The Religious Right’s Phony Wars

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Empty pews

Why try to understand complicated things such as demographics for the decline of your faith when you can blame gays and liberals for waging a “war on religion?”

Among the Christian Right, and most Republican presidential candidates, it is now an article of faith that the United States is persecuting Christians and Christian-owned businesses – that religion itself is under attack.

Republican presidential candidate and Senator Ted Cruz, when questioned about President Barack Obama’s religion, said: “The president’s faith is between him and God.” This response came after a furor was created when a man at a New Hampshire political gathering described President Obama as a Muslim to GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who seemed to agree with the man’s statement. Cruz might have been willing to leave Obama’s faith between the president and his Creator, but he did have something to say about the president’s policies – particularly when it comes to interfering with everyone else’s relationship with their Creator. Cruz continued, “His (Obama’s) policies and this administration’s animosity to religious liberty and, in fact, antagonism to Christians, has been one of the most troubling aspects of the Obama administration. We have seen a war on faith.”

Why has this bizarre myth (yes, myth is the correct word) that Christianity is under assault in the most religiously developed country on Earth been so successful? Because, in a way, it is true. American Christianity is in decline –not because of a “war on faith,” but because of a host of demographic and social trends. Gays and liberals are just scapegoats.

It is much easier to explain changes by referring to a single, malevolent cause than by having to understand a dozen complex demographic trends. Plus, if Christianity is declining because it is being attacked, then that decline could be reversed if the attack were successfully repelled. Unlike what is actually happening – a slow, seemingly irrevocable decline in American Christianity – the Christian Right’s argument that “religious liberty” is under assault mixes truth and fantasy to provide a simpler, and more palatable, explanation for believers.

The idea that Christians are being persecuted resonates with the church’s self-conception of Christian martyrdom that goes back almost to its beginnings. Even when the church controlled half the wealth in Europe, it styled itself as the flock of the poor and of the marginalized. Whether true or not as a matter of fact, it is absolutely true as a matter of myth. Christ himself was persecuted and even crucified, after all. So it is natural that Christianity losing ground in America would be seen by many Christians as the result of persecution.

But. Ah, there is always the “but.” But according to a Pew Research Report released last year, the percentage of the United States population that identifies itself as Christian has dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Evangelical, mainline Protestant and even Roman Catholics have all declined during that period.

Meanwhile, thirty percent of Americans ages 18-29 list “none” as their religious affiliation (the figure for all ages is about twenty-three percent). Nearly forty percent of Americans who have married since 2010 report that they are in “religiously mixed” marriages, which means that many individuals who profess Christianity are in families where not everyone does.

The Pew Research Report also noted that Americans are also changing religions more than in the past, and when they do so, they are more likely to move away from Christianity than toward it.

So while changes in public morals regarding women and LGBT people (and how the law treats them) are part of the overall shift, they are only one part of an immensely complicated set of factors. But no one likes a “complicated set of factors” to explain why the world they grew up in, and the values they cherish, seem to be slipping away. Enter the culprit: the war on religion, and the persecution of Christianity.

Evidence for this persecution began with the “War on Christmas” – retail chains instructing employees that it was more inclusive to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” This offense was countered with demands that we “keep Christ in Christmas” and to remember that “Jesus is the ONLY reason for the season.” (Never mind the fact that Jesus was not born in December, or that the holiday was originally about winter solstice, or a celebration of the Roman god Saturnalia. Facts are irrelevant here.)

Also never mind the thought that Jews, Buddhists, Pagans – and yes, even Atheists and Muslims – also shop during December and maybe are celebrating a different holiday. Or that they might appreciate being included in the festivities. NO. We must ALL be told Merry Christmas, gosh darn it!

According to some on the Christian Right, such as Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, the weird idea that there is a “War on Christmas” that is orchestrated by liberal elites with their Starbucks cups in hand, is, on its face, ridiculous, even if it widely held on the right. Shop clerks saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” are not causing the de-Christianization of Christmas. In reality, roughly half of Americans celebrate Christmas as a cultural, not a religious, holiday with Santa Claus, Rudolph and Christmas trees, not baby Jesus in a manger as the center of focus. And that is what businesses celebrate. It is capitalism, not a conspiracy.

It should go without saying that none of my pushback is to chase Christianity or Jesus’ birthday out of American life. Anyone who walks the streets of a city, major or small, during the month of December knows that there is no such threat. Whenever “angry atheists” seek to keep nativity scenes from being the exclusive religious display in state capitols during the holidays, they are standing up for the principle that the state does not, and should not, have the right to endorse one faith over the others. The United States was not founded as a Christian nation, no matter how many zealots wish it had been. Whenever a major chain like Macy’s opts to use “Happy Holidays” over “Merry Christmas,” it is merely making a business decision to be more inclusive, recognizing that many of its customers observe the season’s other holidays. However pointless or slight a gesture that is, any corporate decision based on the acknowledgement and acceptance of diversity in America is to my mind, objectively an admirable one.

We know that outrage is Donald Trump’s specialty, and he is not too proud to piggyback on other people’s outrage. Recently, “The Donald” told a group in Iowa, “When they don’t want to say ‘merry Christmas’ in department stores anymore. I won’t shop at places that don’t say ‘merry Christmas.’ Guess what? I don’t too much shopping,” he said to applause. “No, no, it’s true. When I see these stores, and they have a red wall and they have nothing on it. They don’t want to say ‘merry Christmas’ anymore. I say, ‘Why don’t you say merry Christmas?’” Trump has vowed to change the department-store situation when it comes to wishing people “merry Christmas.” “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you.” Good luck with that, Donald!

