Empathy for the Angels

Every year around this time I find myself raging against the folks who believe there is a War on Christmas.  Over and over again I talk about how we are all entitled to celebrate the way we want, or how nobody is obligated to feel a sense of good cheer when wished a Merry Christmas, or how telling a non-Christian to have a Merry Christmas is like wishing someone else a Happy Birthday when it's your birthday.  I'm sure even my friends who agree with my are tired of reading posts like this.  I'm also sure I'm preaching to the choir.  My friends who believe in the War on Christmas are never going to read my rants and miraculously see the light.  I am nothing more than a single blogger with little to no audience (my last post here on S&C had twelve views).  I can't change the world, so I should give up.

In that spirit, rather than return the rage of the War on Christmas, maybe it's time for me to understand where that fear and anger comes from.

Fear and anger.

Fear.

This belief in the War on Christmas is about fear.  Rather than be dismissive about that fear, it's time to empathize and understand that fear.  Then we can find a way to move forward.

To understand the fear of the War on Christmas, we have to look at the history of the United States.  This is a secular country with a secular government in theory, but not in practice.  Christianity dominated the public square for the first two centuries of this country's existence.  The majority of non-indigenous Americans was white and Christian.  It was the default religion.  Christian prayers and Christian religious observances were allowed in the public square because it was assumed everyone present practiced some form of Christianity.

Even today there is a cultural acceptance that the Abrahamic God is the god of this country.  Many religious conservatives (and even believers who aren't that conservative) want to enforce the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance.  God is the country's default deity.  Christmas is assumed to be something everyone celebrates.  It's a federal holiday and nobody is canceling it. 

Even though Christianity is entrenched in our culture, change has been creeping into our consciousness over the decades.  The mass of immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries brought more Jews to the country.  In the late twentieth century war and political upheavals brought immigrants from Asia and Africa and all their assorted religious practices.  While many assimilated and took on a baseline acceptance of our Christian cultural quirk - some even converted- many of them don't want anything to do with Christianity.  This is a secular country.  It's their right to accept or reject any and every religion if they wish.

History evolves toward justice - or so many of us like to believe.  It makes sense that our culture would eventually accept people from other religions and allow them to practice without persecution.  The problem arises when these new religions become more visible and Christians feel threatened.  Christianity is still the majority religion in this country, but if you go state-by-state, the religions that fall second in line to Christianity are not always the ones Christians trust.

Even more frightening to believers is that the fastest growing religion in the United States is no religion at all.  Cultural scholars are writing volumes about the rise of the "Nones" (those who are religiously unaffiliated).  Some Americans who cease religious affiliation still hold some kind of belief and cling to a vague sense of spirituality.  Others are adopting atheism outright.  

In the 21st Century non-Christians have begun to speak out. They have declared their intention to not go along with every Christian holiday and every Christian ritual.  They are asking to have their own voice.  Christianity is fine for Christians, but faith is a personal matter and not a public one.

If you combine the shifting population of non-Christian and non-religious Americans with the declaration that the public square should remain secular, it must feel threatening.

When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

What will a country not dominated by Christianity look like?  Where will Christians fit into this new world?  Will public displays of Christmas cheer be banned?  We have no frame of reference for this.  There is no historical precedent.  Historically speaking, there have not been many societies where multiple religions co-existed peacefully.  There have also been no true examples of a secular society where religion plays no part in government.

To make matters even scarier, the only examples of an expressed atheist government have been totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union and China, although, atheism was not a national belief system, nor was it the guiding principle of the government.  Communism was the core belief for these regimes, but that belief ecompasses a lack of a deity.  As with any dictatorship, the absolute power of the dictators was guiding the governments and brutal dictators come in all religious flavors.  Nonetheless, these are  the only modern examples we have of atheist governments and they are terrifying.

History has shown us how theocratic Christian governments treat behaviors they feel are heresy, apostasy, and blaspheme.  I would not wonder if there are Christians who worry that if non-religious groups take dominance over society, they might turn the tables.  Islamophobia in the United States is often presented as a fear that Muslims will implement Sharia Law if they are given too much freedom to practice their religion in this country.  Will a government that isn't made of Christians, doesn't favor Christians, and doesn't coddle Christians be truly fair to Christians?  Maybe a strict Christian theocracy isn't all that appealing, but Christian dominionism isn't so scary when you are the ones dominating.

We laugh at these fears, but we shouldn't.  They are real.  None of us knows how the world will look and how we will all behave as the country's demographics shift.  Those of us who think a more diverse world will bring more tolerance and understanding may be as naive as Christians who believe they will be marginalized politically and socially if they become the minority.  Maybe they are right.  We don't know.  Can power be shared?  Can we all just get along?  Maybe we won't.

What can I say to my Christian friends who are afraid?  I can't promise a secular world will be peaceful and just.  I don't know what direction we are headed in.  I do know that I also have a stake in the state of the world just like you.  I can't promise it will be easy for you.  I can only promise that I will be your friend and support you and work with you to make the world a better place for all of us.  I only ask that you are willing to work with me to do the same.

So the next time someone complains about the War or Christmas or becomes enraged if wished a Happy Holiday, don't laugh, don't sneer, and don't be irritated.  Be kind.  Be understanding.  Feel some empathy for those who fear a changing world.  The world will change and we need to face the change together.

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