Wish Somebody “Happy Holidays” and Make a Terrorist Cry

Happy-HolidaysThe word “secularism,” when used to characterize a government or society, does not mean what most people think it means. A secular government is not one that feeds Christians to lions or makes them take nativity scenes off of their lawns, and a secular society is not one that officially or informally hates God. This is the boogie-man version of secularism that usually gets invoked this time of year by people who think that there is a “War on Christmas.”

But none of this is what secularism means. Secularism is not official state atheism (for which the correct term is “official state atheism”). A secular government is one that treats all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same. It is what James Madison argued for so forcefully in “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessment.” The state, Madison insisted, must adopt a posture of strict non-cognizance towards all religious beliefs—to which he specifically added unbelief. This is what it means to be a “secular state.” And a secular society follows the same logic by treating all forms of belief, as valid personal choices. Another name for all of this is “the separation of church and state.”

Madison, of course, was working within a much larger Enlightenment framework that understood that the mechanisms of state power are inherently coercive. They exist to make people do stuff. This can mean using carrots, such as tax incentives or preferential treatment. But it usually means using sticks: taxes, laws, official policies, police forces, jails, and armies. Like most Enlightenment philosophers, Madison believed that these coercive mechanisms should only be used to protect legitimate state interests. They should never be used to enforce religious beliefs, which exist prior to and wholly apart from the social contract.

Madison had history on his side. Neither states nor religions have generally done well when mixed with each other. Those who assert that Christianity is inherently more peaceful than Islam must strategically distance themselves from a thousand years of human history—the Crusades, the Inquisition, and Europe’s great wars of religion. This was a long time ago, they say. Things have changed. Precisely—and what has changed the most is that Christianity no longer controls armies.

In states that officially operate under Islamic law, all kinds of bad things can and do happen: apostasy is punished by death, homosexuals are stoned, and women can be severely punished for appearing uncovered in a public place. Westerners are rightly horrified by such practices, but we often misattribute them to religious differences. The main difference between Saudi Arabia and the United States is not that one country is Muslim and the other is Christian. The difference is that one country allows a religion to control the coercive apparatuses of the state and one does not. The difference is secularism.

So here is the tragic irony: as the 21st century takes shape, the greatest test that Western states face in their commitment to secularism has become their willingness (or unwillingness) to extend religious freedom to Muslims. A recent poll shows that a majority of voters in one of our great political parties would support a religion-based ban on immigration. Presidential candidates have advocated registering American citizens and closing down houses of worship based on nothing more than the religious affiliation of a particular group of people.  Such proposals (as many on both sides of the aisle have pointed out) would bring an end to America’s 226-year experiment with the Enlightenment.

And this is why the silly and annoying debate between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” actually matters. Those who become angry when some official organization fails to call “Christmas” by its right name are saying, in effect, that their form of religious observance should have official recognition. Those who get offended when friends, neighbors, soft-drink companies, and coffee shops for making their seasonal greetings more inclusive are saying that society should be organized around their beliefs. They are saying that society should be less secular. It is at least worth noting that this is what ISIS and Al-Qaeda are saying too.

Those who hold “holiday trees” and plain red coffee cups responsible for the increasing secularization of society are absolutely correct. These inclusive gestures do make us more secular, which is a good thing for believers and unbelievers alike. The secular state is one of the signature achievements of the Enlightenment. It is the characteristic of the early republic that allowed Latter-day Saints and hundreds of other religious groups to flourish on American soil. And those of us who have benefited so much from a secular society have a moral responsibility to ensure that it survives.

So, Happy Hollidays–all of them–and may your season be everything that you want it to be.

Comments

  1. Brilliantly stated.

  2. Excellent and timely. The church released a statement two days ago reiterating the church’s stance on religious freedom. That statement, largely a response to things said by the leading Republican presidential candidate the day before, specifically calls for religious freedom for all–including Muslims. http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/church-statement-religious-freedom-pluralism.

  3. “Those who become angry when some official organization fails to call “Christmas” by its right name are saying, in effect, that their form of religious observance should have official recognition.”

    I’m not sure I agree with this, and I guess it sort of depends on what you mean by official organizations. Your post tends to confound government and private enterprise. Permit me to meander a little. Let’s put the government agencies aside for a moment and focus on corporations. There’s nothing that prohibits a company from saying ‘Merry Christmas’. Many do. Those that don’t, by and large, refer to holiday seasons, etc., as a generic marker so as to be generally inoffensive to all faiths. This is done to get some holiday business from people while not offending potential customers. It has very little to do with belief, with a few exceptions (mostly private companies with Christian leadership a la Hobby Lobby).

    But being an advocate for Christianity is not a bad thing. Those who are advocates for Christianity tend to think that remembering Jesus at Christmastime is a good thing, and that sharing the Gospel during the season is also good. I would expect Christians to push for prominently highlighting Christmas instead of falling back to watered down and de-Christianized worship. I would certainly expect it from Church leadership, and I don’t view that as a bad thing, in fact I view it as entirely consistent with our callings to be witnesses of Christ at all times and in all places. My read of the situation is that advocates for Christianity view the de-Christianizing of the season as bad, and that they tend to view the corporate de-Christianizing as a form of cowardice: if you really believe in Jesus, the argument goes, you should be a public believer, saying Merry Christmas. I think there’s something to that, though I agree that we should be respectful of other faiths. But the people complaining at Starbucks don’t seem to realize that these corporations are not acting out of belief, but out of commercial opportunism. If saying “Merry Christmas” made them more money, they’d say it.

