On this Christmas Eve, as I listen to Christmas carols on the radio and read the Christmas Story from Luke to my children, I think about those of other faith traditions, like Dina, who are considered to be faith minorities in the United States. How do they receive the theology behind Christmas? Does the religious “Other” feel threatened by the celebration of Christmas in American society?
Dina’s post very eloquently describes her experiences being Muslim during the Christmas holiday. Fortunately, for those of us who want to see interfaith relations improve in the United States, her comments bring a measure of relief centered on the realization that there do exist avenues toward common religious understanding. However, I would like to address a negative factor that inevitably is revisited during this time of the year among some American Christians – the idea that Christmas is under attack – the “War on Christmas“.
There is, no doubt, an increasing secularism in the United States that lead some to believe that nefarious efforts are afoot to erase the influence of Christians in the public sphere. Our society’s secular nature was established by our Founding Fathers with the intent of establishing a government that is not beholden to one particular religion for fear of oppressing others, as had been their experience in Europe. The increasing diversification of the American societal landscape since the nation’s founding has made secularization even more necessary in order to ensure a “level playing field” without favor toward one faith over another. There is no real evidence to suggest that a non-Christian faith group is attempting to willfully eliminate Christian influence in the public square; rather, the so-called “War on Christmas” is simply a fairly benign byproduct of the principles of the separation of church and state that this country was founded upon.
Do I believe that American society would be in a better place if Christian principles were allowed to shape public policy? Absolutely! But I also believe that our society would be better off if Muslim or Jewish morality were exclusively practiced rather than succumbing to the absence of public morality. Unfortunately, the nature of man has proven to lead to the abuse of power in order to promote a certain agenda and, when the agenda has been religious in nature, this abuse has proven to have had catastrophic results in the past. Those that promote religion on the public arena quite often end up casting a negative light on their religion rather than achieving any kind of moral purpose. James Madison, the Father of the United States Constitution, said,
“Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.” (Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822)
Our nation’s diverse society requires a great modicum of respect by faith groups toward each other. Personally, I have never felt physically threatened in exercising my faith in this country and have not met many other Christians who do. A preoccupation with a mythical “War on Christmas” only serves to create a siege mentality among those Christians who believe in it. Christians cannot reflect the teachings of Christ while circling the wagons to fend off attacks and we cannot demonstrate Christ’s most important teaching, forgiveness, while constantly in defense mode.
The meaning of the Christmas season, to Christians, is about the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. We should remember, however, that not all of our fellow citizens take the same meaning from the holiday. When it comes to the relationship between Christians and Muslims, particularly during the Christmas season, we Christians would be better served in remembering that Jesus is a central and revered figure in Islam as well as Christianity. As Dina expressed in her post, a Muslim following true Islam will join a Christian in honoring Jesus during this season. So, as Christians, we should put away the armor and sword during this season and reach out to our brothers and sisters in the Abrahamic tradition with a focus on the teachings of Jesus as a bridge over the divide.