they know it’s Christmas?
Forget 'Peace on Earth' - Christmas has become a battleground
in the culture war over the status of religion.
Never mind ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men’ -
Christmas has become a battleground in the confused clash of values
over the status of religion in modern society. It is difficult to
know who or what to believe in the perplexing debate about the War
on Christmas. On one side, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu,
is convinced that ‘illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists’
have launched a crusade against the Christian symbols of Christmas.
On the other side, a Guardian writer claims that ‘The phoney
war on Christmas’ is a fantasy dreamt up by religious bigots
(1), while the president of the National Secular Society thinks
that those raising the alarm about an attack on Christmas are trying
to provoke ‘resentment against a perceived enemy’.
Depending on whom you believe there may or may not be a war on
Christmas. And there may or may not be an underhand anti-secular
campaign masquerading as a defence of traditional Christmas. The
only thing that we can be certain about is that there definitely
is a debate between at least two sides that deeply dislike each
other. Whether or not there is a war against Christmas, there is
certainly a war of words about it. And whatever the facts, Christmas
has been turned into a symbolic battlefield in an undeclared culture
war throughout the Anglo-American world.
The symbolic significance of Christmas has been recognised in the
United States by both sides in the culture war. Liberal author Bill
Press’s book, How The Republicans Stole Christmas: Why The
Religious Right Is Wrong About Faith and Politics And What Can We
Do To Make It Right is more than matched by Fox News anchorman John
Gibson’s effort, The War on Christmas: How The Liberal Plot
To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Both
of these books are long on titles, short on ideas and betray a powerful
sense of moral illiteracy.
So what is going on? There may not be a concerted war against Christmas,
but this symbolically charged holiday has become a target of critics
who would like to marginalise its role in public life. Nibbling
away at the status of Christmas is not without consequences. According
to a new report, three out of four UK employers have banned Christmas
decorations from their offices because they are concerned not to
offend other faiths (2). Of course these headline-seeking surveys
should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Christmas celebrations
have not quite been abolished in the British workplace. My own quick
survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that Christmas is
still celebrated, but in a more restrained manner. One human resources
director told me that she felt uneasy about the office Christmas
party because it ‘raised equality issues’. ‘What
if some employees insist on a Diwali Party’ she asked. This
kind of attitude explains why in many workplaces the Christmas spirit
has become conspicuous by its absence. Some company killjoys are
motivated to abolish the Christmas office party to avoid the risk
of health and safety and litigation. Others do not want to ‘offend’
non-Christians. They see Christmas becoming a hassle that they can
well do without.
That the times are changing is demonstrated by the number of cards
I get that self-consciously avoid wishing me ‘Happy Christmas’.
The growing tendency towards sending a Christian-free card is definitely
not a fantasy invented by religious bigots. Everyone knows that
it is happening and that such cards are implicitly making a statement.
That is why there has been so much media interest in this year’s
seasonal cards sent out by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Just this
morning I received a surprisingly humorous card from the Commission
For Racial Equality. The front of this send-up card states that
it is a ‘DRAFT Christmas Card Proposal’, and is covered
in scrawled questions about whether the pictured reindeer are sufficiently
diverse, whether a risk assessment has been done on the candles
etc . Inside, where it states ‘Season’s greetings from
the CRE’, the word ‘Season’s’ is circled
and linked to a question ‘Christmas?’ The card highlights
a world where the words you choose to greet people have symbolic
significance. Like all good satire, this card points to something
very real going on in society (view the card).
If Christmas is losing its monopoly in the seasonal cards market,
its role has also diminished within UK schools. Many schools no
longer stage a nativity play, and the Christmas concert is often
transformed into a worthy multi-cultural and multi-faith celebration
of ‘diversity’ or of nothing in particular. Elsewhere
the Red Cross has reportedly banned its staff from putting up Advent
calendars associated with Christmas, and there are various reports
of the local council language police rebranding Christmas lights
as Winterlights or renaming Christmas ‘Winterval’.
The attempt to deprive Christmas of any distinct religious or cultural
significance is not confined to Britain. In Australia, the Lord
Mayor of Sydney decided to ban the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’
and turn Christmas cards into civic greetings cards. In the USA,
too, there are many sad anti-Christmas crusaders who criticise the
event for excluding or offending non-Christians. One state government
banned employees from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ while
at work. Many American schools have renamed the Christmas break
as ‘Winter Break’ or ‘Winter Celebration’.