    So, as regarding the government: we believe in the separation of church and state, and state employees should not advocate religion in their official capacities. The church is pretty in line with that principle. Elder Oaks commented yesterday on this notion, though it was a small aside in a larger address about how we should be more Christian:

    A major force in all of this has been the increasing secularism of society that has led to court rulings outlawing public religious symbolism, such as the well-loved manger scenes. Many public schools are fearful to allow their choirs to sing religious hymns at Christmas time. “Angels We Have Heard on High,” “O Holy Night,” and “Joy to the World” are certainly overtly Christian songs of worship and joy. As such, they are objectionable to those legal or administrative authorities who are sensitive to the increasing aggressiveness and litigiousness of secular forces in our society. In saying this I am not advocating an official establishment of Christianity in this nation, which is clearly forbidden. I favor respectful recognition of the increasingly diverse fundamental values of many of our citizens, but that should not prevent an open and tolerant acknowledgement of the religious traditions at the foundation of Western society.

    He’s an apostle. This is not a surprising perspective. The last sentence is the key, and it is not very objectionable, and I don’t think it is a call for official recognition from the state (despite what you have said, Mike). Acknowledging that the U.S. has Christianity at its roots and in much of its bones does not strike me as ahistorical or wrong. I think Elder Oaks is bemoaning that town squares no longer have nativity scenes, and that schools don’t sing hymns at Christmas. He is an apostle pointing out that our society is pulling further away from public worship of Christ, which is true. I miss those days too, and I also worry about the long-term consequences of a secularized society. I am not confident that all will be well with us.

  4. “I think Elder Oaks is bemoaning that town squares no longer have nativity scenes, and that schools don’t sing hymns at Christmas. He is an apostle pointing out that our society is pulling further away from public worship of Christ, which is true. I miss those days too, and I also worry about the long-term consequences of a secularized society. I am not confident that all will be well with us.”

    Steve, I completely agree with your assessment about what Elder Oaks is saying. I completely disagree with the idea that public Nativity scenes and sacred music concerts in public schools are innocent of the establishment of religion. Granted, they are fairly minor levels of establishment–not quite the same as burning people at the stake for denying the Trinity. But they do cross a line that, I believe, an Enlightened society should not cross.

    Of course, corporate entities are free to put Jesus memes on their soft drinks and their coffee cups if they want to. I do recognize that private corporations are not bound to the same Church-and-State rules that government agencies are. Where we disagree is that I think it is a good thing when companies, volunteer groups, and other non-government agencies try to be more inclusive of the religious diversity that characterizes our society. I do not see any hostility in grouping Chrismas with other end-of-year holiday traditions so that everybody can have a part in the celebration.

    A am also pretty sure that I disagree with the notion that the current Christmas iconography preferred by many Christians has much to do with the kind of Christianity that is at the foundation of Western society. The history just doesn’t bear this out. These kinds of displays (mangers, big Nativity scenes, traditional Christmas cards) are largely 20th century artifacts whose origins are more commercial than Christian. They were created by the same engines of commerce that are now creating other kinds of iconography for exactly the reasons that you state: to make money off of the holidays. The fact that there is less money to be made from Baby Jesus, and more to be made with “Happy Holidays” penguins does not quite get me to a “War on Christmas.”

  5. If we reach the point that we cannot celebrate, or at least acknowledge publicly the celebration of, Christmas, Hannukah, Passover, Easter, Sukkoth, Ramadan, Eid al Fitr, Eid al Adha, etc., etc., by members of our body politic, but instead have to water everything down into a generic “Happy Holiday,” then we have in fact lost something–and if it’s not to “secularism,” then it’s to the Religion of Celebrate Your Own Holidays Privately, Dammit. And there’s no reason that that should be the established religion of our nation instead than any other.

  6. The whole “Merry Christmas” thing is particularly funny (or sad) in light of the holiday’s origins as a pagan holiday. I can just see a pagan Roman in the 3rd Century AD complaining because people are saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Happy Saturnalia” (to be more inclusive of the growing Christian population).

    Aside from the Holy Family, nothing about Christmas is foundational to Christianity, and its modern incarnation (as Michael notes) is very young–up until this century large swathes of America considered Christmas celebrations to be un-Christian and probably satanic!

    Basically, Christians who get up in arms about the so-called War on Christmas merely demonstrate their ignorance of their own religion.

  7. Oh, and “Happy holidays” almost certainly originated as a convenient way to wish someone a Merry Christmas AND a Happy New Year without having to say the whole darn thing–a desire to be religiously inclusive had nothing to do with it.

    But certain Christians, as a persecuted majority, saw it as a sign of some ridiculous “war on Christmas”.

  8. Clark Goble says:

    It seems like we should distinguish between the state and the public sphere whereas it seems like this is conflated somewhat in the above.

    One can easily think the state ought to keep out of adopting any particular religion while respecting the plurality of religions within its jurisdiction. Yet one can also say that the secularization of the public sphere is a bad thing.

  9. Clark Goble says:

    Repos – don’t confuse meaning at a particular point with the genealogy of the terms. Were your logic correct then awful and awesome would mean nearly the same thing. What counts is how the words are used. That obviously has some connection to their history but it is a mistake to say use is wrong because it doesn’t follow the history.

    While Christmas has obviously picked up pagan trappings what counts is how they function in the new context. Many people who worry about the so-called war on Christmas (which I think is exaggerated) are quite familiar with the history of some of the trappings and traditions. Often they even want to de-emphasize many of those trappings in preference to more originary scenes like nativity displays in public areas.

