Do they know it’s Christmas?

Forget 'Peace on Earth' - Christmas has become a battleground in the culture war over the status of religion.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Never mind ‘Peace on Earth, Goodwill to All Men’ – Christmas has become a battleground in the confused clash of values over the status of religion in modern society. It is difficult to know who or what to believe in the perplexing debate about the War on Christmas. On one side, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, is convinced that ‘illiberal atheists and aggressive secularists’ have launched a crusade against the Christian symbols of Christmas. On the other side, a Guardian writer claims that ‘The phoney war on Christmas’ is a fantasy dreamt up by religious bigots (1), while the president of the National Secular Society thinks that those raising the alarm about an attack on Christmas are trying to provoke ‘resentment against a perceived enemy’.

Depending on whom you believe there may or may not be a war on Christmas. And there may or may not be an underhand anti-secular campaign masquerading as a defence of traditional Christmas. The only thing that we can be certain about is that there definitely is a debate between at least two sides that deeply dislike each other. Whether or not there is a war against Christmas, there is certainly a war of words about it. And whatever the facts, Christmas has been turned into a symbolic battlefield in an undeclared culture war throughout the Anglo-American world.

The symbolic significance of Christmas has been recognised in the United States by both sides in the culture war. Liberal author Bill Press’s book, How The Republicans Stole Christmas: Why The Religious Right Is Wrong About Faith and Politics And What Can We Do To Make It Right is more than matched by Fox News anchorman John Gibson’s effort, The War on Christmas: How The Liberal Plot To Ban The Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Both of these books are long on titles, short on ideas and betray a powerful sense of moral illiteracy.

So what is going on? There may not be a concerted war against Christmas, but this symbolically charged holiday has become a target of critics who would like to marginalise its role in public life. Nibbling away at the status of Christmas is not without consequences. According to a new report, three out of four UK employers have banned Christmas decorations from their offices because they are concerned not to offend other faiths (2). Of course these headline-seeking surveys should be taken with a large pinch of salt. Christmas celebrations have not quite been abolished in the British workplace. My own quick survey of friends and acquaintances indicates that Christmas is still celebrated, but in a more restrained manner. One human resources director told me that she felt uneasy about the office Christmas party because it ‘raised equality issues’. ‘What if some employees insist on a Diwali Party’ she asked. This kind of attitude explains why in many workplaces the Christmas spirit has become conspicuous by its absence. Some company killjoys are motivated to abolish the Christmas office party to avoid the risk of health and safety and litigation. Others do not want to ‘offend’ non-Christians. They see Christmas becoming a hassle that they can well do without.

That the times are changing is demonstrated by the number of cards I get that self-consciously avoid wishing me ‘Happy Christmas’. The growing tendency towards sending a Christian-free card is definitely not a fantasy invented by religious bigots. Everyone knows that it is happening and that such cards are implicitly making a statement. That is why there has been so much media interest in this year’s seasonal cards sent out by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Just this morning I received a surprisingly humorous card from the Commission For Racial Equality. The front of this send-up card states that it is a ‘DRAFT Christmas Card Proposal’, and is covered in scrawled questions about whether the pictured reindeer are sufficiently diverse, whether a risk assessment has been done on the candles etc . Inside, where it states ‘Season’s greetings from the CRE’, the word ‘Season’s’ is circled and linked to a question ‘Christmas?’ The card highlights a world where the words you choose to greet people have symbolic significance. Like all good satire, this card points to something very real going on in society (view the card).

If Christmas is losing its monopoly in the seasonal cards market, its role has also diminished within UK schools. Many schools no longer stage a nativity play, and the Christmas concert is often transformed into a worthy multi-cultural and multi-faith celebration of ‘diversity’ or of nothing in particular. Elsewhere the Red Cross has reportedly banned its staff from putting up Advent calendars associated with Christmas, and there are various reports of the local council language police rebranding Christmas lights as Winterlights or renaming Christmas ‘Winterval’.

The attempt to deprive Christmas of any distinct religious or cultural significance is not confined to Britain. In Australia, the Lord Mayor of Sydney decided to ban the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ and turn Christmas cards into civic greetings cards. In the USA, too, there are many sad anti-Christmas crusaders who criticise the event for excluding or offending non-Christians. One state government banned employees from saying ‘Merry Christmas’ while at work. Many American schools have renamed the Christmas break as ‘Winter Break’ or ‘Winter Celebration’. These incidents do not quite add up to a war, but they do reflect a cultural mood that seems uncomfortable with the celebration of a traditional Christmas.

