17 Days To Go: Christmas — er, Holiday — Confusion

The Christmas-Holiday debate has reared its ugly head once again. This time, President Obama is getting an earful from Christian Americans for omitting the word “Christmas” from the White House holiday cards (and, to a lesser extent, for sending less than half the number of cards that George W. Bush used to send). Do those liberal atheists know no bounds in their mission to secularize our Christian nation?

Seriously though, critics have a worthy opponent in the President. They cannot brand him as just another Jesus-hating Democrat. Barack Obama has been very forthcoming about his devout Christianity. He has touted his admiration for long-dead theologians whom most Christians don’t take the time to read. He has been every bit as proud of “finding Christ” as his predecessor. He has earned praise from George Lakoff, E. J. Dionne, and their contingent of values-minded Democrats for explaining his political views in the vocabulary once reserved for “compassionate conservatives.” He opened his heart to the world in his books, and in so doing he expressed the kind of inner struggle with religion that we all experience at some point but few admit.  

Clearly, this is not a man set against Christianity. It is a Christian trying to reconcile Enlightenment tolerance with his faith, to live New Testament values without forcing them on others, to find the elusive border between the spiritual message of Christmas and the commercial veneer of the holidays.

Maybe he’s being too pragmatic when he should be shouting Christmas from the rooftops. Maybe he’s being too weak, letting the Democratic base override his moral obligation. Or maybe, just maybe, he’s as unsure as I am about the long-term damage inflicted on Christianity by the secularization of Christmas. As one writer recently put it, “Christmas may carry Christ’s name but someone else gets most of the attention.” That someone else, we are told, is Santa Claus. I don’t think there is any doubt that the majority of Americans associate the holidays more with the big man in the red suit than with the baby in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. And maybe that’s not a bad thing, as far as something we can all share, regardless of religion.

But does it really enhance our religious expression to force Christmas into conversations of Santa and reindeer and trees and presents and jingle bells and cards and milk and cookies?

A couple weeks ago, we celebrated Eid al-Adha, the remembrance of Abraham almost sacrificing his son to God. At the time, I said I couldn’t offer an interpretation with any theological substance. Here’s one savvy take I came across in researching this post:

And yet it is fair to say that if any of us saw a 21st century Abraham raising the knife on the roof of his apartment building, we would call the police; we would wrestle him down; even if we saw him lower the knife at the last minute, we would expect the Department of Children and Family Services to take Isaac away and charge Abraham with child abuse. We would do so because God doesn’t reveal Himself or His angels to all of us in a single moment. We do not hear what Abraham hears, do not see what Abraham sees, true as those experiences may be. So the best we can do is act in accordance with those things that are possible for all of us to know, understanding that a part of what we know to be true—as individuals or communities of faith—will be true for us alone.

Those are the words of Barack Obama, and whether he deserves it or not, he is at the center of our nation’s ongoing struggle with its own spiritual future. For the moment, at least, it sounds like he is sticking to his faith, exactly as he has believed it since he wrestled with his moral compass several years ago. It’s hard for any religious person to ask for more than that.