The success of the American Right in extracting a
“war on Christmas” out of a few well-meaning gestures to non-Christians,
such as using the greeting “Happy Holidays,” is a testament to the
investment conservatives have made in media over three decades.
With their vertically integrated media apparatus –
from newspapers and magazines, to TV and radio, to books and the
Internet – the Right now can take a few scattered anecdotes on almost
any topic and heat them up into a hot-button issue.
This “perception management” capability is now so
powerful that even the most absurd notions can be made convincing to
millions of Americans, such as the idea that despite the ubiquitous
Christmas displays throughout the United States – from before
Thanksgiving to after Dec. 25 – Christmas is under assault.
While an outsider arriving in the United States
might see a nation celebrating Christmas with an unrivaled intensity and
extravagance, the Right’s media has created another world for its
followers – where Christians are persecuted for celebrating their faith,
where they are repressed by cruel non-Christians and evil secularists.
This perceived persecution exists even as America’s
downtowns and shopping malls are bedecked with the red-and-green
Christmas colors and Christmas symbols are everywhere, even in cities
like New York with large populations of Jews and Muslims.
Somehow, listeners to Fox News and right-wing talk
radio are convinced that Christmas is threatened despite the fact that
Christmas carols are pumped into nearly all public places, including
elevators and grocery stores where both Christians and non-Christians
must go. Some radio stations, like the one played in the Arlington,
Virginia, coffee shop where I often go to write, have been playing
Christmas carols since before Thanksgiving.
When I bought stamps the other day from a U.S.
Postal Service vending machine, I had expected to get the usual
“American flag” stamps, but instead ended up with “Santa Claus” stamps.
The USPS Web site also sells a “Dear Santa” CD, which includes Nat King
Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and Vonzell Solomon’s “O Come All Ye
Faithful,” with a cross-marketing deal for a Fox “Dear Santa” special.
Still, one of the complaints heard from
conservative Christians is that the post office didn’t offer a new
“Madonna and Child” stamp this season (though you can still get the
version produced last year).
Another major beef from conservative Christians is
that the federal courts have restricted displays of the baby Jesus in
the manger on government property and that public schools have replaced
“Christmas concerts” with “winter concerts” and the “Christmas vacation”
with a “winter vacation.”
Nevertheless, schools are closed for about two
weeks to accommodate Americans wishing to celebrate Christmas. Despite
the U.S. principle of separation of church and state, Christmas remains
an official federal holiday, an exception to the rule that is afforded
no other religious observance.
Jews, for instance, don’t expect Christians to
honor Yom Kippur by taking the day off, nor do Muslims expect the
government to show undue deference to Ramadan.
Our hypothetical outsider might see the American
reality as one in which all citizens, regardless of their religious
beliefs, are expected to join in the celebration of Christmas. But that
is not the impression one would get from watching Fox News, reading
conservative blogs or listening to right-wing talk radio.
Within the Right’s media world, conservative
Americans learn how the “liberals” and the American Civil Liberties
Union are “anti-Christian” and out to deny American Christians their
right to observe Christmas as they see fit.
Fox News anchor John Gibson has made this case in
his hot-selling book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to
Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. The “war
on Christmas” theme has become a centerpiece of Bill O’Reilly’s rants on
Fox, a message that has resonated throughout the Right’s echo chamber.
Led by the Rev. Jerry Falwell, some conservative
Christians are boycotting stores that offer their customers the
non-sectarian greeting of “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
In some cases, “Merry Christmas” is now spit out as fighting words, much
as conservatives emphasize the words “under God” during the Pledge of
Falwell has vowed to sue “everybody who tries to inhibit the
liberties of our children and our families from worshipping and honoring
the Lord, as we in America are constitutionally allowed to do.”
But there is a larger message in this war on the
“war on Christmas.” It is how the Right’s powerful news media can shape
American perceptions to such a degree that a dominant group like
American Christians can be made to see themselves as powerless victims,
even over trivial grievances like saying “Happy Holidays.” [For details
on the Right’s media power, see Robert Parry’s
Secrecy & Privilege or
Lost History, great “holiday gifts.”]
While conservative commentators often accuse
African-Americans and other minorities of wallowing in their “victimhood,”
the Right’s media has learned the political power that comes from letting white
men, for instance, take on the mantle of “victim.”
In the 1990s, a powerful conservative theme was the
complaint against “political correctness,” which often came down to
universities and other institutions applying clumsy restrictions against
young white men shouting the n-word at African-Americans or using other
Though American white men are arguably the most
privileged group on earth, the “political correctness” theme allowed
them to bathe in the self-pity of their “victimhood.” It allowed them to
get righteous and angry against their supposed persecutors.
There is, of course, a danger whenever a powerful
group begins to view itself as the victim, because their real power
allows these ersatz oppressed to inflict far greater harm on
their enemies than could a group without power.
Historically, the world has seen this phenomenon
many times, for instance, when Christians in Europe convinced themselves
that they were at the mercy of cunning Jews. Many of the continent’s
anti-Jewish pogroms were conducted by Christians convinced that they
were simply defending their way of life, that they were the real
Now, the United States is witnessing a similar
exploitation of Christian fears and the fanning of Christian anger. The
“war on Christmas” theme is one manifestation of this growing chip on
The Right has learned well how it can deploy its
powerful media to make even the most ludicrous notion seem real – both
frightening and infuriating – to millions of Americans.