To save Christmas, separate Christ from commerce

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Because Christmas falls on Sunday this year, some prominent evangelical churches canceled worship services, expecting low attendance. This surprising turn of events might inspire Christian warriors fighting to “save Christmas” to rethink their strategy. Rather than condemn the “happy holiday” speck in Wal-Mart’s eye, they might notice the Yule log in their own.

After all, what is the fight really about? If the aim is to keep “Christ” in the shopping-mall Christmas or to ensure that pagan trees and mistletoe don’t lose their Christian labels, then it might make sense to attack presidents and business owners who commit the “happy holiday” sin. But if the goal is to restore the religious meaning of the Christian holy day, then they are aiming at the wrong Target.

The real problem for real Christians is simply this: The sacred Christmas has been consumed by consumerism. With so many expensive do-dads to buy and open, who has time to worship the “reason for the season”? Re-christening the holiday tree won’t solve the December dilemma; it will only make things worse.

For a more effective “save Christmas” battle plan, I decided to consult my old friend, the Puritan minister Roger Williams. After all, Williams was the first Christian in America to raise the alarm about worldly pollution of the faith. More Puritan than the Puritans, he decried the church leaders and politicians of Massachusetts Bay Colony who polluted the Gospel by mixing the sacred and profane. For this (and for advocating religious liberty for all) Williams was banished from the colony in 1635.

No word in the English language more angered Williams than “Christendom.” The Gospel, he argued, must be in the world, but not of the world. He was convinced that everything began to go downhill for the church when the Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the state religion. At that point, Williams wrote, “the Garden of Christ’s Churches turned into the Wilderness of National Religion, and the World into the most unchristian Christendom.”

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Christmas in America. Once the birth of Jesus was made a “national holiday,” taking “Christ out of Christmas” was destined to happen. Today, the secular, commercial “Xmas” so dominates that even some churches must close their doors to accommodate its power. Christmas defenders are left to defend the indefensible: a red-and-green holiday season of unholy materialism.

Even the Puritans who banished Williams foresaw this problem, passing laws to prohibit celebrations of “Christmas” on Dec. 25. This was an ill-fated attempt to ban from the New World a holiday celebrated in England with drinking and feasting on the unbiblical date originally associated with the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Roger Williams had a better solution for protecting religion: Build what he described as a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Only by keeping government out of matters of faith, he argued, is it possible for authentic religion to flourish. To test his conviction, he founded Rhode Island — the first society in the New World without an established church and with full religious freedom for everyone.

Rhode Island’s “lively experiment” eventually became America’s commitment to “no establishment” under the First Amendment. Freeing religion from entanglement with the state is our nation’s great gift to people of all faiths — and to world civilization. With all of the confusion and conflict today over the meaning of “separation,” Americans too easily forget that the wall metaphor was invented by a deeply religious man committed to guarding religion from being co-opted by the state and corrupted by the world.

The First Amendment may keep government from promoting the religious Christmas, but it doesn’t prevent the culture from appropriating “Christmas” for secular or economic ends. That’s why a Roger Williams Campaign to Save Christmas might start by asking folks to write thank-you notes to all politicians who say “happy holidays” and every store that puts up a “holiday tree.” Let them have the holiday, Williams would argue, just don’t call it “Christmas.” Let them keep the pagan tree and Jingle Bells. Throw in Santa Claus and the elves. But leave the crèche and carols out of it. Don’t mix Christ with commerce.

If persuasion doesn’t work, Roger Williams might make a more outrageous proposal (one even more likely to be ignored): Return Dec. 25 to the pagans, and find another date to celebrate Christ’s birth (some biblical scholars think the Nativity took place in the spring). Just imagine: Without all the presents to wrap, trees to decorate and parties to attend, believing Christians could spend the Advent season actually preparing for the birth of Jesus. Without the distraction of blinking lights and mistletoe, there will be plenty of time and money to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned.

Save Christmas? If Jerry Falwell and other self-appointed defenders of Christmas are serious about putting the Christ back in Christmas, then Roger Williams has a better plan. But if the Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign is really about politics and power, then Christendom it is.

“Christenings make not Christians,” said Williams. And neither does making Wal-Mart say “Merry Christmas.”

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail:

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