Merry C-Word

Editorial

Los Angeles Times

December 21, 2004

We like to think we're pretty gutsy on this page. We say what we think, we don't mince words, and darn the consequences. But saying some things apparently takes special courage. There is a campaign going on this holiday season, among lovers of freedom on the right, to defeat the enormously powerful forces that are trying to prevent us from saying Merry … Merry … uh, Merry … well, you know. It's an "anti-Christmas jihad," Fox News' Bill O'Reilly says.

Who are these powerful forces? The liberal media, of course. And then, as William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, explained on MSNBC, there are the "secular Jews" who "control Hollywood" and "hate Christianity." These secular Jews of his imagination are a strange breed. They allow characters like Donohue to make poisonous accusations against them on the very media they control, but will stop at nothing to prevent ordinary Christians from saying "Merry Christmas" (there, we said it!) at the mall.

Despite its official-sounding name, the Catholic League has no connection with the Catholic Church. Donohue is a reliable sound-bite artist for TV bookers who need a Catholic with a hair-trigger sense of grievance. But he is no more a representative of American Catholics than other professional paranoids who go around objecting to "Merry Christmas" are representative of American Jews or Muslims.

The American culture of victimization needs and nurtures people and controversies like this. You're nobody in this country — the richest and among the freest in the history of the world — unless somebody is trying to oppress you. "I kvetch, therefore I am."

If the people who run Hollywood hate Christmas, they hate it all the way to the box office. Christmas is huge for Hollywood, this year as always, and there is no lack of pious seasonal sentiments. Watching "Finding John Christmas" ("a heartwarming holiday drama," according to CBS) or the Walt Disney World Christmas Day parade (on ABC, hosted by Regis Philbin) may not be Christmas as Bill O'Reilly celebrates it — no doubt alone with his Bible when he is not out washing the feet of the poor. But it is Christmas, American style.

O'Reilly has said the alleged secularists want to "cancel Christmas" because they "fear … the philosophy of Jesus." Believe us: Hollywood does not want to cancel Christmas. And no one needs lectures, this year especially, from Bill O'Reilly about the teachings of Jesus.

The crusaders do have a few good stories to tell. For example, how about that town decorating a conifer in front of City Hall, only to call it "the community tree"? Or school districts banning Christmas carols? Or the department store that changes its official greeting to "Happy Holidays." As reported by Eric Boehlert on Salon.com, many of these tales get twisted in the retelling. "You're not allowed to say Merry Christmas in many department stores," declared Tony Snow of Fox News, calling this nonexistent ban "an attack on Christianity."

Some of the de-Christmasification stories are true, and absurd. To the extent that cultural Christian Soldiers are griping about some overzealous corporate and government bureaucrats expunging Christmas, they have a point.

It's nonsense, however, to suggest that Christmas finds itself on some endangered-holiday list. The United States is not a Christian nation, but it is a majority-Christian society and a predominantly Christian culture. The Constitution forbids us as a nation to "establish" one religion over others (or, in the view of some, including this editorial page, to establish religion itself over nonbelief). But even the government must sometimes bend to social reality. Christmas will always be an official holiday, and the eight days of Hanukkah will never be. And members of minority faiths will always have to accommodate to the majority-Christian culture more than that culture can accommodate to them.

That's not so terrible, is it? The important thing is religious freedom, which we all enjoy. Muslims in the United States enjoy more freedom to practice their religion as they see fit than they would in some officially Muslim countries. Members of minority religions who chafe at every small reminder of their minority status are oversensitive.

Members of the majority culture who chafe at every small accommodation of the minority's sensitivity are oversensitive too. But people in the media, in government and in churches who are encouraging majority resentments are worse than oversensitive. They are, in a word, thugs. Accommodations to minority sensitivity, even when excessive or silly, pose no serious threat to Christianity or to its overwhelming dominance of American culture. To suggest that dark forces are succeeding in killing off Christmas is so spectacularly at odds with reality that minority paranoia starts to seem justified.

Why are these allegations of a war against Christianity coming up now? Not only is there no such war on Christianity going on, the balance between minority accommodation of the majority culture and majority accommodation of minority sensitivities hasn't even shifted in favor of the minority.

The real explanation is close to the opposite: The majority is feeling its oats. Or, more accurately, a few would-be cultural commissars think this is the moment for the majority to feel its oats. It's part of the agenda coming out of the last election. They don't think they're losing the culture war. They think they're winning, and it's time to go on the offensive.

Our festive season wish for 2005 is less sensitivity all around. "Merry Christmas" is not a sentiment that needs to be guarded against, and neither is "Happy Holidays." We wish our readers both.