I’ve said it before, but given the level of heat created during the past two weeks by well-meaning conservative Christians, I want to say it again. What people within the culture call the large green tree prominently placed in front of the nation’s capitol, or on the front lawn of your state capitol, is irrelevant. This is another culture wars "smoke screen" that will raise lots of talk and money. In the end it is really a lot of noise about nothing.
A major part of the truly Christian agenda in the culture should to protect freedom, both freedom of speech, properly understood, and freedom of expression. There are some serious cases where this has been undermined but the "tree" issue is not one of them.
I am not making this stuff up. Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Counsel is running a "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" and James Dobson’s Alliance Defense Fund is running a "Christmas Project." Countless hours and thousands of dollars are being poured into these efforts. Fox News’ commentator John Gibson even has a bestselling book with the title: The War on Christmas. And Bill O’Reilly and the American Family Association have joined in to target Target, and other chain stores, for banning employees from wishing customers a "Merry Christmas." The picture these various critics regularly cite is this—religion is under attack in America. (It is under attack in some quarters and the right struggles need to be waged within our culture to protect free expression in private and in the public square.) Since 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas this strident expression about the government that stole Christmas sells in the heartland. It is that simple.
Liberal opinion columnist Ellen Goodman, who I generally disagree with radically, actually got this controversy right when she wrote that a seemingly victimized majority has a real problem here. "On the one hand they want more Christ in Christmas; on the other they want more Christmas in the marketplace." She asks how the celebration of Christmas elevated Hanukkah, a minor festival for Jews, into a major one in America? The fact is, Goodman writes, we live in a country that celebrates a long holiday season that now includes Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the Chinese New Year and Druidism. Even the president send out a card appropriately wishing me "holiday greetings."
Goodman is again quite right when she concludes: "We are familiar with seasonal blow-ups over church and state. Some end in absurd compromises that put Baby Jesus, the Maccabees and Frosty in a December trinity. These cases are often thinly veiled battles for ownership of public space." But this year’s controversy, she concludes, is really about "church and store." She rightly chides, "I thought religion was supposed to remind us that there’s a separation between pew and marketplace."
Goodman concludes by saying that the religious right should really worry about the erosion of Christmas but not in the marketplace. We should worry that "[conservative] megachurches around the country colluded to close on Sunday, December 25, for fear they would have enough cutomers. Christmas, they demurred, is a family day. Happy Family Day to you?"
Her question deeply troubles me. It troubled me so much that I wrote a longer article on it that is available on our Web site (www.reformationrevival.com) this week: "Will Your Church Cancel Christmas Worship This Year?" If we really care about the culture we should first care more deeply about the erosion of Christian tradition in the church. A holy and counter-cultural church will never be a church that benignly blends itself into the marketplace. In this case the "emperor [plainly] has no clothes" and the emperor is the Christian right. What message do these leaders really have for our post-Christian culture that could make any discernable difference to a person like Ellen Goodman?
Frankly, I believe we should humbly admit the truth here even if the source is from someone we do not particuarly agree with on many issues. I am chagrined, even embarrassed, but I think Ellen Goodman got this one just about right.