November 5, 2009
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This article was first published by Culture11 on December 25, 2008. Reprinted with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.
It’s impossible to ignore all the characteristic signposts of the Christmas season — wherever you go the familiar sights and sounds are unmistakably evocative of the winter holiday. Our malls, shops, houses, television stations and radio airwaves are all transformed into vehicles of celebration making the eagerly anticipated holiday easy to embrace but impossible to escape. The inclusiveness and secularism of our nation is challenged by the ubiquity of Christmas — it’s hard to suppress the central facts that Christmas is about Christ and that not all Americans are Christians. This means that the resistance of Christmas to any secular interpretation that de-privileges the claim Christians have on it is evidence of a fundamental weakness in the modern liberalism that underwrites our foundational premises. Christmas is everywhere in America but it is not simply American — it can’t really be for everyone unless we’re all Christians or being American has something to do with the essential teachings of Christianity.
The third option, of course, is that we attempt to reduce Christmas to a generic seasonal holiday — essentially taking the Christ out of Christmas — so that it manages to avoid giving offense to those who might feel excluded or otherwise pressured to conform to a religious tradition that is not their own. This typically involves strictly policing the language we use to discuss the holiday — children in grade school are often told to refer to a Christmas tree as a holiday tree, or are forbidden to sing or play songs that explicitly refer to Christ, or encounter prohibitions against any decorative display that unambiguously qualifies as religious imagery. The strange, motivating pedagogical insight here seems to be that even the most entrenched conceptual paradigm can be washed away with the judicious exchange of euphemisms — we can replace Christ with Santa just as we can replace pious worship with frenetic shopping. After all, we got class prayer out of public schools. In fact, is often remarked at this time of the year that the mass commercialization of Christmas seems nearly complete and the true meaning of the holiday is irrevocably lost even for those who most vehemently object to its secular incarnation.
Likewise, it has become common for religious conservatives, Christian and otherwise, to lament the full frontal assault on Christmas from supposedly godless liberals. While the sometimes zealous prosecution of all things religious is a legitimate reason for sober pause, it’s hard to take seriously the comically feckless attempts to collectively pretend the celebration of Christmas is only tangentially Christian. Every schoolboy and girl knows that a holiday tree is really a Christmas tree and so all these language rules accomplish is to provide our youth with an early lesson in the transparent silliness of schoolmarmish burocracy at its worst. Whatever hits Christmas has taken from a not always congenial modernity, it’s still basically invulnerable to any school board’s predictably absurd technocratic schemes.
The real issue surrounding Christmas in America is the extent to which a profoundly religious celebration challenges our self-interpretation as comprehensively secular — we are proud that our Constitution protects our fundamental liberty to worship (or not ) as we please, preventing the establishment of a civil religion. Following the neat compartmentalization of the political and the religious in our First Amendment, we tend to understand the character and demands of citizenship as unencumbered by unwieldy religious baggage. We respect, or at least begrudgingly tolerate, other religious traditions including those unfamiliar to us and so the notion of America as an identifiably Christian nation, even if it refuses to impose a threadbare spirituality on its citizens, offends our constitutional liberalism. There is a kind of exaggerated Augustinianism that animates Americans today in that that they believe the City of Man and the City of God have been finally and completely sundered from one another.
The significance of the strict separation of church and state permeates through much of American consciousness and is often reflected in the language of our most contentious political disputes: we divide into camps that pit reason against revelation, science against faith, evolution against creation, etc. The impression regularly created by the nature of American political discourse is that we’re bitterly split into those who think modern science can account for the whole of human affairs and those who think only scripture and revelation can give us any guidance about the kinds of being we are and the problems we face. In some cases, our constitutional bifurcation between religion and politics provides some helpful guidance in navigating these turbulent waters but it often only obfuscates the issue further by exaggerating their exclusivity; when both the political and the religious perspectives competitively claim to be final and authoritative our legalistic classifications can become little more than what Madison famously referred to as “parchment barriers”.