Predictably there is now also a counter-campaign to uphold traditional Christmas symbols and practices. The Sun, Britain’s largest selling daily, has launched a campaign to ‘save’ Christmas from political correctness, denouncing officious bureaucrats for their petty attempts to spoil the Christmas celebrations. Both the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams and the Roman Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor have attacked the trend for downplaying the traditional image of Christmas; Williams took particular exception to the absence of any Christian themes in Christmas stamps issued by the Royal Mail. Some Muslim leaders are also worried that those trying to marginalise Christmas could provoke popular hostility, and that Muslims will be blamed. Last month the Christian-Muslim Forum published a letter criticising the attempt to suppress Christmas.

Some supporters of the campaign to save Christmas appear to believe that the problem they confront is that of militant secularism. The missive issued by the Forum, in the name of a leading Islamic cleric and the Anglican Bishop of Bolton, states that ‘there seems to be a secularising agenda which fails to understand the concerns of religious communities’. The leaders of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church objected to what they see as an ‘ongoing secularist campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas’ (3). That same theme is expounded upon in a report by a new think-tank, Theos, entitled Doing God: A Future for Faith in the Public Square. ‘Aggressive secularists’ are also the target of the Archbishop of York.

However, secularism as such should not be held responsible for the behaviour of simpletons who wish to rebrand Christmas into a meaningless exercise in diversity. It is worth noting that the institution of Christmas has coexisted with secularism for a very long time. More importantly, Christmas has been secularised for more than a century. Yes, the festivities have an important religious dimension, but most people experience the rituals associated with Christmas in a very secular manner. Of course, many of us decry the commercialisation, yet shopping represents a far more important dimension of our Christmas experience than going to Church. The amount of energy devoted to the purchase of Christmas presents far outweighs what is channelled into religious reflection.

Whatever church leaders say there is no need for a malevolent atheist campaign to drive Christ out of Christmas. For a very long time now Christ has had only a walk-on part in the proceedings. The gifts, the office party, the family meal, the boozing and all the hectic activity around the Xmas tree are profoundly secular events that nevertheless have major significance for people’s lives. That Christianity provides the story and also gives meaning to this experience points to the relatively harmonious interaction between the religious and the secular, at least at that time of year. That is why, through many decades, the secularisation of Christmas did not diminish the symbolic importance of the event.

By protesting about the alleged aggressive secularisation of Christmas, the Church evades confronting the difficult question: why is it now unable to give Christian meaning to Christmas? This month a vicar in Dorset banned a man from wearing a Santa Claus outfit in his carol service. Apparently the good vicar wanted to put religion at the heart of the celebration, to counter the influence of secularism and materialism (4). However, it is more likely to be the Church itself, not the wearing of Santa hats, that is responsible for the feeble sense of religious meaning associated with the celebration of Christmas.

The attempt to restrict the public role of Christmas is encouraged not so much by a hatred of religion, but by a profound sense of moral malaise. It has become commonplace in contemporary Western society to assume that it is not possible for us to have a common language through which we make sense of the world. It is assumed that there are no durable values that can transcend differences in identity, culture and religion. Instead of attempting to uphold values to which all humans can subscribe, we are counselled to respect difference and celebrate diversity. From this perspective, it is offensive to wish ‘Happy Christmas’ to someone who is not a practising Christian. Such sentiments are now fairly widespread – at least among sections of the middle class and in public institutions. Which is why many of us play it safe and send out cards that refrain from wishing the recipient ‘Merry Christmas’.

The bewilderment that surrounds Christmas is symptomatic of the far wider problem of not knowing how to behave in circumstances where we lack a moral language for expressing right and wrong. We feel far more comfortable describing something as safe or risky than in making a value judgement using words like good or bad. That is why critics of Christmas often hide behind the language of health and safety. For example the Sun ripped into the management of a Castleford shopping centre for preventing a 30-strong choir from performing in their usual spot because it was deemed too risky for them to stand in front of the fire exit. In the same way, a major bank warned its employees not to place Christmas decorations near computers as they could be a fire hazard.

