Monday, December 20, 2004

Happy Holidays

Thanks to Julian Sanchez at Reason for this fine expose of the "Christmas-Under-Attack" myth:

It's a Christmas tradition as venerable as mistletoe and caroling: As the days grow shorter, conservative activists claiming to speak for American Christendom raise their voices, not for a rousing round of "Good King Wenceslaus," but to complain that the roughly 75 to 80 percent of Americans who profess allegiance to some denomination or another of Christianity constitute a cruelly oppressed minority.

The kvetching is especially loud this year, with a spate of stories chronicling the outrage over a particularly insidious form of anti-Christian bigotry: the Satanic phrase "happy holidays."

In order to pull off the sort of grab at victim status conservatives used to deride as a tactic of the left, self-appointed defenders of the faith draw from a cornucopia of bogus anecdotes about oppression.

To some extent, the feeling of marginalization may be the result of the very real process of cultural fragmentation. There is probably now as rich and varied a marketplace of Christian media—from Veggie Tales cartoons to the apocalyptic fantasy of the Left Behind series and its spinoffs—as there's ever been. But it's perceived as niche culture, in large part because cultural products are increasingly tailored to niches. As a recent New York Times op-ed notes: "Plain-vanilla Top 40, once the chief vehicle for hit songs, is now the format for only 5 percent of the nation's 10,000-plus stations." A few crossover hits notwithstanding, a young singer who wants to incorporate her faith into her music is now likely to narrowcast to a Christian rock audience because, well, she can.

What remains of the mainstream, meanwhile, steers clear of potentially divisive religious themes, not just because American society is gradually becoming more pluralistic in terms of the proportion of Christians to devotees of other faiths, or of none, but because the idea of a monolithic Christian audience is a lot of nonsense, however useful it is to demagogues. Many believers, after all, don't much care for the Left Behind books. Critics of the "Anti Christian Lawyers Union," for that matter, tend to forget that the lead plaintiffs in Abington School District v. Schempp, which barred schools from conducting morning Bible readings, were Unitarians who resented the school's usurpation of their prerogative to teach their children about the Bible in their own way.

So are we really seeing an unprecedented wave of hostility toward either Christmas or Christianity? Or is it, rather, that the waning of the cultural hegemony to which some Christians have come to feel entitled is perceived as an attack? Many of the most loudly trumpeted complaints in this vein are, after all, complaints about the absence of special treatment: no special spot for the Ten Commandments in the courthouse rotunda; no pride of place for Christmas among those happy winter holidays; no exceptions for the Christian charity.

Since "special rights" has been a term of aspersion among conservatives for decades, would-be theocrats have at least the decency to be too ashamed to demand them explicitly. Instead, they've learned the power of the victim narrative, of framing the debate to cast themselves as underdogs. Rather than attempting to entrench their values, demagogues purport to be playing defense against a plot to "purge religion from the public square," trading on the same ambiguity in the word "public" that has eased the acceptance of ever more regulation of privately owned establishments that are open to the public, and allowed for the metastasis of the term "public health," which now apparently covers not just infectious disease control or mosquito abatement, but smoking and obesity. Since the battle is a reactive one against the undifferentiated forces of anti-Christian bigotry, such nice distinctions as that between a business that fails to cater to its customers and an arm of the state adhering to strict neutrality can be dispensed with. More importantly, moderate Christians with no desire to impose their faith on others might be convinced to support a re-Christianization of public life on the premise that they'd only be defending themselves against marauding secularists.

The stratagem is so perverse as to be almost admirable: Take a holiday associated with sentiments like peace and goodwill, mix in some well-intentioned attempts to acknowledge it in an inclusive way suited to a pluralistic society, and then use the combination to generate fear, divisiveness, and high ratings. But whether we're impressed or appalled by that cynical ploy, whether we're gearing up for Christmas dinner or just a post-Ramadan pig-out, we can all breathe a little easier knowing that the anti-Christmas "jihad" is no more real (sorry kids) than Santa Claus. Happy holidays.

Speaking of niche markets, i've been grooving to the hasidic reggae stylings of Matisyahu recently... great music for studying and chilling.

My first post, and i've already cornered myself in as the shylock...


Damian - said...

Welcome to the Blog, Dan!

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