Following a theoretical path blazed by Spinoza, the great 20th century German philosopher Leo Strauss referred to this as the “theological-political problem”. Modern liberalism attempts to separate the public and the private and by extension the religious and the political. Problematically, if the religious worldview lays claim to ultimate comprehensiveness then the political turns out to be impossible to fully encapsulate from it — the true separation of the divine and the worldly in the realm of politics requires a dilution of religious authority it will not readily concede. Modern liberalism claims to be maximally tolerant and minimally coercive but this clearly presupposes a denigration of any trans-political view that declares architectonic status — we can have our religious beliefs and ceremonies as long as they don’t interfere with the real business of political commerce. From the perspective of modern liberalism, all religious perspectives are merely perspectives and only presumptuously understand themselves as bearers of a privileged or eternal truth. Modern liberalism seems to reduce religion to culture.
It is tempting to suppose that the fault lines exposed by our Christmas season are expressions of Strauss’ famous dilemma but that doesn’t seem to do justice to the Christian component of our theoretical foundation. Strauss’ division between the theological and the political presupposes an austere separation of reason and revelation — the political is the theater of rationality and the religious is illuminated by revelation alone; the inadequacy of Strauss’ formulation is that it doesn’t properly capture the Christian attempt to rethink the relation between the political and the divine or between faith and reason. Our founding principles draw deeply from the Thomistic synthesis of reason and revelation in a way that attempts to capture the whole, political person as a combination of rationality and an eros for religious transcendence — to understand a strict constitutional division as anything more than a helpful legal heuristic, even one that is necessary for both the health of religion and the republic, is to reduce our notion of citizenship (and individuality) to an untenable abstraction. Our “invincible inclination” for religion, as Tocqueville called it, is not one prism of interpretation among others that can be sometimes called upon and sometimes set aside — genuine religious sentiment informs our very understanding of human nature and political things so indelibly that no institutional mechanism can erase it. We are always both political and religious beings and never merely political or merely religious.
The political innovation of Christianity is that it articulates the boundaries of political life without completely determining all its practical machinations. Christianity provides a vision of the outermost reaches of political authority — its top and its bottom — both from the perspective of the city and from the citizen. By describing each human person as uniquely and personally significant since created by a loving God — and therefore, in the language of modern liberalism, rights bearing beings — it places limits on the scope of any legitimate city’s coercive political authority. Also, by placing limits on the extent to which citizenship and our public obligations exhaust our deepest human longings it points in the direction of trans-political purposes not satisfiable by civic life. Christianity is not based upon the dictates of divine law that compete with political authority but rather faith and the dictates of individual conscience that inform our relationship to law. It is no surprise that the separation of church and state is itself historically a Christian distinction — the Christian worldview is meant to encompass our political lives without tyrannically ruling them as well.
When taken together, Thanksgiving and Christmas provide an instructive portal into the deficiencies of modern liberalism and the peculiar ways in which America is singularly emblematic of them. Thanksgiving is essentially a homage to the virtue of gratitude and highlights the obstacles presented to our experience of it by the Lockean transformation of nature into the “worthless materials” for technological control. Still, Thanksgiving is a less challenging celebration for Americans for at least two reasons. First, it is a distinctively American holiday so that while it raises suspicions about our full commitment to modernity it does so from the perspective of a tradition that is fully our own. Christmas, on the other hand, points to a religion that predates our nation’s founding, is not itself exclusively American, and draws from a biblical authority that is only ambiguously “traditional” in the conservative sense. Even more importantly, while Thanksgiving points towards the support nature provides for our happiness and prosperity Christmas pulls our attention away from worldly things and towards the trans-political divine. Thanksgiving encourages us to reflect on all the ways in which we can be grateful for our lives and Christmas points to another life and our salvation, and hence reminds us of our mortality. To put this in terms Peter Lawler has made famous, Thanksgiving is about feeling at home in this world and Christmas is about our ineluctable homelessness, our alienation from nature and our worldly environs.
Americans clearly love to celebrate Christmas and embrace its message of peace and joy but many are also clearly uncomfortable with the fact that Christ is the bearer of that message and that the holiday is a celebration of his birth. The fact of this discomfort, and the stubborn recalcitrance of Christmas to a decisive secularization, is reflective of our only tentative acceptance of modern liberalism in its entirety. Christmas reminds us that there are real limits placed upon the constitutional remedy to our often inconsistent secular and religious foundations, and that even the separation of church and state privileges some religions, in particular Christianity, over others. It might be that Christmas proves so divisive for Americans precisely because it shines a glaring spotlight, for believers and non-believers alike, on the indispensability of Christianity to the modern liberalism it helped give birth to and to the many ways in which modern liberalism often explicitly rejects but unknowingly absorbs this patrimony.
An American Declaration of Christmas