The culture wars have clearly gotten out of hand when the front line is Christmas. I am a Christian and I celebrate Christmas. But I’m from the old school where we were offended by the commercial exploitation of what to me is a sacred event. The birth of Jesus is sacred to those who have been impacted by the meaning of his life. It is a significant event even without the virgin birth, manger and magi. After all, two of the four Gospels (including the first written, Mark) did not even include an infancy narrative.

The culture wars, however, are about placing such markers in public places to assist and reassure those who have difficulty navigating the new multicultural waters. Seemingly, for those who are concerned that the dominance of Christianity is under threat by pagans and secularists it is not enough to gather weekly with 10,000 of their closest friends at the local mega-church. They need “every knee to bow and every mouth confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). That’s what Merry Christmas really means (at least to traditional and conservative Christians). So they are now on a campaign to make every retailer in their stores and print and electronic advertisements, every public official and every street lamp decorated with garland and lights scream at them, “Merry Christmas!” Ironically, it is reported that several prominent mega-churches are closing their doors on Sunday, Dec. 25, because most of their members prefer to be at home opening gifts than at church adoring the Christ child.

Since there are more of them than there are of us (liberal-progressive Christians, secularists and members of other religions), the retailers see no significant downside to caving in to the religious right, and it seems that this season they have. More and more the obligatory phrase is showing up in the malls and shopping centers. Retailers hoping to encourage sales but not offend anyone have a very difficult task. How can they not offend anyone when different groups are offended by each other? I don’t envy them.

So it seems they have sided with the most offended (and the most powerful). This is exactly the type of tyranny of the majority that our nation’s founders hoped to preclude by the incredible balance struck in the Constitution. But commercial advertisements are not quite constitutional issues. So while I’m offended by the exploitation of my sacred day I am not going to make a federal case of it.

However, when they cross the line to our public schools, government officials and buildings, then it’s federal. Our schoolchildren should not be pressured to participate in religious activities that do not reflect the chosen faith (or non-faith) of their families. Even if there were only one student whose family would object. Our government buildings should not be used as props for farm animals and magic men fawning over a cabbage patch baby Jesus.

Last week the right-wing Christians got their tinsel in a twist because George W. Bush issued a “holiday greeting” instead of a proper “Christmas card.” No complaint was lodged over the first four cards sent out by the Bushes, but now the fundamentalists are “mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore!”

The president is the president of all the people (even if I didn’t vote for him). His greeting should embrace all people. Unless he is going to segregate his list among the various factions (as Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson did) he should continue to wish the nation “Happy holidays.”

The saddest part of all is that the offended Christians would be satisfied by so shallow a gesture as this simple phrase. We used to think that putting the Christ back in Christmas meant that Christians would stop being so materialistic and focus on what the birth of Jesus meant for their lives and how we might bring peace to the world! None of us thought it meant putting the word Christ back in junk mail circulars and forcing unsuspecting sales clerks to wish us a “Merry Christmas.”

So for my part, I will buy some gifts, send some holiday cards to my diverse friends and celebrate Christmas at church on Christmas Sunday morning.

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