varies from person to person. If Christmas is just about Jesus for you, that’s fine, and I think that’s beautiful. But I don’t understand why anyone needs what’s in their hearts to be affirmed by Target or Wal-Mart. Aren’t those the last places a Christian wants to see Jesus? Did I miss something in the Beatitudes about Jesus endorsing cheap plastic junk from China? It seems as if Palin wants society to fill some sort of role as religious teacher. If she truly cared about the family and the home, wouldn’t she want those institutions to teach those values?
At one point Palin and I almost agree on things, and she even seems to recognize Paganism as a real thing (though in her own unique way):
” …If so inclined, people have the right to sit in a circle in the forest and hum songs of gratitude to Mother Earth while taking turns hugging bark on December 25. But it doesn’t change the underlying reason for the federal holiday.”
I’m glad she’s cool with me sitting under a redwood humming prayers to the Goddess, but why can’t that be a reason for the federal holiday? Certainly our government has never expected me to praise Jesus on that day or visit my local church. Why does the holiday only get to exist on her terms? I once wrote that “Christmas is not yours or mine, it just is.” I’m willing to accept your version of Christmas, but you have to be equally willing to accept mine.
One of the biggest problems in American politics today is that the two competing sides no longer listen to each other. There’s no middle ground, only an individual interpretation of right and wrong. Instead of yelling in the public square that someone doesn’t love baby plastic Jesus, find out why such a display might bother them. Walk in their shoes, and then walk into your house and put Jesus where he really belongs: in your home and in your heart. My gods don’t live in the public square, and yet I feel them everywhere. This Christmas, I hope your gods share that feeling with you.
Happy Holidays, Blessed Solstice, and Merry Christmas.
Victorian Christmas Card-Notice the lack of Jesus.
Sarah Palin’s new book.
Godless Victorians! Don’t they know how to celebrate Christmas?
Plastic Holy Family, nothing says Jesus like petroleum products.
My autographed copy of Palin’s book. (Yes I now have her autograph.)
Vatican Christmas Tree stolen from Wikipedia, it’s pretty.
Me raising the horns at the Nativity. (It’s just one of my favorite pictures ever.)