Are liberals stealing our sacred holiday, or do John Gibson and conservative Christians need to lay off the eggnog? A review of “The War on Christmas.”
By Kathryn Joyce
We all know that publishing is, first and foremost, an industry, many of its books—and the arguments contained therein—assembled like cheap plastic toys on conveyer belts from materials of questionable integrity. John Gibson’s ponderously-titled clip-job, “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse than You Think,” is one more example of this shoddy 99-cent store literature: a dubious hash of rumor, sketchy news reports, sentimental memoir, and the fake populism and persecution complexes that color most conservative missives in today’s culture wars.
The typos, poor production values, and general shabbiness of many “movement books” have long been carried as badges of honor testifying to the importance of the content: information far too urgent to be delayed by questions of punctuation or sentence structure. The number of mistakes in Gibson’s book, however—especially considering its minimal length and the production apparatus behind it—is frankly insulting, not least of all to the very people he purports to write for: conservative Christians.
Having done little original reporting himself, Gibson devotes pages and pages to trying to create narratives about the people who’ve been involved in the “Christmas Wars,” in public schools, municipal offices, and university campuses. With such slim material, each impossibly small controversy becomes an epic battle between the forces of Good and Evil. A school calendar that identified the school’s winter recess as a “holiday break” rather than a “Christmas break”; an Oregon municipality that requested its public offices restrict religious displays to personal space only; evangelical families in Texas who believe their school’s anti-proselytizing policy is incompatible with their religious mandate to spread the Word—these are the types of examples Gibson chooses to prove his theory that the liberals are the grinches who are trying to steal Christmas from the pure and innocent Believers whose only crime is virtue.
Gibson’s depressing line-up of protagonists and antagonists falls into the simplistic camps of Victim, Victim-Hero, Unwitting Dupe of the Secular Conspiracy, and Villain. The victims are most often parents of school-age children (or the children themselves), who are upset about multi-cultural or non-religious trends in school functions or ceremonies. In Gibson’s theatrical and poorly-worded telling, many of these vociferous representatives of Christ display unnerving tendencies to lobby for book bans, suspect Jews and liberal Christians of attacking their religion, shout about Satan’s presence in the hallways of their children’s elementary school hallways, or “mutter” Christian lyrics during instrumental carols at school band concerts. The victim heroes are those who fight back and win. The dupes are either petty bureaucrats groping unsuccessfully for the middle ground, or teachers or school board members terrified by the mighty apparatus of the American Civil Liberties Union, which Gibson invests with the power to bankrupt school districts with the flick of a pen. The villains, unsurprisingly, are university professors, liberal petty bureaucrats, and anyone from the ACLU.
Beyond this dubious cast of characters, who shift roles as needed, but essentially retell the same story from town to town, Gibson is not dedicated to consistency. What he derides in one chapter as the “eggshell sensitivity” of “PC-types” who want to limit public expression of Christmas and don’t want to “have to explain someone else’s faith to their children,” he defends in cases of Christian parents upset that their kids weren’t instructed to draw Christmas trees in class (thus allegedly depriving one New York parent of the opportunity to teach his son how to spell “Christmas”), or those who feel that the school’s restriction of overt religiosity in the classroom led to a “conflict of conscience” for the parent and child. For these parents, Gibson implies such a “conflict of conscience,” or the necessity to explain one’s own religion to one’s own child, are unacceptable burdens, while secular, or non-evangelical, parents are expected to suck it up and relax, already: a double standard that amounts to majority rule, plain and simple.
Gibson also tries to have it both ways with his ever-shifting distinctions between examples of “secular,” traditional Christmas symbols, and those that are bona fide religious, or “sacred.” He describes Christmas trees simultaneously as secular, pagan, and the holy symbol of Christians. Likewise, an evangelical Santa Claus is held up both as a thoroughly secular modern invention and also, for persecution’s sake, a Christian symbol jeopardized by crusading atheist parents. Gibson’s criteria for sacred versus secular are a lot like the test for pornography: he’ll know it when he sees it, at least when it’s convenient for his argument. In other words, “the sacred” is whatever he damn well wants it to be.
The thread that ties together Gibson’s many complaints is the hazily-defined religion of many conservative Americans: part misplaced nostalgia for a romanticized past; part unexacting history that allows for the constant revision of what is considered “traditional”; part family-worship; and certainly part Christian, though it’s a Christianity that—as evidenced by the many mega churches which won’t be open on Christmas Sunday this year—takes a back seat to the bigger religion of its adherents: Americanism.
One of Gibson’s victims, the widow of a Georgia school board member named Richard Tiede, gives voice to this belief system in describing her late husband’s motivation for getting involved in a Christmas Wars skirmish: “‘Rich felt that Christmas had become more than just a religious holiday…Something that was uniquely American, but had spread to other countries.’” Gibson also summarizes, “Tiede simply thought of Christmas as a uniquely American holiday that was essentially an observance of family, not religious, ties.”
The notion that Christmas, the holiday which Gibson defines as “the sacred Christian holiday,” is an American invention is not only an example of American arrogance and ignorance at their most absurd—it is also a telling description of the state of the culture wars themselves: too broad to be contained within any conventional religion, and so widespread that they’ve become close to a religion themselves. In redefining the sacred, and Christianity itself, to mean misty-eyed Americanism, the only truth The Christmas Wars touches upon is the current state of religious and political division in our country, and the inanity of so many evangelical Christians that parades as piety. But of course, this is an industry book: intended to perpetuate division, not examine it.
One of Gibson’s fuzziest, most overblown “victims” of the liberal anti-Christmas conspiracy is an Australian professor who’d emigrated to Indiana, enthusiastically determined to embrace his new culture full-force by getting some flamboyant Christmas decorations. Unfortunately, his touching devotion to his God and adopted country led him into a university dispute over public religious displays. At the end of the ordeal, the poor professor emerged so dispirited that he couldn’t even bring himself to change the light bulb in the nose of his oversized Christmas kangaroo lawn decoration. That this, to Gibson, is a truly tragic casualty of the Christmas Wars pretty much tells you all you need to know about his book.
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Kathryn Joyce is managing editor of The Revealer.
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