WASHINGTON – With Fox news anchor John Gibson helping to lead the charge,conservatives this season have lashed out against an alleged liberal plot to wage a war on Christmas.
In a series of anecdotes,Gibson details the perceived issue in his book,“The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought,” released in October.
Through the book,which reads sort of like a Puritan sermon,the situation seems like an all-out crusade.
But can it really be labeled a war?
Not exactly,say many on the other side,including Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
“There is no war on Christmas,” said Rob Boston,a representative for Americans United. “It's a typical right-wing screed with all the subtlety of a sharp stick in your eye. Gibson is merely Ann Coulter with goofy white hair. A book like that is the last thing we need to find a common-ground solution.”
Gibson admits that he might come off a little strong.
“It's not World War III,” Gibson said. “It's more along the lines of an insurgency – a little guerrilla war.”
For Gibson and company,one must look no farther than public schools and department stores to see it. Gibson himself found it in smaller towns,mostly in elementary schools where,for instance,administrators had censored religious speech or relabeled school calendars and Christmas trees.
Students in Covington,Ga.,went on a bleak “winter break” instead of a joyful “Christmas break.” Santa Claus was barred from Baldwin City,Kan.,schools. In Plano,Texas,students at one elementary school weren't allowed candy canes after one girl apprised her classmates that the “J” shape is a symbol for “Jesus.” And “holiday trees” are springing up everywhere.
Such accounts by Gibson and others – evangelist Jerry Falwell and Fox program host Bill O'Reilly included – have helped garner national coverage.
Though most of the reports are substantiated,they tend to be sensationalized,some say,and at least one – a statement by O'Reilly that the colors red and green were banned from a school in Plano – is untrue,Plano Superintendent Doug Otto wrote to parents,according to press reports.
“It wasn't even a thing,” said Craig Goodmark,an ACLU lawyer who advised the school board in Covington about what to label their break. “It was like a small deal,and now it's becoming a thing again.”
Gibson argues that such decisions often result from pressure by groups like the ACLU and a fear of legal trouble. But many stem from the desire to embrace religious diversity – President Bush's Christmas card has offered neutral seasonal wishes since he took office.
Still,many religious conservatives consider inclusiveness a poor excuse for shunning Christmas,its sacred and secular symbols. The solution is simple,they say; just call the season what it is,for God's sake.
Many were outraged when Macy's excluded the word “Christmas” from advertising last year. They were again this year,when Target committed the same blasphemy. After threat of boycott and angry responses,Macy's reinstated “Merry Christmas” in displays and advertising this year.
“This time of year,we're breaking for one reason and one reason only,” said John Whitehead,a First Amendment lawyer who founded the Rutherford Institute,which defends civil rights often involving religion. “Historically,it's the Christmas holiday. When I was a kid,nobody was afraid to say it was Christmas. Who's offended?”
And Gibson argues that eliminating Christmas spares the feelings of few,who probably wouldn't be offended anyway,because it's “not really a religiously diverse country.”
Charles Haynes,a scholar at the Freedom Forum in Arlington,Va.,disagrees.
“Actually,in most public schools we're very diverse,” Haynes said. “And many Christian groups are very diverse. Some Christian groups don't even celebrate Christmas in December.”
Haynes also said it's important to understand the First Amendment,which both sides use as a crutch to institute or question policies regarding religion and speech.
“The First Amendment separates church from state; it does not separate religion from public life,” he said. “I think if we were more careful to make that distinction,there would be less anxiety among religious people that somehow they were being excluded.”
But as long as the distinction is still muddled to many,it seems likely that the religious pie fighting will go on,and people like Gibson will continue to march to the ideological battleground,equipped with plenty of inflammatory phrases.
“Am I sometimes given to a little hyperbole?” Gibson said. “Well,maybe.”