Sarah Palin: Is There a War on Christmas?

by Benjamin Studebaker

Sarah Palin has written a new book entitled Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of ChristmasPalin objects to what she and others on the right have often referred to as the “war on Christmas” being waged by secularists. Typically, the left responds to this complaint by scoffing at it dismissively in incredulity, and if you wander around the web looking for reactions to the things Palin has said, that is what you will generally find. My aim today is to take a closer look at what has changed about how our society treats the holiday season that offends Palin and those who share her views. What makes this portion of our society feel alienated in this way?

Let’s have a look at some the claims underlying Palin’s complaint. Throughout her argument, Palin is aggrieved by the commercialization of Christmas, the displacement of Jesus in favor of Santa Claus, and the use of the term “holidays” in place of Christmas. She sees these changes in emphasis as symptomatic of a larger shift in our culture:

The war on Christmas is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture, and make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.

While the word “war” is hyperbolic, Palin is right that Christmas’ function in our society has shifted. Where once it might have been about affirming a shared collective belief in the teachings of Jesus, Christmas now does a very different kind of work in our society, primarily economic:

  1. The practice of gift-giving creates an impetus for citizens to consume much more between Thanksgiving and the new year than they consume during any other comparable span of time during the year. This drives revenues, both public and private, and increases GDP growth.
  2. The practice of giving people vacation time on and around Christmas recharges the workforce, enhances its productivity going forward, and helps to compensate psychologically for the otherwise depressive tendencies brought on by shortening daylight hours during the winter.
  3. By universalizing Christmas such that it is not exclusively a Christian practice, Christmas serves a social and cultural unifying function–it brings together not merely families, but the society as a whole.

Historically, when our societies were more religiously centered, Christmas was about reaffirming the Christian values that were the core of social stability. Now our society relies first and foremost on capitalism and so it promotes the various ends our capitalist system needs to run in a stable way–consumption, productivity, and social content. We can see statistically how Christmas has taken on this very different role, thanks to Gallup. While 95% of Americans celebrate Christmas, a large portion of these Christmas-celebrating Americans are not themselves strongly Christian:

Here we can see that the most universal of the Christmas traditions are the secular ones that have to do with Christmas’ economic functions–gift giving, family bonding, trees and decorations, and Christmas parties. Very large minorities, often 30 or 40%, do not go to religious services or display expressly religious decorations. About 76% of Americans self-identify as Christian, so this indicates that even some Christians do not take their Christmas very religiously. This is roughly analogous to the phenomenon of the secular Jew, who claims Jewish identity and culture but does not subscribe to the moral and/or metaphysical content of the Jewish faith.

So it is quite true that Christmas has been universalized and turned into an economic device rather than purely a religious one. The advantage of doing this is that it extends Christmas’ economic reach and influence–if people of other religions can be persuaded to exchange gifts, get together with their families, and take vacations from work, it performs all of the same cultural functions for them as it does for Christians aside from reinforcing belief in the Christian religion. It is made more inclusive and consequently more powerful. If we go further still and make references to “holidays” rather than to Christmas explicitly, we bring along groups that have alternative holidays at similar times in the calendar (e.g. the Jews).

Palin, however, seems to believe that by making Christmas a universal cultural and economic event rather than a mechanism for reinforcing Christian beliefs in our society, we actively assault the influence of the Christian religion. Here Palin conflates non-endorsement for the purpose of widening the portion of the population that can in good conscience participate with active religious oppression. The state makes no effort to prevent Christians from taking Christmas very seriously as a religious holiday by attending services and putting up religiously-themed decorations on their private property. It merely refrains from engaging in these behaviors itself so as to avoid excluding a large portion of the population from good-conscious participation in a practice it deems beneficial to them and to the economy.

Palin rightly observes that the left is frequently upset by public endorsements of Christmas’ Christian content:

There are few things that anger a secular liberal atheist more than a horizontal plank intersecting a vertical plank–a cross–on public land.

The reason this is upsetting to the left is that when the state actively promotes Christianity it sends a message to non-Christians that their beliefs are less-preferred by their state. It places the interests of some citizens ahead of the interests of others for no useful reason. Christians may be comforted by state endorsement, but non-Christians feel alienated and relegated to second class status by their own governments. Much of the main thrust of the American left’s social critique in recent decades has been its desire to eliminate unnecessary exclusion and alienation of minorities for the comfort of the majority. The left objects to a cross on public land for the same reason it would object to the state putting up signs that read “white people are awesome”. It’s not that the left wants to make war on white people–it just wants non-whites to feel that their state is equally concerned about their interests.

So why is Palin (and the right in general) so bothered by this attempt to make our society more inclusive of different kinds of people? The right still believes that we live in a society that relies on religion for its underlying stability. It does not recognize the extent to which capitalist values of development and progress have replaced traditional Christian values as the shared basis for the way things are. For this reason, Palin can say something like this:

The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay.

Historically, there was once a time in which people needed the prospect of heaven, hell, judgement, and the Christian god to provide them with a reason to be moral and to uphold the existing social structure. Capitalism has, however, introduced new reasons for citizens to conform to social expectations–now we act the way we do because our system promises for us goods in this world rather than the next. In modern times, we are told that the rewards of good behavior are wealth, love, power, technology, pleasure, the good life, right here, right now. Naturally, achieving the capitalist objectives of growth and productivity requires somewhat different behavior from that required by the imperative to pass the Christian god’s moral test. As a result, the focus on the need for material achievement predominates more today than ever before, while focuses on who one sleeps with have fallen out of favor. What Palin terms “severe moral decay” is in reality a change in the emphasis of the social morality from its Christian basis to a capitalist one. It is only decay from the fixed perspective of the traditional Christian. It is more properly understood as a moral evolution to better align us with the industrial and technological ones we have been experiencing.

Interestingly, this is a kind of reversal of the change that happened in the late Roman Empire, when citizens dumped the classical ethos of worldly achievement and satisfaction in this life in favor of the Christian ethos of rejecting the worldly for what was promised to come. In pagan times, Christmas served a social function much more similar to the one it is now coming to serve, albeit under a different name–Saturnalia. This holiday featured gift-giving, vacation time, and family bonding. The Roman pagans celebrated the bounty of this world rather than the prospect of the next, much as we do now. The social morality, the moral views that a society collectively affirms and imposes on its members, changes in accordance with the given society’s needs. It has always been so and always will be so, and Sarah Palin will find that resistance is futile.