    Really the fundamental issue is one about whether church/state separation ought apply to the entire public sphere and to what degree church/state separation entails no religion and to what extent it merely entails religious pluralism.

  10. Mike:

    “I completely disagree with the idea that public Nativity scenes and sacred music concerts in public schools are innocent of the establishment of religion”

    Oh, I am with you there. But I don’t believe that expressions of faith on state property should be completely prohibited. I would not be on board having nativities, for example, at the exclusion of other faiths (or non-faiths). I don’t think the town square is where those sorts of things belong (use your own church steps!), but I don’t agree with a blanket prohibition. Oaks is not pushing

    “I think it is a good thing when companies, volunteer groups, and other non-government agencies try to be more inclusive of the religious diversity that characterizes our society”

    Me too. But I don’t mind Christians being vocal Christians, either. But companies will do whatever the profit motive demands.

    “I disagree with the notion that the current Christmas iconography preferred by many Christians has much to do with the kind of Christianity that is at the foundation of Western society”

    Yeah, Dickens really wrecked things for everyone in that respect.

  11. “These kinds of displays (mangers, big Nativity scenes, traditional Christmas cards) are largely 20th century artifacts whose origins are more commercial than Christian.”

    Nativity scenes (with mangers) are quite old and have a Christian/Catholic origin. They certainly don’t have commercial origins. Christmas greetings don’t really fit the above category either. Greeting cards were 19th century but the Christmas greetings they carried were older.

    I am also not sure I agree with your definition of secular. Secular generally means something that has no religious basis……not something that treats all religions equally.

    Regardless, I like the idea of a society where we are all allowed to have public displays of worship, regardless of religion. This would be the society I would want.

    So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a Happy Chinese New Year to all!

  12. “Neither states nor religions have generally done well when mixed with each other.”

    True. But what purely secular states offer a good baseline comparison to be able to measure the worth of religious influence?

  13. Eve of Destruction says:

    “I don’t believe that expressions of faith on state property should be completely prohibited”

    Isn’t the complete prohibition of expressions of faith on state property “official state atheism,” rather than “secularism,” Steve? Remind me which one are you arguing against?

  14. Thank you so much for this. Really enjoyed your succinct distillation of this issue, Michael.

  15. Eve, you’re incorrect.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Why would the state banning religious expression by the state on state property be official state atheism?

    I think saying banning all religious expression is something no one is arguing for – no one is saying that Mormons must remove their garments to enter a state building for instance. Yet that’s clearly an expression of faith on state property.

  17. Just as a general response to all who wonder:

    I am making two interconnected arguments here. The first is that official government agencies should not advocate, or proscribe, any kind of religious observation. This means that city halls should not have nativity scenes (or menorahs or anything else), and official state functions should not advocate any particular end-of-the-year holiday over the many that there are to choose from. This is what it means to have a secular state.

    Individuals can wish anybody anything that they want to. But many citizens of our secular state, at this time of year, prefer to give general holiday greetings in inclusive ways. Nobody has to join them, but neither is it fair or logical to characterize such greetings as anti-Christian or hostile towards religion. Those of us who say “Happy Holidays” a lot don’t hate Christians. We just want our general salutations to be as inclusive as possible.

    And of course context matters. I work at a Catholic university. When acting in my official role here, I say “Merry Christmas,” and I love visiting the nativity scenes on campus. This month, I will be giving the Christmas address in my LDS ward. I fully intend to say “Merry Christmas” and talk about the birth of the Savior.

    But when I am issuing greetings to everybody in the world–or to people whose religious affiliation I do not know–I generally say things like “Seasons Greetings” or “Happy Holidays”–mainly because I want my general statements of goodwill to be general statements of goodwill. This does not mean that I am not a Christian, or that I do not stand as a witness of Christ in all places, or what have you. I just think that it is potentially offensive to wish somebody else a “happy my holiday.”

    If you think differently, more power to you. But please don’t code as hostility to religion my desire to extend the logic of a secular state to my society by welcoming all forms of belief–including nonbelief–to my table and wishing them well.

  18. So Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and a Happy Chinese New Year to all!

    And no one is preventing you from saying that, Marc. Thinking that someone is shows that we’ve gone off the rails in this whole war on Christmas nonsense. Having an intentionally robust secular public sphere in which the State as an actor does not endorse one particular religion among the many to which its citizens adhere is a feature, not a bug. (So the State, as an actor, should not be wishing you a Merry Christmas — it’s just that simple!)

    To the extent that the FoxNews crowd, including unfortunately apparently many in our own Church, disagrees with that, it is a worrying sign. We, as adherents of a widely despised minority religion should be the last of all possible people to pine away for a weakening of the separation of church and state simply because we’ve been lulled into a sense of security that we’ve made friends with those who are (currently) in the religious majority and therefore (so we think) we will be in the group creating the legislation that coerces people with differing beliefs to live according to our sectarian notions of God’s will.

    We need to wake up and smell the Postum and remember that as the barriers between church and state (the Free Exercise Clause and Establishment Clause among other elements of the First Amendment, as well as certain applications of the liberty-protecting and equal protection-guaranteeing aspects of the Fourteenth Amendment) are weakened by the tinkering of our own erstwhile Culture War allies (with our implicit and explicit support, apparently), we will be among the first whose beliefs are burdened by such legislation. Why, oh why can’t our people see that? Why do they run with the FoxNews crowd in this country?

