Conservative Christian fundamentalists, right wing Christian legal groups, and most of the Fox News Channel's prime time crew are echoing variations on the same theme: liberals are once again out to destroy Christmas. Instead of the ancient cry that "Jews killed Christ," fundamentalist Christians and their conservative allies are accusing liberals -- which in those circles is often read, Jews -- for trying to remove Christmas from the public square.
Last year the Rev. Jerry Falwell claimed "secularists" "hate Christ" and want to "steal Christmas from America." This holiday season, Falwell's Lynchburg, VA.-based Thomas Road Baptist Church has joined forces with a Christian legal outfit, Liberty Counsel, for its "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign."
Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly -- under fire for recent explosive comments seemingly condoning the destruction of Coit Tower, San Francisco's monument to heroic firefighters, argued on his program that viewers should shun stores that are "anti-Christmas."
William Donahue's New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civic Rights launched a fevered, and short-lived, boycott of Wal-Mart when the stores' website recognized the terms Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, yet turned the words Christmas season into holiday season. Wal-Mart apologized for the mishap.
The Scottsdale, Arizona-based Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a Christian legal group, announced that 800 attorneys agreed to voluntarily handle without fee complaints about "improper attempts to censor the celebration of Christmas in schools and on public property," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer recently reported. "In 2004, the second year of its 'Christmas Project,' affiliated attorneys sent a detailed memo on ADF's view of Christmas and constitutional law to 7,000 school districts," the newspaper pointed out.
John Gibson, the host of Fox News Channel's "The Big Story," has penned a new book called The War on Christmas (Sentinel, October 2005), which is devoted to the controversy.
Falwell's Christmas play
To paraphrase essayist Jon Mooallen, "The most demoralizing form of violence that could visit a Christian right leader such as the Rev. Jerry Falwell is the violence of not being noticed." While nowhere near being the preeminent fundamentalist figure he was during the halcyon days of the Moral Majority more than a decade ago, nevertheless, Falwell can still command media attention. Moreover, unlike the Rev. Pat Robertson, whose awkward commentaries have become so common that they have become boring, Falwell picks his targets a bit more carefully.
These days he has latched onto a doozy of a controversy: In a recent edition of Falwell Confidential, the online "insider weekly newsletter to The Moral Majority and The Liberty Alliance," he maintained that Christmas is under attack. Christians, Falwell advised, should, "draw a line in the sand and resist bullying tactics by the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, the American Atheists and other leftist organizations that intimidate school and government officials by spreading misinformation about Christmas."
"Celebrating Christmas," Falwell declared, "is constitutional!"
(Coincidentally, the organizations Falwell points out as responsible for attacking Christmas are several of the same groups he blamed for the 9/11 terrorist attacks. He later issued a rather understated apology.)
Targeting left-wing Grinches trying to drive Christmas out of the public square, Falwell wrote, "In many public venues, and in our schools and workplaces, many Americans have discovered that they are not permitted to erect Christmas decorations, exchange Christmas cards or sing Christmas carols."
To combat the Christmas bashers, Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church -- the church he has pastured for almost 50 years -- is sponsoring local newspaper ads promoting its save Christmas campaign. The genesis of the campaign is rooted in last year's effort that included a pro-Christmas advertising campaign organized by Dr. Jerry Prevo, pastor of the Anchorage Baptist Temple, Alaska's largest church. Dr. Prevo, chairman of Falwell's Liberty University Board of Trustees, "thought the ads were necessary in this age of political correctness that has convinced many of our fellow Americans that Christmas is a dirty word," Falwell wrote.
Dr. Prevo worked closely with the Orlando-based Liberty Counsel to formulate the language of the ads, which are part of Liberty Counsel's "Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign". Liberty Counsel describes itself as "a nonprofit litigation, education and policy organization dedicated to advancing religious freedom, the sanctity of human life and the traditional family." The "Friend or Foe..." campaign aims to prevent blatant religious discrimination during the Christmas holidays.
In 2003, the Liberty Counsel organized a campaign called "Don't Let The 'Grinch' [read: liberals] Steal This Christmas." Mathew D. Staver, Liberty Counsel's President and General Counsel, laid out his rationale for that campaign:
In mid-December 2004 on Fox News, the Liberty Counsel's Staver claimed that a former Florida mayor was hostile to Christianity because he was "apparently Jewish."
