First column on Christmas wars 2006

Another year of Christmas warfare has come and gone and Rutherford Institute President John W. Whitehead is already having mischievous thoughts about 2006.

There's no reason to think these Christmas clashes will stop anytime soon, especially not in an election year. But if Americans are going to keep fighting about Christmas, Whitehead thinks their civic leaders should at least create some constructive debates at the grassroots level where they'll do some good.

What they could do in 2006, he said, with a laugh, is put signs under their big public trees that proclaim, "Formerly known as a Christmas tree."

Then everyone would get mad -- with good cause.

"So is it a 'Christmas tree' or a 'community tree' or what? Someone has to make that decision," said Whitehead. "The problem is that if people in your community want to call it a 'community tree,' they have every right to call it a 'community tree.' But if the people in your community want to call it a 'Christmas tree,' they have every right to call it a 'Christmas tree.' ...

"People are going to have to talk to each other and work things like that out. There's no way around it."

The irony, said Whitehead, is that legal strategists who often disagree about other church-state conflicts agree that America's laws are not all that confusing when it comes to "December dilemma" conflicts in the public square.

A veteran leader on the progressive side of Baptist life agrees. According to J. Brent Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee, which often clashes with conservatives, there is nothing wrong with calling a Christmas tree a "Christmas tree." At the height of this year's holiday warfare, he circulated a three-rule list to help public officials -- especially in schools -- negotiate this cultural minefield in future years. He noted that many liberal and conservative experts agree that:

(1) Concerts in public schools can and should include sacred music along with secular selections, as long as the sacred does not dominate.

(2) Dramatic productions can include religious subjects, as long as they do not involve worship and the goal is to education about religious faiths and traditions.

(3) "Free standing creches, as thoroughly religious Christian symbols, should not be sponsored by government, but Christmas trees and menorahs are sufficiently secular to allow their display without a constitutional problem," wrote Walker.

As this final suggestion hints, the key is that communities can celebrate Christmas, as long as their leaders do not appear to be promoting Christmas -- alone.

"Christmas is Christmas and a tree is a tree," he said. "There's nothing wrong with calling it what it is: a Christmas tree. And it is perfectly appropriate to extend a specific holiday greeting such as my Jewish friends do when they wish me a 'Merry Christmas,' and I return a 'Happy Hanukkah.' "

This is just the start. As America grows more and more complex, noted Walker, this all-purpose polite greeting may end up sounding something like this: "Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and a Joyous Kwanzaa, Martyrdom Day of Guru Tegh Bahadur, Bodhi Day, Maunajiyaras Day, Beginning of Masa'il, Nisf Sha'ban and Yalda Night, Yule and Shinto Winter Solstice, and Ramadan! Or, happy holidays!"

Whitehead agreed that the goal is for public officials to strive, at all times, to be "inclusive, rather than exclusive." Nevertheless, the growing diversity of American religious life has many public officials "running scared."

Some panic and make mistakes. This leads to the scenario that -- year after year -- causes the highest number of outraged calls to the Rutherford Institute. Many public officials push for civic and educational programs that emphasize Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, but then include "secular" holiday music rather than religious Christmas music.

"We all know what the law says," said Whitehead, whose organization has produced a guide entitled "The Twelve Rules of Christmas."

"If people would just include Christmas in the whole diverse holiday mix, most of this trouble would go away. But there are public officials out there who think they have to do away with Christmas altogether in order to avoid controversy. And what happens? People in the pro-Christmas majority start feeling like they're being pushed around and they start pushing back. Then everybody gets mad -- Christmas after Christmas."