The Sun also rightly took exception to the child protection campaign Kidscape’s demand that youngsters should be banned from sitting on Santa’s knee. In this case the prevailing mistrust about the moral status of grown-up men makes it easy to question the role of Santa Claus. Of course although Santa is not a religious figure he serves as a recognised symbol of Christmas. Michelle Elliot, Kidscape’s director argued that ‘you can’t vet all the people dressed as Santa’. Which is why a shopping centre in Llanelli, South Wales has installed a webcam to spy on Santa. And if Santa needs to undergo a police check why not the church leader who is in charge of a choir of children practising their Christmas carols?

Fear of paedophiles masquerading as Santa Claus, an obsession with health and safety, a mood of risk aversion and anxiety about offending others are powerful motifs that influence everyday life and encourage doubts about the familiar. That is why there is so much pressure on Christmas to reform its image. There is also another influence at work. Western society finds it increasingly difficult to affirm its institutions and celebrate its achievements. A powerful mood of cynicism prevails that uncritically dismisses tradition and celebrates the most shallow and philistine reaction against it.

In this vein, Channel 4 television has decided to transmit an ‘Alternative Christmas Message’ by a Muslim woman in a veil, at the same time as the Queen’s traditionally Christian message. Lacking the moral resources to deliver a statement on its own account, Channel 4 has opted for hiding behind a mask. It is not so much a hatred of Christianity but a mood of moral disorientation that encourages the desire to devalue the meaning of Christmas. Nevertheless, it is hardly surprising that some church leaders should interpret this response as symptomatic of a bias against Christianity. ‘This country disbelieves in itself in an amazing way’ observed the Archbishop of York.

To fully understand the controversy provoked by Christmas, it is helpful to explore the wider debate about religion that has erupted in recent times.

A confused debate

Religion has become a subject of public controversy. In recent years the underlying conflict of values in Western societies – often called the culture war – has been complicated by arguments surrounding the role of Islam. For some protagonists in the culture war the alleged sensitivity of Islam to the religious symbols of other faiths represents an argument for restraining public display of Christianity. Concern to avoid causing offence has led to promiscuous use of the label ‘Islamophobia’. Anybody who criticises Islam risks being categorised as an Islamophobe, and the ‘incitement of religious hatred’ has become a crime in the UK.

Ironically, official concern regarding religious hatred coexists with confusion about the role of religion in society. That is why controversy has suddenly attached itself to unexpected subjects. In some workplaces people are discouraged from wearing symbols of their faith – a headscarf or a cross. Faith schools – which have existed for a very long time – have been accused them of imbuing children with fundamentalist beliefs. And in the media religion is frequently represented as a negative influence on public life. The heads of the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church are not far off the target when they decry the tendency of some secular commentators to depict religious faith as a threat.

There are some worrying signs of intolerance towards those who profess faith in religion. It was reported last month that Christian Unions at Exeter, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities were suspended or had their privileges removed by the student union on the grounds that they discriminated against non-Christians and their beliefs were ‘too exclusive’. Some student associations demand that Christian Unions open their membership to anyone, whether or not they share their faith. The student guild at Exeter University argued that, since the Christian Union asked members to sign a form indicating that they follow Christ, the society was not open to all and hence violated equal opportunity rules. The National Union of Students justified the bureaucratic policing of evangelical students and stated that its aim was to restrict the ‘exclusivity’ of Christian societies.

The attempt to force religious organisations to admit non-believers seems more discriminatory than the desire of Christian students to belong to a society that reflects their beliefs. It is unlikely that the NUS would demand that the vegetarian society allow meat eaters to join its executive. Nor would it insist that Conservative students be allowed to vote for the executive of the Socialist society. The charge that religion is ‘too exclusive’ frequently serves as a prelude to the accusation that it is intolerant and dangerous. It was in this spirit that ageing pop star Elton John said he would like to ‘ban religion completely’ because it advocates hatred against gays. The casual manner in which Elton John expresses his desire to ‘ban’ religion serves as a reminder of the depth of intolerance among some critics of religious intolerance. It is evident that opponents of religious ‘fundamentalism’ or ‘fanaticism’ are no less zealous or narrow-minded than their enemies.