    The Culture Wars simply aren’t worth it! Let us be simply Christians, governing ourselves according to correct principles within a secular society that protects all religions by not endorsing one over the other!

  19. “Official State Atheism” is not silence on the part of the government. It is an active promotion of atheism, which might include public/government sponsored ridiculing of people of faith, These was regularly done in USSR for example. Complete prohibition of expressions of faith on state property includes expressions of no-faith. The absence of an expression of faith is not an expression of atheism. It is, in fact, the absence of an expression of faith… period. If “lack of faith expression” on the town square is a promotion of atheism, then why not ask for “faith expression” on government contracts, or insist on an expression of faith as part of signing a marriage license, or when paying to get on a bus. When I am paying to get on a bus, the lack of religious expression is not an endorsement of atheism. The fact is, we actually do have faith expression in many public functions: prayer opening of congress, “in God we trust” on coins/money, using a Bible to swear in a President, saying “under God” as part of the flag pledge, etc. The constitutionality of such acts will continue to be questioned. I understand why.

  20. Eve of Destruction says:

    Steve, no I’m not. From the post: “A secular government is one that treats all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same.” It is possible to treat all forms of belief, including unbelief, exactly the same *without* forbidding all expressions of religion on state property. For example, if every religion with adherents in the jurisdiction and the combined unbelievers of the jurisdiction are each allowed the same amount of space and time on state property for their religious expression.

  21. Mike: “This means that city halls should not have nativity scenes (or menorahs or anything else), and official state functions should not advocate any particular end-of-the-year holiday over the many that there are to choose from.”

    I agree with this, if you’re talking about state-sponsored versions of such things. Merely allowing the use of public spaces for those things should be ok if not done on a preferential or exclusionary basis. This is not inconsistent with a separation of church and state. Mind you, the devil is in the implementation details.

    And I also agree with you about expressing wishes of joy in a non-offensive way. I think — especially as a matter of professionalism in a business context — that is the way to go. But I cannot fault an apostle for pushing us to be more overt in our expressions of personal religion. That’s sort of his M.O.

  22. “And I also agree with you about expressing wishes of joy in a non-offensive way. I think — especially as a matter of professionalism in a business context — that is the way to go. But I cannot fault an apostle for pushing us to be more overt in our expressions of personal religion. That’s sort of his M.O.”

    I agree. Apostles gotta apost.

  23. Olde Skool says:

    Re Steve Evans’s point about the goals of corporations in wading into the holiday fray: “If saying “Merry Christmas” made them more money, they’d say it.”

    And that’s precisely why I’d prefer NOT to have corporations wrap themselves all up in Christmas (rather than a more inclusive and nonspecific holiday recognition): I’m not altogether keen about having something that’s sacred to me conscripted to shill for the marketplace. That cheapens things that are sacred to me far more than does a generalized well-wishing.

  24. “And no one is preventing you from saying that, Marc. Thinking that someone is shows that we’ve gone off the rails in this whole war on Christmas nonsense.”

    John F., for the record I dislike Fox news and I think the idea of a war on Christmas is silly. I grew up in a small town in the Bible Belt so I understand what it feels like to be a religious minority. So just because I disagreed with the tone and sentiment of the original post (as I understood it pre-clarification) does not mean I am Sean Hannity.

    There are more than two ways of thinking on this issue. My point is that I don’t have a problem with displays of nativity scenes whether corporate or government. I would not have a problem if Coke had a Happy Hanukah campaign or if a town with a predominantly Islamic population displayed something during Ramadan. We had a Christmas party at work and I brought latkes.

    But go ahead and lump me in with the “Fox news crowd” if it makes you feel better.

    My point is we should all be more open-minded. What is amazing to me though is this type of tone:

    “Those who get offended when friends, neighbors, soft-drink companies, and coffee shops for making their seasonal greetings more inclusive are saying that society should be organized around their beliefs. They are saying that society should be less secular. It is at least worth noting that this is what ISIS and Al-Qaeda are saying too.”

    Those who regret the salutation of “Merry Christmas” has changed to “Happy Holidays” are compared with ISIS and Al-Qaeda??? This seems to be a bit extreme.

    Just my two cents.

  25. “I would not have a problem if Coke had a Happy Hanukah campaign or if a town with a predominantly Islamic population displayed something during Ramadan.”

    Before this gets criticized, I am just fine with a town of minority or nonexistent Islamic population displays something during Ramadan. I think religious expression is great. I would love to see that during this period of persecution.

    If we are to be truly “secular” as defined in the OP, would that not mean the state (as our elected body) is free to express religious and nonreligious sentiments with equal protection? Or should the state just ban religious expression?

  26. In New York City, you may close down the schools for the “Jewish holidays” or even for “Rosh Hashanah” or “Yom Kippur,” but God help you if you mention that school closes in late December for “Christmas.” Oh, no. That’s “Winter Break.”

    I don’t think that constitutes a War on Christmas. Rather, it’s a war on common sense, or on reasonable accommodation. And I don’t know what causes it–maybe a corollary to Mencken’s quip about Puritans–the fear that someone, somewhere, might take offense.

  27. Marc,
    “If we are to be truly “secular” as defined in the OP, would that not mean the state (as our elected body) is free to express religious and nonreligious sentiments with equal protection? Or should the state just ban religious expression?”

    This is a false dichotomy. There are definitely options other than the stat expressing a religion and the state banning religious expression. Those other options are what it being advocated. No one is advocating a ban on religious expression.