Fox on board
On the Fox News Channel, ranting about liberals out to destroy Christmas is as ubiquitous and inaccurate as the station's "fair and balanced" credo. Last year, according to Media Matters for America, "In a 'Talking Points Memo' devoted to "[h]ow Martin Luther King would view things today,'" O'Reilly said that King "would be appalled by the secular culture" and by "the attacks on Christmas, the demonizing of Christianity."
In addition to plugging Gibson's book, Fox's Bill O'Reilly recently ranted about the anti-Christmas practices of two major retailers, Sears/K-Mart and Kohl's. On his November 9 2005 broadcast, O'Reilly told his audience:
John Gibson, who claims he is a "non-practicing Christian," recently said that, "his Jewish son researched the book," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported. Gibson maintained that those leading the fight against Christmas are primarily "secularists, so-called humanists, trial lawyers, cultural relativists and liberal, guilt-wracked Christians."
And Sean Hannity, co-host of Fox's "Hannity and Colmes" program weaved the Christmas controversy into a recent segment discussing the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. According to the News Hounds website -- "We watch FOX so you don't have to" -- Hannity introduced the segment on Alito by saying that his "most controversial decision may have [involved] ... the defense of Christmas." Hannity pointed out that Judge Alito "appl[ied] the law" and upheld "common sense" by allowing Jersey City, New Jersey to put up a Christmas display.
The "liberals are messing with Christmas" mantra was the focus of last year's winter fundraising drive by RightMarch.com. The group sent out an "e-alert" that contained a laundry list of examples of how Christmas had been attacked during 2004. RightMarch.com is a group headed by the relatively unknown William Greene, who Campaign & Elections magazine called one of its "Rising Stars of Politics" in 2002, and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times dubbed a "conservative Internet guru."
Greene, who earned his chops while working with the king of direct mail, Richard Viguerie, was aiming "to STOP groups like the ACLU from removing all mentions of Christmas from the public square!"
The centerpiece of the RightMarch campaign was a radio ad that RightMarch.com claimed had aired on more than 200 radio stations around the country and reached over two million people. The message was a simple "stand up and DEFEND Christmas." In addition to the radio spots, RightMarch.com placed full-page newspaper ads in several national publications and organized an extensive Internet ad campaign.
This year, Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church advertisements provide information about "free legal assistance by Liberty Counsel to individuals facing persecution for celebrating Christmas." Liberty Counsel is also providing participants with a free "educational legal memo", containing "a pledge to be a 'Friend' to those entities which do not discriminate against Christmas and a 'Foe' to those that do."
A fundraising scheme?
Over the years, the American Civil Liberties Union has fought religious-themed displays on public property. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "an official ACLU bulletin says the Constitution forbids school observances 'that promote or emphasize the religious significance' of Christmas, but not aspects 'that have become part of our country's secular culture.'"
The ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and evangelical groups have agreed "on minimal rules about school religious issues." On holidays, the accord says schools may celebrate secular aspects and "objectively teach about their religious aspects" but not observe them as religious events.
Americans United believes "public schools aren't the appropriate place to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. That's a job for the home and the church," Americans United's spokesperson Rob Boston told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. The Supreme Court's ruling that towns' Nativity displays must add secular symbols proves that if people "want a truly religious experience, city hall is not the place," Boston added.
Michael Johnson of Shreveport, La., an ADF staff lawyer, told the newspaper that his organization wants to "defend the rights of the 96 percent of Americans who celebrate Christmas." He believes the ACLU's goal is "ultimately to silence people of faith, and in many cases people of the Christian faith."
While it is impossible to get a handle on how much money these holiday season campaigns raise, it sure beats the heck out of your annual run-of-the-mill end-of-year fundraising appeal.
"About 95 percent of the whining from the far right" has more to do with fundraising than Christmas, Boston pointed out. "They're trying to get people worked up so they will think Christmas is being removed from public life. There isn't any evidence that's happening."
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange.com column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right. Thanks to Laura Ross for her research assistance.
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