Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Defense of the Defense of Christmas

As I sit writing, two articles lie near me. One is by a regular blogger at First Things' "On the Square"—a Protestant pastor by the name of Russell Saltzman. The other is by Christopher Hitchens. I offer you a quote from each.

Agitation by Christian activist groups generally has the goal of "keeping Christ in Christmas" so everyone will remember that "Jesus is the reason for the season." ... [Somehow] making sure Wal-Mart features a Nativity Scene under a Christmas tree is a defense of Christianity. If this is how Christian apologists seek to defend Christmas, trust me, they've already lost the war. ... If the AFA and the Catholic League and others (for this behavior is by no means limited to those two organizations), could concentrate more on "gentleness and respect" ... maybe they would not look so Grinch-like, threatening store clerks with boycotts and loss of income.

[T]he thing about the annual culture war that would probably most surprise those who want to "keep the Christ in Christmas" is this: The original Puritan Protestants regarded the whole enterprise as blasphemous. ... [W]e know enough about the Puritans to suspect that what they really disliked was the idea of a holiday where people would imbibe strong drink and generally make merry. ... You would have to be religiously observant and austere yourself, then, to really seek a ban on Christmas. But it can be almost as objectionable to be made to take part in something as to be forbidden to do so.

OK, OK, I've stacked it by cherry-picking the snarkiest of Saltzman's piece and the gentlest of Hitchens'. But seriously, can you tell which block comes from which author? Go read the quotes again and see.

The first is from Saltzman, and the second is from Hitchens.

I will readily admit that I am sometimes embarrassed by the antics of my coreligionists. Not only that, I have elsewhere defended the occasional advisability of shutting up when debates get overheated. And I guess some "Christian activist groups" may cross the line into uncharity in their attempts to persuade businesses to keep or restore Christian language and symbols to their seasonal promotions. I guess. But I can't agree with Saltzman, and I certainly don't agree with Hitchens.

Hitchens' argument against the public celebration of Christmas, penned before his recent death and published in the WSJ on Christmas Eve, boils down to this: Christmas celebrations are often in bad taste; obligatory generosity and compulsory love are objectionable; there may be a constitutional issue with Christmas displays on public land; and therefore, I, Christopher Hitchens, dislike Christmas and, implicitly, so should you—at least if you also find kitsch, compulsion, and unconstitutionality unpalatable, as any reasonable person would.

Saltzman seems to make two points. First, it doesn't (or at any rate, shouldn't) matter to us whether our shopping experience is Christian or not: proclaiming the gospel is a job for the Church of Christ, not for Gap. Second, it is Grinch-like to boycott stores, thereby depriving workers of income, based on the store-owners' policies.

With respect for the cloth and the dead, this is hooey. The few, pace Mr. Hitchens, have no "right to be left alone." They have a right to believe as they will, but they have no right to a neutral, religion-free zone. They have a right not to be harmed for their beliefs or lack thereof, but they have no right to demand that their preferences for not coming into contact with the disagreeable be met. The proper reaction to the disagreeable is debate—not surrender, not retreat, not censorship. The proper reaction to nativities in the public square is the addition on request of other religious symbols—additions which are already made, and have been made for years. (And, seeing as how Mr. Hitchens is upset by all religious symbols, I would if he were living invite him to my local town, where the atheists, perhaps taking a cue from the apocryphal Japanese store Hitchens mentions, have erected a nice little crucified Santa just a dozen yards from our manger scene. So cute. So cockle-warming. So non-offensive. So very likely to change minds and hearts.) The proper solution to feeling "obliged" to give meaninglessly is not ceasing to give but determining in what true generosity consists. Abusus non tollit usum.

Saltzman's piece is slightly more disappointing. If the AFA et al. really employ inappropriate tactics to remind us of what Christmas is all about, the proper response is not to let the world get away with abandoning the word "Christmas" but to come up with better tactics. It does matter to me that So-and-So-and-Sons won't play "O Holy Night"—and not only does it bother me, but it should bother me. It should bother all of us, that the fear of offending a few leads to the silencing of the many. Even if multiculturalism is not a strong outpost from which to defend religion (and I think it is a remarkably weak one, since means the assumption of the enemy's false principles at the start) it is still an outpost worth defending, if only because the enemy proclaims its value. We ought to be concerned when those who trumpet free speech seek to quash it, not because all speech is sacrosanct but because the world thinks it is, and because the particular speech being quashed happens to be speech that we believe to be true.

I don't see the point of backing off stores that substitute "Happy holidays" for "Merry Christmas". Taking the dubious assumption that such boycotts actually result in unemployment, the proper response of the Christian boycotters would be to take the poor clerks into their homes for the season, not to cancel the sanctions. There are worse things than being jobless, and working for Macy's might be one of them.

Let us by all means be prepared for persecution, but let us not confuse fortitude with retreat, or courtesy with silence, or humility with submission, or charity with "being nice". We live in a dying—perhaps in a dead—culture. Prudence should condition the terms of our engagement with that culture; but to question whether we ought to engage it—that is the real defeat, when we doubt whether we ought to keep fighting. It's not easy baptizing Caesar, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. The proper substitute for "Feliz Navidad" is not silence, but Messiah.

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