    Also, anecdotal evidence here: I have never heard anyone get on anyone else’s case for saying Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa or any other specific holiday greeting. I have, on a number of occasions heard people get upset if someone says “Happy Holidays.” Only in reference to it replacing Merry Christmas though. I am willing to admit that this is because I live in Utah and mostly interact with Christians and conservatives. But from my view, it is clear that the people causing any sort of Christmas war, are those who think Christianity should be placed above all other sets of beliefs.

  28. Mark B., the official calendar of the New York City Public School District lists the break as “Winter Recess (including Christmas and New Year’s Day),” which actually makes sense, since it is the time between Christmas and New Years that has always defined the Winter recess from schools. Christmas is quite specifically acknowledged as the first of the two holidays that bookends the break. New York schools also specifically close for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Eid al-Adha, AND Good Friday, which is, combined with Easter, a much more traditionally Christian holiday than Christmas. It also closes for Thanksgiving recess, which is historically a Christian holiday.

    The contention that Christianity gets treated differently than other religions in such a schedule does not hold water. The problem is that Christianity gets treated the same as other religions, and that seems to upset people to no end.

    http://www.uft.org/news/2015-16-new-york-city-school-calendar

  29. The problem is that Christianity gets treated the same as other religions, and that seems to upset people to no end.

    This. That is so well said.

  30. Hear, hear.

    But — as Christians, maybe this should concern us, as evidence perhaps of the waning influence of Christianity on society? At the same time, we should welcome it as a matter of pure religious freedom. So, a wake up call: we need to be more Christian, + a realization of how religion and the public square need to interact.

  31. “But — as Christians, maybe this should concern us, as evidence perhaps of the waning influence of Christianity on society?”

    I think whether on not this concerns a person is a reflection of his/her beliefs about religion and how God interacts with the world.

  32. EBK,

    “No one is advocating a ban on religious expression.”

    Michael clearly states that he believes government bodies should not express religious sentiments. No nativity scene or menorah at city hall. This is what I disagree with. Honoring a religious tradition or expressing a religious sentiment of a state’s citizenry is fine with me. This is very different than enforcing a religious belief. For instance, I think it’s great that NY kids get a holiday for Yom Kippur and Good Friday. Isn’t this a religious expression from a state? Is a school holiday okay but a nativity scene a problem? I’m not sure where the line is.

    I appreciate your anecdotal evidence. I don’t have much experience with that. I think people who get offended with “Happy Holidays” are a little thin-skinned. But, I could say the same about those who get offended with “Merry Christmas.” We should all be a little less sensitive.

  33. “I think whether on not this concerns a person is a reflection of his/her beliefs about religion and how God interacts with the world.”

    well, yeah, that’s sort of the point

  34. Thank you. Good post, good discussion. We don’t teach the principle of secularism enough. The act of putting secularism into the law is America’s greatest gift to the world. It will always be hard to figure out how secularism ought to work in practice. Accommodating new people—and different kinds of people—is always uncomfortable. We are able to draw the lines better when more of us understand what the principle of secularism means.

  35. Mike, you got your unofficial calendar from the UFT website–if you’d taken a moment to look at the URL you might have noticed that. The official calendar has no mention of Christmas–but does specifically name Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Eid al Adha. It does happen to mention Good Friday this school year, but that’s only because Passover doesn’t fall conveniently at the same time as Easter. To be fair, the break for Passover this year is called the Spring Recess.

    But I wasn’t talking about the calendar, official or not. I was talking about 65 years experience having children in the NYC public schools (5 children x 13 years each), in eight different schools. (Think that’s double counting? Then I’ll settle for an even quarter century, from when the oldest started kindergarten to when the youngest graduated from high school.) You may claim that my experience is unrepresentative, but your five minutes’ glance at an unofficial school calendar is considerably less so.

    Maybe there are people who do feel as you claim they do–upset no end that Christianity is treated the same as other religions–but you’ve given me no reason to believe that your view from Wichita is any clearer on that subject than on the actual lived experience of having children attend NYC schools.

  36. Marc,
    There is a difference between banning religious expression and not having official state religious expression. There are zero states in the US that have a completely homogeneous religious population which means their religious expressions are favoring some beliefs over others. I suppose another viable option is to have expressions for every set of beliefs in the state. I’d be ok with this, but it does seem rather complicated in practice.

  37. Clark Goble says:

    One problem of course is even those who say they want pluralism often don’t want it in practice. Thus those who want prayer in school often balk when a Wiccan, Hindu or other religion want to participate using their own tradition. (This is especially the case in certain southern states like Louisiana) Effectively what they are saying is that they want a state religion (typically just Evangelicalism). There was a reason why the country moved away from state religions. (Many early states did have them)

    I think people who want religion in the public sphere (and I’d argue this is a good thing) need to be more accommodating of other religions – especially minority ones like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or even Mormonism.

    That said, while it is true as Michael says that many are concerned Christianity (especially Evangelicalism) gets treated the same as other religions it’s also demonstrably the case that in some rather secular places religious pluralism which includes Christianity isn’t seen as a net good. So in these areas certain minority religions get respect while Christianity doesn’t.

    There’s also a problem where some see even government aid as entailing anyone receiving that aid is acting as the government and thus can’t express religion. While that’s died down more of late, it’s completely understandable why people got upset at this. (To be fair almost always when these are challenged the restrictions are removed – although one can understandably question why one has to deal with the issue in the first place)

    All that said, typically Christians raising such discrimination issues (especially as passed along on Facebook) exaggerate them greatly or neglect to mention the policy was reversed. It happens, but I think overall minority religions face a lot more discrimination.