These incidents do not quite add up to a war, but they do reflect
a cultural mood that seems uncomfortable with the celebration of
a traditional Christmas.
Predictably there is now also a counter-campaign to uphold traditional
Christmas symbols and practices. The Sun, Britain’s largest
selling daily, has launched a campaign to ‘save’ Christmas
from political correctness, denouncing officious bureaucrats for
their petty attempts to spoil the Christmas celebrations. Both the
Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor have attacked the trend for
downplaying the traditional image of Christmas; Williams took particular
exception to the absence of any Christian themes in Christmas stamps
issued by the Royal Mail. Some Muslim leaders are also worried that
those trying to marginalise Christmas could provoke popular hostility,
and that Muslims will be blamed. Last month the Christian-Muslim
Forum published a letter criticising the attempt to suppress Christmas.
Some supporters of the campaign to save Christmas appear to believe
that the problem they confront is that of militant secularism. The
missive issued by the Forum, in the name of a leading Islamic cleric
and the Anglican Bishop of Bolton, states that ‘there seems
to be a secularising agenda which fails to understand the concerns
of religious communities’. The leaders of the Church of England
and the Roman Catholic Church objected to what they see as an ‘ongoing
secularist campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas’ (3).
That same theme is expounded upon in a report by a new think-tank,
Theos, entitled Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square.
‘Aggressive secularists’ are also the target of the
Archbishop of York.
However, secularism as such should not be held responsible for
the behaviour of simpletons who wish to rebrand Christmas into a
meaningless exercise in diversity. It is worth noting that the institution
of Christmas has coexisted with secularism for a very long time.
More importantly, Christmas has been secularised for more than a
century. Yes, the festivities have an important religious dimension,
but most people experience the rituals associated with Christmas
in a very secular manner. Of course, many of us decry the commercialisation,
yet shopping represents a far more important dimension of our Christmas
experience than going to Church. The amount of energy devoted to
the purchase of Christmas presents far outweighs what is channelled
into religious reflection.
Whatever church leaders say there is no need for a malevolent atheist
campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas. For a very long time
now Christ has had only a walk-on part in the proceedings. The gifts,
the office party, the family meal, the boozing and all the hectic
activity around the Xmas tree are profoundly secular events that
nevertheless have major significance for people’s lives. That
Christianity provides the story and also gives meaning to this experience
points to the relatively harmonious interaction between the religious
and the secular, at least at that time of year. That is why, through
many decades, the secularisation of Christmas did not diminish the
symbolic importance of the event.
By protesting about the alleged aggressive secularisation of Christmas,
the Church evades confronting the difficult question: why is it
now unable to give Christian meaning to Christmas? This month a
vicar in Dorset banned a man from wearing a Santa Claus outfit in
his carol service. Apparently the good vicar wanted to put religion
at the heart of the celebration, to counter the influence of secularism
and materialism (4). However, it is more likely to be the Church
itself, not the wearing of Santa hats, that is responsible for the
feeble sense of religious meaning associated with the celebration
The attempt to restrict the public role of Christmas is encouraged
not so much by a hatred of religion, but by a profound sense of
moral malaise. It has become commonplace in contemporary Western
society to assume that it is not possible for us to have a common
language through which we make sense of the world. It is assumed
that there are no durable values that can transcend differences
in identity, culture and religion. Instead of attempting to uphold
values to which all humans can subscribe, we are counselled to respect
difference and celebrate diversity. From this perspective, it is
offensive to wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to someone who is
not a practising Christian. Such sentiments are now fairly widespread
– at least among sections of the middle class and in public
institutions. Which is why many of us play it safe and send out
cards that refrain from wishing the recipient ‘Merry Christmas’.
The bewilderment that surrounds Christmas is symptomatic of the
far wider problem of not knowing how to behave in circumstances
where we lack a moral language for expressing right and wrong. We
feel far more comfortable describing something as safe or risky
than in making a value judgement using words like good or bad. That
is why critics of Christmas often hide behind the language of health
and safety. For example the Sun ripped into the management of a
Castleford shopping centre for preventing a 30-strong choir from
performing in their usual spot because it was deemed too risky for
them to stand in front of the fire exit. In the same way, a major
bank warned its employees not to place Christmas decorations near
computers as they could be a fire hazard.
