The War On Christmas?
First published at Commonsense2.com in December 2007.
The “War on Christmas” debate reached unprecedented levels in 2005 with the publication of John Gibson s The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought. Published in October of that year, the book was a New York Times bestseller and offered “proof” of the “War on Christmas” trumpeted by the Fox News Channel and major religious figures such as the late Reverend Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. But a closer look at the illogic of those who claim there is such a war in the United States reveals a number of problems with the arguments of those who participate in this annually constructed “debate.” Those who would like to put an end to this yearly festival of finger-pointing, hyperbole, and plain old dishonesty might find the following points useful when debating this non-issue with those who have been persuaded that Christianity and Christmas are under attack.
First, those who argue that we re witnessing a “War on Christmas” regularly conflate non-equal terms. Those who make such arguments conflate people in favor of content-neutral policies regarding the public display of religious symbols (content-neutral free-speech policies are constitutionally valid according to the United States Supreme Court) with people who are anti-religion and anti-Christian. Those who argue in this way also tend to equate the ability to publicly express religion with the freedom to practice religion, thereby also confusing the prohibition of certain public expressions of Christianity with the suppression of religion itself.
In addition to the conflation of non-equal terms, these folks use clearly fallacious arguments such as false analogies and double standards. False analogies compare two things that may have some similarities but are not similar in fundamental form. In this way, false analogies short-circuit logic by laying positive or negative baggage on an idea or person by means of an unfair comparison with another idea or person. False analogies I ve heard include the suggestion that the religious context of the multi-religion United States is similar to that of Israel and the relationship between Jewish and Muslim citizens in that country. This wholly unfair analogy can also serve to manipulate the emotions connected to Middle East politics in a post-9/11 world. In other instances I ve heard these folks compare Jews in the United States wearing yarmulkes to the evangelical behavior of some Christians. While wearing a yarmulke could be compared to a Christian wearing a cross, there is no rational comparison between a Jew wearing a yarmulke and a Christian verbally evangelizing to others.
Detractors of the “War on Christmas” rhetoric should also pay attention to the double standards that abound in these arguments. For example, the “War on Christmas” crowd regularly communicates (explicitly or implicity) that those who believe or feel that they are being discriminated against as Christians exist as actual evidence of harm. But strangely (and hypocritically, I d add), those non-Christians who feel left out amongst all of the Christmas regalia are met with indifference when they feel excluded. Similarly, citizens like myself who are concerned about a weakening separation between church and state are repeatedly deemed anti-Christian, anti-Christmas, and radical, but those who fight to maintain Christian dominance are “hypervigilant” rather than “pro-Christian” – and they are certainly never deemed members of the radical Right.
The “War on Christmas” rhetoric also often contradicts itself in its convenient constructions of “secular” versus “Christian.” When it benefits the arguments of those who deploy such rhetoric, certain elements of the debate are decried as secular, and when it does not benefit their arguments, these same elements are miraculously transformed into foundations of Christianity. For example, lights and wreaths, when on display, are secular. But when those displays are being challenged they suddenly become part of the core of Christmas celebrations. And when the “War on Christmas” posse needs the traditional elements of December celebration to be obviously secular, such elements are deemed so. When they need them to be overtly Christian, they then define them as such without even a wince. (For this discussion, we ll set aside the historical link many of these Christian symbols have to paganism).
Perhaps as a country we have come to expect the low level of debate we see from our politicians and pundits regarding the supposed “War on Christmas,” but we should demand more. By conflating non-equal terms, these people diminish the U.S. Constitution and the decisions of the nation s Supreme Court. The use of emotive language is an attempt to strip reason from this public debate and to frame that debate only in terms that seek to provoke emotion and hostility rather than contemplative thought.
The contradictions and double standards that are a standard part of this rhetoric are problematic because they shift according to the needs of whoever is talking at the moment.
It is possible for reasonable people to draw different conclusions about a “War on Christmas.” It is not reasonable, however, to base the argument that such a war exists on the fallacious and problematic arguments that have become the staple of the “War on Christmas” clique. Unfortunately, these folks are not alone in the deliberate or ignorant mockery of reasoned debate. Indeed, their strategies are part and parcel of our political system and the underlying network of pundits and reporters that keep us in an eternal spin cycle.
As citizens we all bear an important responsibility. Because we cannot trust our leaders and our mainstream media to do it, we must critically assess public arguments, and we must teach others how to do so as well. Understanding some basic argumentation fallacies and strategies, such as those prevalent in the “War on Christmas” debate, will hopefully help us to begin the process of reclaiming our public sphere and our democracy.