  38. EBK,

    Which is why I originally said the state should be free to express a religious sentiment as equally as a secular sentiment. It seems a bizarre spin on the law that a state can express any sentiment it wants unless it is religious.

    How complicated is it to allow a state, city, or school to do or say what it wants to say? Enforcing a ban on religious expression seems the more complicated route.

    Again, isn’t a school holiday for Yom Kippur a state favoring one religion over another? Isn’t that a religious expression? Should that be banned too?

  39. I’m surprised that no one has yet brought French laïcité–the form of secularism according to which one is French first and anything else second–into this discussion, since the headscarf ban was (and remains) such a controversial application of the principle. I’ve recently read arguments that laïcité actively prevents the French government from even being aware of anti-Muslim discrimination, because keeping statistics that include religious affiliation runs counter to the principle, even though the existence of such discrimination is obvious to most observers. In the US, it seems that we apply secularism less robustly than does France. The result is messy, in that some practices persist which are not wholly innocent of using state power to endorse particular religions, usually but not always Christianity, but the upside of this less than perfect implementation of the secular principle is that we get to argue about religious discrimination and try to do something about it when it happens.

    Also complicating conversations about secularism are Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment “secularization narratives” (the most famous is Weber’s book on the Protestant Ethic) according to which religious practices over time have their spiritual aspects replaced by this-worldly ones. A cruder version is the idea that reason will eventually triumph over superstition, producing a sensible atheism. The problem with these narratives is that neither has worked out in practice. Religion obviously remains a big deal in the US, and even in so-called godless Europe, the influx of Muslim immigrants keeps religion politically relevant. In this second sense of “secular,” then, I think it makes sense to talk about “post-secularism,” which is the conversation about how to have a society in which secular worldviews exist alongside religious ones. I’m of the view that a better implementation of the secular principle (because I agree that on the whole the state shouldn’t be enforcing religion on people) becomes possible when we really start thinking through post-secularism, because it’s a perspective that puts both the power and the limits of the secular principle on the table.

    (But I’m an academic with a penchant for philosophy, so of course I think that better theorization of the problem matters, but I’m more than willing to see the value in practical, ad hoc accommodations that the parties to particular cases manage to work out between themselves.)

  40. Just a couple of questions.

    There are significantly more churches than govt, buildings. How many Christian churches–LDS in particular–put up manger scenes outside during the Christmas season?

    I wonder how Jesus views these debates. When he wants us to be a “witness” did he have in mind quibbling over “Merry Christmas vs Happy Holidays’, or the various materialistic symbols we’ve created to mark the holiday?

  41. “How many Christian churches–LDS in particular–put up manger scenes outside during the Christmas season?”

    It is quite common in the South. I have never seen it in the LDS church but we are the minority here.

  42. Jason, it’s hard to distinguish the various reasons that laïcité has failed in France, but I believe it has largely failed.

  43. Oh, I agree, Steve. All I’m saying is that its failure, in all its complexity, ought to inform American discussions about secularism, mostly by pointing us to start thinking in terms of the postsecular.

  44. Maybe? It should at a minimum point us towards different forms of institutionalized racism and the inability for the state to be a truly neutral actor

  45. Exactly. Those are conversations very much worth having.

  46. Marc,
    “How complicated is it to allow a state, city, or school to do or say what it wants to say? Enforcing a ban on religious expression seems the more complicated route.”

    You keep referring to states, cities, and schools as if they had one uniform collective will. This just isn’t the case. For example, the elementary school I went to was probably about 90% LDS. At the time I went there, every single person in the administration and all but one of the 25 or so teachers were LDS. So pretty much all the decision making people were LDS. That school may have said, “Our school wants to put up a manger and have a Christmas concert complete with religious Christmas songs” (both of which were done every year I attended). But what about the brother and sister who went to my school who were Muslim. None of their traditional songs were sung. None of their holidays were celebrated. They were effectively told that in this town we are Christians. Were those two kids supposed to require to school to represent them? Were their parents who were already struggling to fit in and make friends in a completely Mormon neighborhood. The brother I speak of was one of my best friends later on and often discussed how difficult it was for him growing up to get teachers to understand when he needed time off for religious holidays. Or how frustrating it was that he was often required to celebrate and in a sense worship a Savior he didn’t believe in. That is not okay. The state, or agents of the state should not be forcing children to celebrate a religion they don’t belong to.

  47. Clark Goble says:

    Marc, the stake back in Nova Scotia did that for several years even doing a performance near the nativity. And of course Temple Square has a giant nativity scene although perhaps that’s a bit different.

  48. Hi EBK,

    I think we are heading towards a stand still but I will respond to your statements if you respond to mine.

    “You keep referring to states, cities, and schools as if they had one uniform collective will. This just isn’t the case.”

    I agree, let each say what they wish. If we don’t like it as citizens we can vote them out or file complaints. I prefer that to blanket bans.

    “For example, the elementary school I went to was probably about 90% LDS.”

    No offense, this sounds boring.

    “That school may have said, “Our school wants to put up a manger and have a Christmas concert complete with religious Christmas songs” (both of which were done every year I attended). But what about the brother and sister who went to my school who were Muslim. None of their traditional songs were sung…..The brother I speak of was one of my best friends later on and often discussed how difficult it was for him growing up to get teachers to understand when he needed time off for religious holidays..”

    That is a shame. The teachers in your school should’ve been more sensitive. I was one of the only LDS kids in schools and can remember some teachers being very critical or insensitive of our beliefs.