Yes, under “President” Trump, you will say “Merry Christmas” and you will like it. And one place you will not say “Merry Christmas” will be at the Starbucks in Trump Tower, because it will be gone. Maybe along with all the other Starbucks, because of the Red Cup Battle of the War on Christmas leading to a devastating, Trump-led boycott bringing down the entire company. And it will serve Starbucks right for taking the reindeer off of their coffee cups so that we can no longer drink caffè lattes and simultaneously commemorate how, in the Bible, Rudolph’s nose lit up the manger where Mary was giving birth to Jesus while Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen went on a special mission to fly in the three wise men!

I do not mean to sound glib here, but remember Jesus never celebrated Christmas; he celebrated Hanukkah. Boycotting an establishment because they say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” is just plain stupid. If someone says “Happy Holidays” to you, just say “Thank you.” You do not have to be a jerk.

There is no war on Christmas. There is no war on religion in this country; however, there is a war in Syria.

Christmas is not under attack. Religious faith is not under attack. There is no war to fight. The war over Christmas is not about preserving Christmas. It is about America…or what we think America should be. It is about preserving the Irving Berlin, “I’m dreaming of a white Christmas” kind of Christmas. When was the last time any Christmas soldier took the fight to Japan or Russia to ensure that Christmas was being properly acknowledged in those Christmas loving places? Never. Because this so-called “war” is not about Christmas. It is about American culture. Japan, by the way, loves Christmas, even though it is one of the least Christian nations on earth. But we do not seem to care about that.

The fact is, we are fighting the wrong fight. Christmas has ballooned to an American consumerist monstrosity that no army could kill, even if it wanted to. And Christians have bought into all of it – lock, stock, and barrel – while Jesus languishes in the background. The real Christmas is being killed, in the hearts and homes of every Christian who picks a fight over petty and meaningless traditions. Who really cares what graphics are on a Starbuck’s cup?

Unfortunately, even if the war on religion is imaginative, the “defense” against it is very real and very harmful. This year alone, seventeen states introduced legislation to protect “religious freedom” by exempting not only churches and religious organizations (including bogus ones set up to evade the law) from civil rights laws,  domestic violence laws, even the Hippocratic Oath, but also private individuals and for-profit businesses. Already, we have seen pediatricians turn children away because their parents are gay, and wife-abusers argue that it is their religious duty to beat their spouses, and most notoriously that multimillion-dollar corporations such as Hobby Lobby can have religious beliefs that permit them to refuse to provide health insurance to their employees on that basis. Hobby Lobby chief executive, David Green, and his wife, Barbara, applauded the court’s decision for reaffirming “what our family has always believed: that America is a country founded on and sustained by religious liberty.”

The sentiment was echoed by Republican lawmakers in Washington. “Today’s Supreme Court decision makes clear that the Obama administration cannot trample on the religious freedoms that Americans hold dear,” said Senator Mitch McConnell, the then minority leader. Texas Senator Ted Cruz called the decision a “landmark victory for religious liberty,” and hopes to see similar cases brought before more American judges in the future.

However, not everyone believes the ruling will prove a boon to religious communities. Jack Jenkins writes for ThinkProgress: “While conservatives would have the American public believe that protecting Hobby Lobby is about protecting all religious people, the reality is that today’s ruling actually hurts people of faith.” He cites a number of polls that identified substantial support for the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate among practicing Christians – majorities in almost every denomination in America, and a surprising forty percent among evangelicals, whom the law supposedly benefits most.

“Today’s pro-Hobby Lobby decision isn’t about protecting ‘religious liberty,’” Jenkins insists. “Instead, it’s just a victory for one kind of religion, specifically the (usually conservative) faith of those privileged enough to own and operate massive corporations. That might be good news for the wealthy private business owners like the heads of Hobby Lobby, but for millions of religious Americans sitting in the pews – not to mention thousands working in Hobby Lobby stores – their sacred and constitutional right to religious freedom just became compromised.”

Meanwhile, the “war on religion” narrative appears to be gaining ground. According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute, sixty-one percent of white evangelicals believe that religious liberty is being threatened today. (Only thirty-seven percent of non-white Christians believe this, suggesting that what is really happening is an erosion of white Christian domination and power; the “browning of America” goes hand in hand with the de-Christianizing of America.) The Religious Right believes that they have lost the culture war, and with their martyr complex, that even LGBY people should now pity them!

In other words, “religious liberty” is not merely a tactic: it is a sincerely held belief among the Religious Right, which, not coincidentally, feeds into the belief that we are living in the End Times (some call it The Rapture) – something an astonishing seventy-seven percent of American Evangelicals believe, including several of the Republican candidates seeking the Presidency.

We should not think of such people as being motivated by hate. Actually, they are motivated by something else – fear. It is a fear that is based in reality but expressed in fantasy. Christianity is, in a very real sense, losing the war – but the fighters on the other side are not gay activists or American Civil Liberties Union liberals, but rather the faceless social forces of secularization, urbanization, and diversification.

 

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