The Sun also rightly took exception to the child protection campaign
Kidscape’s demand that youngsters should be banned from sitting
on Santa’s knee. In this case the prevailing mistrust about
the moral status of grown-up men makes it easy to question the role
of Santa Claus. Of course although Santa is not a religious figure
he serves as a recognised symbol of Christmas. Michelle Elliot,
Kidscape’s director argued that ‘you can’t vet
all the people dressed as Santa’. Which is why a shopping
centre in Llanelli, South Wales has installed a webcam to spy on
Santa. And if Santa needs to undergo a police check why not the
church leader who is in charge of a choir of children practising
their Christmas carols?
Fear of paedophiles masquerading as Santa Claus, an obsession with
health and safety, a mood of risk aversion and anxiety about offending
others are powerful motifs that influence everyday life and encourage
doubts about the familiar. That is why there is so much pressure
on Christmas to reform its image. There is also another influence
at work. Western society finds it increasingly difficult to affirm
its institutions and celebrate its achievements. A powerful mood
of cynicism prevails that uncritically dismisses tradition and celebrates
the most shallow and philistine reaction against it.
In this vein, Channel 4 television has decided to transmit an ‘Alternative
Christmas Message’ by a Muslim woman in a veil, at the same
time as the Queen’s traditionally Christian message. Lacking
the moral resources to deliver a statement on its own account, Channel
4 has opted for hiding behind a mask. It is not so much a hatred
of Christianity but a mood of moral disorientation that encourages
the desire to devalue the meaning of Christmas. Nevertheless, it
is hardly surprising that some church leaders should interpret this
response as symptomatic of a bias against Christianity. ‘This
country disbelieves in itself in an amazing way’ observed
the Archbishop of York.
To fully understand the controversy provoked by Christmas, it is
helpful to explore the wider debate about religion that has erupted
in recent times.
A confused debate
Religion has become a subject of public controversy. In recent
years the underlying conflict of values in Western societies –
often called the culture war – has been complicated by arguments
surrounding the role of Islam. For some protagonists in the culture
war the alleged sensitivity of Islam to the religious symbols of
other faiths represents an argument for restraining public display
of Christianity. Concern to avoid causing offence has led to promiscuous
use of the label ‘Islamophobia’. Anybody who criticises
Islam risks being categorised as an Islamophobe, and the ‘incitement
of religious hatred’ has become a crime in the UK.
Ironically, official concern regarding religious hatred coexists
with confusion about the role of religion in society. That is why
controversy has suddenly attached itself to unexpected subjects.
In some workplaces people are discouraged from wearing symbols of
their faith – a headscarf or a cross. Faith schools –
which have existed for a very long time – have been accused
them of imbuing children with fundamentalist beliefs. And in the
media religion is frequently represented as a negative influence
on public life. The heads of the Church of England and the Roman
Catholic Church are not far off the target when they decry the tendency
of some secular commentators to depict religious faith as a threat.
There are some worrying signs of intolerance towards those who
profess faith in religion. It was reported last month that Christian
Unions at Exeter, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities
were suspended or had their privileges removed by the student union
on the grounds that they discriminated against non-Christians and
their beliefs were ‘too exclusive’. Some student associations
demand that Christian Unions open their membership to anyone, whether
or not they share their faith. The student guild at Exeter University
argued that, since the Christian Union asked members to sign a form
indicating that they follow Christ, the society was not open to
all and hence violated equal opportunity rules. The National Union
of Students justified the bureaucratic policing of evangelical students
and stated that its aim was to restrict the ‘exclusivity’
of Christian societies.
The attempt to force religious organisations to admit non-believers
seems more discriminatory than the desire of Christian students
to belong to a society that reflects their beliefs. It is unlikely
that the NUS would demand that the vegetarian society allow meat
eaters to join its executive. Nor would it insist that Conservative
students be allowed to vote for the executive of the Socialist society.
The charge that religion is ‘too exclusive’ frequently
serves as a prelude to the accusation that it is intolerant and
dangerous. It was in this spirit that ageing pop star Elton John
said he would like to ‘ban religion completely’ because
it advocates hatred against gays. The casual manner in which Elton
John expresses his desire to ‘ban’ religion serves as
a reminder of the depth of intolerance among some critics of religious
intolerance. It is evident that opponents of religious ‘fundamentalism’
or ‘fanaticism’ are no less zealous or narrow-minded
than their enemies.
