It’s that time of year again—the time when we light advent candles, celebrate our savior’s birth, and complain about how people don’t say “Merry Christmas” anymore. Every year, I hear Christians bemoaning the secularization of our country evidenced in hearing “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” This year the “war” even made it into one of Rick Perry’s campaign advertisements where the republican candidate claimed that “our children can’t openly celebrate Christmas.” Since I don’t personally know anyone whose children have been forced to celebrate Christmas in secrecy, I have to wonder if American Christians have fundamentally misunderstood the Kingdom of Christ in their appropriation of their most treasured religious holiday.
Each year the Liberty Counsel publishes a “Naughty and Nice list.” The list reports on retailers that acknowledge Christmas and those that do not. “Naughty” companies include, American Eagle, Old Navy and Staples while Walmart, Target, and JC Penny are made the Christmas-loving “nice” list. The Liberty Counsel, however, is not just letting us know what companies celebrate Christmas but also calling upon Christians to boycott those that do not. For instance, the LC describes The Gap like this:
Naughty for six years over flagrant disregard for “Christmas.” Web site: “the GIVE JOY Shopping Event,” “GIFT me” and “Shop Perfect Holiday Presents” on home page. Search revealed only two secular items listed under “Christmas.” Printed ads in popular magazines “I Want Candy.” Company purged “Christmas” in stores or other advertisements. Contact Gap to politely explain why your Christmas dollars are spent at competitors who embrace “Christmas.”
The persistence of things like the LC’s “Naughty and Nice List” tells us something about the state of evangelicalism in America. If we really think that pressuring businesses into using proper terminology in their advertisements is going to accomplish anything for the kingdom of Christ we are being terribly naive.
In America, we are blessed with religious liberty—a freedom that many people across the globe do not enjoy. Yet it seems we are constantly looking for ways that our religious liberty is being denied. Perhaps the lack of persecution in America causes us to feel as if something is lacking in our religious practice. As a result, many Christians manufacture persecution and spread rumors that the white house was going to ban Christmas trees and rename them “Holiday Trees”. Many claim our religious freedoms are being denied when private companies exercise their free speech by refusing to promote Christian products.
If we really believe in the principle of religious liberty, we must believe that it applies to all people, including those who do not celebrate Christmas. Deliberately replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” may be motivated by a refusal to celebrate the Christian aspects of Christmas, but should we be offended by non-christians refusing to acknowledge our savior or businesses attempting to sell products in neutral, inoffensive ways? One of the great blessings of being an American is our constitutional right to refrain from celebrating all kinds of things. Our non-christian neighbors have the right to “take Christ out of Christmas” if they so choose.
Most Americans don’t care how you greet them at the mall and very few businesses are deliberately removing “Christmas” from their holiday marketing. Most businesses understand that Jesus sells. Evangelical groups like the Liberty Counsel and the American Family Foundation have been surprisingly successful in getting businesses to “put Christ back” in their holiday advertisements. This is troubling for two reasons.
First, when we express personal offense over the refusals of others to celebrate Christmas we misunderstand Christ’s kingdom and how He calls us to advance it. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36) and his baptism is not with water but with the “Holy Spirit and with fire” (Matt. 3:11). To participate in His kingdom, you “must be born again” (John 3:5). Jesus’ most direct command on our part in advancing this kingdom is to “make disciples of all nations … teaching them everything that [Jesus] has commanded.” (Matt. 28:19-20). These spiritual realities of Christ’s kingdom illustrate the folly of trying to shame anyone into it. Jesus came to “seek and save the lost” (Luke 19:10) not to chide them for refusing to celebrate his holidays.
Secondly, I fear that evangelical groups like the AFA and the LC don’t realize what they are asking for when they demand that businesses include religious terminology in their advertisements. If we want Christmas to retain its spiritual significance in our hearts, surely we want to avoid conflating its commercial aspects with its religious ones. If there is any force that has succeeded in “taking Christ out of Christmas,” it’s American consumerism. The fact that some evangelicals want companies to recognize our holiday when they sell us their products is at best naive and at worst hypocritical.
We need to admit that in fighting to “keep Christ in Christmas” we have embraced consumerism and neglected to love our neighbor. If we have any hope of infusing the holidays with spiritual significance, we must stop shaming those who don’t celebrate Christmas and start serving them instead.
Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne.