War on Christmas -- Sightings (Martin Marty)

It is that season when the culture warriors on all sides come out and battle over Christmas. These battles are getting nastier every year, and everyone seems to be engaging in World War I style trench warfare.  Martin Marty has written a helpful commentary on the ongoing war over Christmas, calling on us all to take a bit of guidance from Nelson Mandela, and seek some reconciliation.  This is a good reminder about tone!

I invite you to read and consider this message -- and maybe we can call a truce and enjoy the season.


War on Christmas
Monday | Dec 9 2013
Nativity in Springfield, Pennsylvania                                  Credit: Jim / flickr Creative Commons
Two stories vied for top notice over the weekend. The first was the death of Nelson Mandela, the South African maker of peace. The second was the war about “The War Against Christmas.” Both dealt with the “public religion” themes that preoccupy Sightings.

Most Mandela stories did not accent the role of formal, organized religion and the affiliations of the long-imprisoned public figure, though there were references to his Methodist upbringing and re-publications of occasional addresses in which he paid respect to the Methodist tradition, both for its role in his education and for its support of justice and acts of mercy in the public realm. In any case, readers do not need more attention to this World Citizen #1, after the weekend of media attention. Last Friday I counted well over a dozen, full-page stories in the four newspapers on my breakfast table, while TV and radio reflections on the meaning of Mandela’s life were constant.

What strikes the analyst of the “War on Christmas” stories, or at least what struck me, was the difference in tone by sets of writers or broadcasters on both, or all, sides of the “culture wars”—there’s that “war" image again—as they dealt with the events, personalities, and trends. The Mandela stories did justice to the flaws of the imperfect human who led causes for freedom in South Africa and inspired strugglers globally, but almost all were written in respectful, humane tones. After all, the Mandela effect is one of reconciliation, even though it was born of conflicts past, whose after-stories linger.

In contrast, both, and all, sides in “The War on Christmas” stories were disrespectful, never empathic. Their authors gave no sign that they could understand why those on the other side were stirred to battle, and they gave every sign that they regarded their side in the argument as totally right in their self-chosen Total War.

What are they talking about? Chiefly, about who has the right to set the agenda for determining which symbols and sounds should dominate, or have the monopoly in, e.g., public schools. I am tempted to adopt their tone even while reporting on it: the authors or speakers are crabby, whiny, and dismissive of those with whom they disagree. While I side with those who criticize the “War on Christmas” agitators, I have to confess that those on this side often are almost as crabby, whiny, etc. as those they are attacking. They do know, of course, that much of the “War” is not about Jesus Christ or Christianity, but about power.

Finally, partisans are asking: “Who belongs here? Who was here first?” But the askers tend to be unempathic and unheeding when they hear the regrets voiced over the slighting or banishing of great music of the ages and the replacing of same by banal, purely commercially-determined music. Many lovers of Christian worship-music, who have long lived in religiously homogeneous communities, have not understood why, in pluralist public settings, symbols and sounds are often seen not as exhibits and performances but as acts of worship which offend citizens who don’t adore the God being worshiped in each case.

I’m dreaming not of a white Christmas, but of one with many colors in which neighbors fill their own lawns with Christmas crèches and decorations, or their own airspace with carols and chorales of their choice for themselves and fellow-believers. Leave the public places alone. There are so many other sites where particular forms of worship are not only licit but encouraged. The churches, pollsters tell us, are seeing declines in attendance. But such sanctuaries are open and welcoming to those who would “keep Christ in Christmas.” It would be good if the Mandela spirit of reconciliation caught on among more of them and spread to the public sphere.

References and Further Reading:

African National Congress. “Address by President Nelson Mandela to the Annual Conference of the Methodist Church.” September 18, 1994. Accessed December 7, 2013.http://www.anc.org.za/show.php?id=3685.

United Method Church. “Nelson Mandela 1990 U.S. Speech.” Added July 2, 2013. Accessed December 7, 2013. http://www.umc.org/site/apps/nlnet/content3.aspx?c=lwL4KnN1LtH&b=5259665&ct=13190493.

Kulish, Nicholas and Alan Cowell. “Nelson Mandela 1918-2013: South Africans Prepare for Days of Mourning and Commemoration.” New York Times, December 7, 2013.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/08/world/africa/south-africa-mandela.html?_r=0.

Kulish, Nicholas, Lydia Polgreen, and Alan Cowell. “Mandela’s Death Stirs Sense of Loss Around the World.” New York Times, December 6, 2013.http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/07/world/africa/nelson-mandela-international-reaction.html.

Collins, Gail. “Cultural War Games.” New York Times International Opinion, December 4, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/05/opinion/collins-cultural-war-games.html?hp&rref=opinion.

Hall, Heidi. “Not all Christians believe there is a ‘War on Christmas’.” USA Today, reprinted from The (Nashville) Tennessean, December 2, 2013.http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/12/02/war-on-christmas-blog/3802231/.

D’Addario, Daniel. “Sorry, Sarah Palin: There’s no war on Christmas.” Salon.com, November 11, 2013.http://www.salon.com/2013/11/11/sorry_sarah_palin_theres_no_war_on_christmas/.

Zorn, Eric. “Season’s grumblings: An intercepted dispatch from the front of the ‘war on Christmas’.” Chicago Tribune, December 4, 2013. http://articles.chicagotribune.com/2013-12-04/news/ct-war-christmas-grumblings-holidays-zorn-1204-20131204_1_holiday-gift-guide-holiday-deals-word-christmas.

Wemple, Erik. “Jon Stewart of ‘The Daily Show’ rips Bill O’Reilly’s Christmas activism.”Washington Post, December 4, 2013. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2013/12/04/jon-stewart-of-the-daily-show-rips-bill-oreillys-christmas-activism/.

Photo Credit: Jim / flickr Creative Commons
Author, Martin E. Marty, is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of the History of Modern Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.

Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a Ph.D. Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is co-organizing a conference, April 9-11, 2014: "God: Theological Accounts and Ethical Possibilities," at the University of Chicago Divinity School (mostly funded by the Marty Center and free to the public). For more information, visit: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/god-theological-accounts-and-ethical-possibilities.
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