    “The state, or agents of the state should not be forcing children to celebrate a religion they don’t belong to.”

    Hear, hear. But do you equate a nativity scene with “forcing” children to celebrate a religion? I concede that maybe plays go too far. But here is my point: we can either all be more sensitive and open-minded to religious expression or we can just institute bans on any religious expressions, scenes, memorials, ideas, or gestures from all public bodies. I prefer the first solution.

    Here is my question: where do you draw the line if you want pure secularism? Are plays bad but religious holidays okay? If religious holidays are fine, why are nativity scenes or menorahs bad? Where is the line? Should we do away with holidays? There is a significant religious influence in our culture, society, history, and literature. Is it a problem if we teach this in school?

    Or, alternatively, can we just allow some form of religious expression and try to be more sensitive?

    As I said, the idea of people getting worked up about a “War on Christmas” is silly. I just think people getting worked up about it, or nativity scenes, or “Merry Christmas”, is just the other side of the same coin.

  49. Seeing as 83% of just simply people in America (not excluding those who are not citizens of this country) consider themselves Christian, 13% say they have no religion, and 4% belong to “other”, I don’t see any problem with corporations or our government saying “Merry Christmas”. This country, since its foundation, has been predominantly Christian. The principles by which our country operates were founded on Christian beliefs. By saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone I see does that make me racist or discriminatory or unaccepting of other faiths? I don’t believe so. I think, as a society, we’ve become so prideful as to become upset when we aren’t publicly recognized as a minority. If you really think that you have to say “Happy Holidays” this time of year to be truly respectful of everyone around you, then “Happy Holidays” truly isn’t the term we should use. Perhaps we shouldn’t say anything at all to be respectful to the greater minority of those who don’t pertain to a particular faith? Perhaps we should take God out of our political documents to be respectful to the minority.

    It seems as though many of us think that if we say “Merry Christmas” to someone, it’s an implication that they’re Christian. None of us, that I know of, say Merry Christmas with those thoughts in mind. It’s a kind gesture during a season when everyone is supposed to be unified and kind to one another. That’s it.

    Say whatever the hell you want. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, put on your Yamaka ’cause here comes Hanukkah, it doesn’t matter to me. If someone gets upset or offended over what you said, it’s their problem not yours.

  50. ” By saying “Merry Christmas” to everyone I see does that make me racist or discriminatory or unaccepting of other faiths? I don’t believe so. ”

    I guess it depends partly on your definitions. It does make you somewhat insensitive to the religions of others.

  51. Marc,
    I agree that we probably won’t ever agree on this issue.

    “I agree, let each say what they wish. If we don’t like it as citizens we can vote them out or file complaints. I prefer that to blanket bans.”

    This sounds essentially like those in the majority and those in a position of privilege get to make the decisions. Everyone else is allowed to file a complaint, which will do nothing if you are in the minority of people complaining. So in real life, this becomes, “if you don’t like it, too bad. Most of us like it.” I just don’t think this is the best solution. Maybe I just don’t understand why having a nativity scene at a public school is so important that it is worth further alienating small children who are already in the minority. Put a nativity scene up at your house, put one up at your church, put one up on your desk at work. I’m fine with all of this, but when you are making a religious declaration for an organization, every single person who is part of that organization better agree on it. If that is not practical or possible, then don’t do it.

  52. Clark Goble says:

    Steve, honest question on the “Merry Christmas” issue. Would you feel offended if someone were to say “Happy Chanukah” to you or “Merry Ramadan”? I wouldn’t.

    Now I recognize there are asymmetries in the relation. That is because Christians are the dominate religion and most minority religious people often feel put upon in a way Christians don’t. So as a practical matter there may be insecurities, offense and so forth that apply in one case but don’t in the other. And I fully agree that we have to care about such things. I’d likely not say “Merry Christmas” to a Sikh in a turban for instance or someone in the garb of an orthodox Jew.

    Yet I dare say most people you encounter have no obvious signs of their religion. I’m not sure it’s religiously insensitive to say Merry Christmas to people I meet on the street. (Especially not in many locations like Utah where most likely most people are either Christian or come from that background)

  53. “when you are making a religious declaration for an organization, every single person who is part of that organization better agree on it. If that is not practical or possible, then don’t do it.”

    And I am fine with this. It should be up to the organization and if they choose no religious expression……then that is fine with me.

    “but when you are making a religious declaration for an organization, every single person who is part of that organization better agree on it. If that is not practical or possible, then don’t do it.”

    Well…….that seems difficult. The White House has a yearly Iftar dinner to celebrate Ramadan. I think it is a great way to honor Islamic belief. But that would have to go as well under your rule.

    When did we all get so sensitive?

  54. Clark Goble says:

    Wes, according to the latest data the percentage who are Christian has dropped a lot. The latest Pew data has only 70% self-identifying as Christian. Just under 6% are non-Christian religions. (Oddly Pew puts unitarians as neither Christian nor non-Christian) Admittedly of the not-religiously affiliated the figure is pretty frothy. (That is the category is an aggregate one. Much like the 1% in income, the actual people in that category differ each year as people move in and out. So likely a reasonable amount are loosely affiliated to Christian but so loosely they don’t mind calling themselves non-religious.)