Intellectual critics of religion often use intemperate language
that is more than a match for any fundamentalist preacher. Sam Harris,
the American atheist author of Letter to a Christian Nation has
denounced religion as ‘obscene’. Many such attacks on
religion are motivated by a powerful sense of intolerance and betray
an authoritarian impulse. Oxford professor Richard Dawkins has launched
a one-man inquisition against people of faith. In contrast to the
honourable humanist tradition of questioning superstition and anti-rationality,
Dawkins is also in the business of social engineering. His response
to critics of the Enlightenment is to shove it down their throat.
‘It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe
whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs
on their children’ asks Dawkins before suggesting that there
might be ‘something to be said for society stepping in’.
And whatever hysterical visions are evoked by apocalyptic religions
would have trouble competing with the prophecies of doom from Sam
Harris the professional anti-religionist. In The End of Faith :
Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris warns that unless
we abandon faith religious hatred and violence will soon lead to
the destruction of civilisation
Harris’ warning about religion’s threat to the future
of civilisation illustrates the intense passion with which this
debate is conducted. The belief that religious fundamentalism is
on the offensive and is threatening to dominate public life is widely
held on both sides of the Atlantic. For some opponents of the religious
right the theocracy has already arrived. From this perspective religion
is coupled with intolerance and its influence is always pernicious.
It is worth noting that the rhetorical strategy of discrediting
opponents through transmitting scare stories is not confined to
any one side. The churches’ allegations that there is a ‘war’
on Christmas are only a counterpoint to the charge that religious
bigots are conspiring to ‘steal’ Christmas. Intellectuals
on both sides seem to feel more comfortable fighting a pretend war
than engaging with the complexities of contemporary life.
So what’s the problem?
What is interesting about the contemporary climate of hostility
to faith is that it has encouraged the emergence of a small group
of professional atheists. For many commentators atheism is the new
radicalism. However, a closer examination suggests that, other than
a hatred of religion, much contemporary atheism has little to say.
Dawkins’ The God Delusion exemplifies the attempt to turn
atheism into an ideology. Yet a careful reading of this book leads
us only to the conclusion that the author detests religion. Unfortunately
hatred of religion does not necessarily lead to an enlightened perspective
on the world.
Anti-religious hysteria is also something of a cop-out. It evades
confronting the causes of many of the difficulties facing society
through blaming them on religion. The new atheists often pick on
relatively simple targets like creationism and intelligent design
to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. However, these forms
of contemporary superstition do not pose the real challenge to scientific
thought and reason. Society today finds it very difficult to uphold
and celebrate its own scientific heritage. Consequently suspicion
towards rationality and objective science pervades academia, public
institutions and political life. In a world where ‘alternative
medicine’, ‘healing’. ‘holistic therapy’
or ‘emotional intelligence’ influence the imagination
of our cultural elites, who needs creationism to undermine rationality?
Organised religion is no less opportunistic than its critics. For
some time now Christianity has found it difficult to affirm its
religious authority through the medium of theology. Instead it has
sought to embrace other institutions to lend legitimacy to its authority.
Vicars have adopted therapy culture to reinvent themselves as Christian
counsellors. In the USA some evangelicals have embraced environmentalism
and now promote ‘creation care’. However these tactics
only highlight the inability of the Church to set its own religious
In the UK the defensive and feeble authority of Christian Churches
have been thrown into relief by the more robust orientation of Islamic
clerics. During the past five years advocates of Islam have adopted
an assertive public profile demanding recognition and support for
their way of life. Predictably many observers have contrasted the
expansion of their influence with the diminishing authority of Christian
institutions. The self-assured behaviour of Muslim leaders has probably
forced the leaders of the Christian churches to adopt a less defensive
posture. Their call to defend Christmas and hold back the tide of
secularism unimaginatively borrows from the US experience. But it
also represents a belated attempt to copy the campaigning tactics
of their Muslim colleagues. Defending Christmas has provided the
churches with an opportunity to demonstrate that there is still
a bit of life left in their institutions .
This war of words is about many things, but not really about Christmas.
(1) ‘The phoney war on Christmas’, Guardian, 8 December
(2) See ‘Christmas ban “For Fear of Offence”’,
Yorkshire Post, 6 December 2006
(3) See Christianity Today, 9 November 2006
(4) ‘The Church of the Non-Believers, Interview with Gary
Wolf’, Wired, 14 November 20
published on Spiked, 14 December 2006