Intellectual critics of religion often use intemperate language that is more than a match for any fundamentalist preacher. Sam Harris, the American atheist author of Letter to a Christian Nation has denounced religion as ‘obscene’. Many such attacks on religion are motivated by a powerful sense of intolerance and betray an authoritarian impulse. Oxford professor Richard Dawkins has launched a one-man inquisition against people of faith. In contrast to the honourable humanist tradition of questioning superstition and anti-rationality, Dawkins is also in the business of social engineering. His response to critics of the Enlightenment is to shove it down their throat. ‘It’s one thing to say people should be free to believe whatever they like, but should they be free to impose their beliefs on their children’ asks Dawkins before suggesting that there might be ‘something to be said for society stepping in’. And whatever hysterical visions are evoked by apocalyptic religions would have trouble competing with the prophecies of doom from Sam Harris the professional anti-religionist. In The End of Faith : Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Harris warns that unless we abandon faith religious hatred and violence will soon lead to the destruction of civilisation

Harris’ warning about religion’s threat to the future of civilisation illustrates the intense passion with which this debate is conducted. The belief that religious fundamentalism is on the offensive and is threatening to dominate public life is widely held on both sides of the Atlantic. For some opponents of the religious right the theocracy has already arrived. From this perspective religion is coupled with intolerance and its influence is always pernicious.

It is worth noting that the rhetorical strategy of discrediting opponents through transmitting scare stories is not confined to any one side. The churches’ allegations that there is a ‘war’ on Christmas are only a counterpoint to the charge that religious bigots are conspiring to ‘steal’ Christmas. Intellectuals on both sides seem to feel more comfortable fighting a pretend war than engaging with the complexities of contemporary life.

So what’s the problem?

What is interesting about the contemporary climate of hostility to faith is that it has encouraged the emergence of a small group of professional atheists. For many commentators atheism is the new radicalism. However, a closer examination suggests that, other than a hatred of religion, much contemporary atheism has little to say. Dawkins’ The God Delusion exemplifies the attempt to turn atheism into an ideology. Yet a careful reading of this book leads us only to the conclusion that the author detests religion. Unfortunately hatred of religion does not necessarily lead to an enlightened perspective on the world.

Anti-religious hysteria is also something of a cop-out. It evades confronting the causes of many of the difficulties facing society through blaming them on religion. The new atheists often pick on relatively simple targets like creationism and intelligent design to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. However, these forms of contemporary superstition do not pose the real challenge to scientific thought and reason. Society today finds it very difficult to uphold and celebrate its own scientific heritage. Consequently suspicion towards rationality and objective science pervades academia, public institutions and political life. In a world where ‘alternative medicine’, ‘healing’. ‘holistic therapy’ or ‘emotional intelligence’ influence the imagination of our cultural elites, who needs creationism to undermine rationality?

Organised religion is no less opportunistic than its critics. For some time now Christianity has found it difficult to affirm its religious authority through the medium of theology. Instead it has sought to embrace other institutions to lend legitimacy to its authority. Vicars have adopted therapy culture to reinvent themselves as Christian counsellors. In the USA some evangelicals have embraced environmentalism and now promote ‘creation care’. However these tactics only highlight the inability of the Church to set its own religious agenda.

In the UK the defensive and feeble authority of Christian Churches have been thrown into relief by the more robust orientation of Islamic clerics. During the past five years advocates of Islam have adopted an assertive public profile demanding recognition and support for their way of life. Predictably many observers have contrasted the expansion of their influence with the diminishing authority of Christian institutions. The self-assured behaviour of Muslim leaders has probably forced the leaders of the Christian churches to adopt a less defensive posture. Their call to defend Christmas and hold back the tide of secularism unimaginatively borrows from the US experience. But it also represents a belated attempt to copy the campaigning tactics of their Muslim colleagues. Defending Christmas has provided the churches with an opportunity to demonstrate that there is still a bit of life left in their institutions .

This war of words is about many things, but not really about Christmas.

Frank Furedi is author of Politics of Fear: Beyond Left and Right, published by Continuum (buy this book from Amazon(UK)).

(1) ‘The phoney war on Christmas’, Guardian, 8 December 2006

(2) See ‘Christmas ban “For Fear of Offence”’, Yorkshire Post, 6 December 2006

(3) See Christianity Today, 9 November 2006

(4) ‘The Church of the Non-Believers, Interview with Gary Wolf’, Wired, 14 November 2006

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