  55. A friend reminded me of this yesterday: before the American Evangelical religious political right wing and FoxNews invented the “War on Christmas” as a means to provoke outrage among Evangelical Christians and motivate them to vote for candidates who promised to weaken the separation of Church and state, and before everyone in the Baby Boomer generation (and their parents) discovered that they could just encode with the term “political correctness” all of their discontent with a society that is trying to remedy many of the societal abuses that they didn’t find problematic or actively agreed with/supported, our school teachers used to teach us to say “Happy Holidays” just to be sensitive, tolerant, and accommodating, under the rubric of “just be nice to people.”

    So much for the good old days, right? These Culture Wars and the contrived outrage over the fake “War on Christmas” are much preferable for us as Mormons who are trying to cozy up to erstwhile allies who are going to throw us under the bus faster than you can blink if their objectives are ever secured.

  56. Clark Goble says:

    John F, I think culture wars have been a part of our country since before its founding. Maybe the particular ways the debate went have changed, but if you think this debate is just since the 80’s I think you’re wrong.

    Interestingly this whole debate about public displays of Christmas really was a big issue during Puritan domination of England. They spent an enormous amount of social capital trying to purge the holiday of pagan trappings. They actually ended up banning the holiday replacing it with a day of fasting. The response was pro-Christmas riots.

    Say what you will about Fox News, but I don’t think anything remotely came close to what was much less metaphorically a war on Christmas. This puritan view was in America as well with Christmas being banned by the state in Boston around the same era. While the ban was eventually repealed it wasn’t well into the 19th century that the social situation changed.

    As someone else (Steve?) said the revival of Christmas as a public social festival owes as much to Dickens as anyone.

    The worry about pagan mixing and especially unsocial excesses like riotous partying and drinking continued with it’s revival – in some ways mirroring the original reasons the Puritans tried to stop the holiday. So very early in its revival were concerns about greed and materialism. In the early postwar era you had people railing against saying Xmas rather than Christmas as well as pagan influences like Santa Claus and Christmas trees. (Although I thought Santa Claus was supposed to be St. Nick the battling bruiser of the Trinitarian debate where he actually beat someone up over what he saw as heresy about the Trinity)

    It’s true the current publicity owes a lot to Fox News and Bill O’Reilly in particular. But it’s also fair to say this arose at a period when how the church/state separation should be understood has been under revision by significant elements of the left. (The UCLA in particular has taken up court cases over certain Christmas displays) Even the O’Reilly pimping of the controversy owed a lot to New York City schools banning in 2002 the display of nativity scenes while allowing Christmas trees, muslim stars and recents, and Hanukkah menorahs.

  57. a hint, Wes (12:42 pm): when the FoxNews crowd talks about America being a “Christian nation,” that doesn’t include Mormons.

  58. Clark Goble says:

    I don’t think that’s true John. Admittedly I’m not a Fox News guy. However say what one will about Romney but I think that changed how Mormons are viewed by at least conservatives. Now among liberals we’re probably viewed worse. LOL.

    As a practical matter when it comes to day to day public Christianity there’s not a big gap between Mormons and protestants.

  59. Clark Goble (December 11, 2015 at 1:56 pm):

    When people say “Happy Hanukkah,” I’m not offended. When people say “Happy Holidays,” I notice and I feel included.

    It’s like when people ask about my “husband”; I’m not offended. When people ask about my “spouse” or “partner,” I notice and I feel included.

    I notice the people who choose inclusive language, and I appreciate them. I feel warm towards them. Their efforts at inclusiveness support connection and community.

    When people tell me they wish me a “Happy Their-holiday-not-mine,” they do not invite connection and community. They miss the opportunity to communicate their humility (i.e., it’s not all about them) and their openness to people who differ from them.

    When people show anger that others are using “Happy Holidays” as a greeting instead of “Merry Christmas,” they not only miss an opportunity to communicate inclusiveness. They actively communicate arrogance and disdain.

  60. Disdain is the right word, I think.

  61. I don’t want a part of any war on Christmas that does not involve Lee Majors.

  62. sir_didymus24 says:

    Did anyone happen to see Dallin H. Oaks’ Facebook post yesterday?

    For the record, it made me nauseated.
    Here’s what it said:

    A few years ago, I analyzed the Christmas cards I received at my office and home. There were many, so this was not a small sample. Significantly, my sample was biased toward religious images and words by the fact that most of the cards were sent by fellow leaders or members of my faith.

    I sorted the cards I received into three groups. In the first group I put the traditional cards—those with an overt mention of Christ and/or pictures evocative of the birth of the Savior. Only 24 percent of the cards I received were of this traditional character.

    In the second group were those cards whose pictures and visuals were not at all religious, but they did have the words “Merry Christmas” to identify the religious origin of the holiday. This was the largest group—47 percent.

    In the third group—comprising 29 percent of the cards I received—there was no mention of Christ or Christmas and no religious visuals at all. These cards had words like “Season’s Greetings,” “Happy Holidays,” “Peace in the New Year,” or “Peace and Beauty of the Season.” A few were so daring as to refer to “Peace on Earth” or “Faith, Hope, and Love,” but none had any pictures suggestive of religion.

    For Latter-day Saints, Christmas should be a time to celebrate the birth of the Son of God and also to remember His teachings. In reality, His life has had greater impact on every part of this world and its history than any life ever lived. His gifts to us are the greatest gifts ever given—the assurance of immortality and the opportunity for eternal life. Those are the gifts we should celebrate at this and every Christmas.

  63. A former marine once told me that what brings people together is fighting against a common enemy. That is what his experience had taught him. I believe that what brings people together is working towards a common goal, enemy not required.

    I agree with Sir D. Oak’s post isn’t a call for unity, but a delineation of us vs. them, based on the content of a greeting card.