The War on Diversity

Some Americans have been persuaded by interest groups that there has been a “war on Christmas” in recent decades. They cite the court decisions saying that a crèche cannot be displayed by itself in a public courthouse and that public schools cannot sing Christmas carols without including other faiths’ holiday music. This unfortunate terminology is a result of a willful ignorance about what has made America great.

It is crucial to get one issue off the table. We are only talking about government support for Christian observance. No one, including the courts, has or can remove Christmas from the public square, let alone the private sphere. Department stores are decorated to the hilt, Christmas shopping is such a cultural force that many do it who don’t even believe in Jesus, and homes and businesses are lit up across the country. You can tune in radio stations that play Christmas carols 24 hours a day, and watch a steady stream of Christmas offerings on television. The music industry pumps out one Christmas album after another, and there is no law or regulation that forbids you from saying to any and all you see, “Merry Christmas,” and no limitation on the number of cards, tweets, or emails you send with Christmas greetings. Rockefeller Center in New York sports a huge tree with an annual tree-lighting ceremony. There is simply no deficit of Christmas in the vast majority of our culture.

And accommodation by government continues to be strong. Public schools are closed not just for the day but typically for up to two weeks, the post office is closed, a tree is on the White House lawn, and police put in extra hours to help with traffic around busy churches.

Thus, the complaints about a “war” on Christmas are aimed at government support for Christian symbols and beliefs.

The phrase “war on Christmas” presumes that Christians are entitled to have the government support their holiday observance and religious worldview. The implicit demand is to have the local, state, and federal governments promote Christmas observance by hosting iconic religious symbols (like baby Jesus in a manger) and purveying indisputably Christian messages through music (like “Silent Night”) or public signs.

Given the prevalence of Christmas in the culture, why do people feel insulted by the judicial decisions holding that the courthouse can’t have a crèche, or the school choir can’t sing only Christian music at the public school annual holiday concert? I suppose it is because there was a time when no one challenged them. Culturally, we came to expect such displays, and it feels like we have a right, but also, emotionally, it is scary to have them removed from our universe. For a Christian, and perhaps other believers, they were a comfort. At base, many apparently feel that if the government can’t support our Christian celebration, then we are losing control and power over the most important values in the culture. But these responses lack historical perspective.

The interest groups that push the “war on Christmas” rhetoric are the same ones who have developed the claim to a “Christian country.” It is the same argument in a jingle -- the government must be aligned with Christianity itself, not just Christians, or it will betray its origins.

They have it backward.

We desperately need historical facts here. We started with a country of diversity among Christian sects, and believers did not identify with each other. Each denomination felt distinct, and in many cases, rival believers hated each other. The Puritans killed Quakers, hated Baptists, and expelled anyone who disagreed with their religious beliefs. The Quakers, who controlled Pennsylvania, passed laws that prohibited non-Quakers from taking public office. Catholics were distrusted. There was no shared religious agreement on values or human nature. Jews migrated to the United States over 350 years ago, so they were present as well. To say that most Americans were Christian is to assert an abstraction and not much else.

In fact, difference is where we started, along with a heaping dose of distrust and dislike across religious denominations. The “Christian country” folks have shellacked historical reality with romantic notions that falsify our actual history.

Knowing where we started, one must be amazed at what we have: peace among a wide array of Christian and non-Christian believers. We have achieved remarkable tolerance in the midst of radically more diversity than we had at the framing. How has the United States avoided the religious, sectarian wars that have plagued so much of the world?

The answer is that we have come to observe two crucial rules: the government may not tell you what to believe, and the government will not put its might behind any single religion. Both are grounded in the First Amendment, and when you put them together, they support the judicial decisions saying that courthouses and public schools are not the places for a single religious worldview.

12/8/2010 5:00:00 AM
  • God vs Gavel
  • Christmas
  • Holidays
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  • Marci Hamilton
    About Marci Hamilton
    Marci A. Hamilton is the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University and author of Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge, 2008) and God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge, 2005, 2007).