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War Is Over If You Want It

The Signal
What drives recurring U.S. cultural conflicts like the “War on Christmas”? Dan Cassino on the logic of identity politics in everyday life.
If Americans are enjoying the Christmas season, it’s because Donald Trump saved it—according to him and the onetime Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee in a recent interview on Newsmax. Repeating a central talking point from Trump’s 2016 run for the White House, Huckabee told viewers that “America had gone through a long period where people quit saying Merry Christmas,” but then Trump had put things right after being elected five years ago. “When I started campaigning,” Trump explained, “I said, ’You’re going to say Merry Christmas again,’ and now people are saying it.” All of this may sound strange to most Americans, given the enduring cultural hegemony of Christmas at this time of year, yet polemicists on the U.S. right has spent much of the past two decades insisting there’s an unyielding “War on Christmas,” being waged by the forces of secularism, progressivism, and political correctness. No one has been more vocal about this perceived threat to American tradition than the analysts of Fox News, who announced a national crisis earlier this month, after a 50-foot “all-American Christmas tree” burned down outside their headquarters in Manhattan—according to the New York City Police Department, at the hands of a homeless man with a history of mental illness and drug abuse, previously arrested for exposing his genitals to members of the media. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who believe there’s a War on Christmas is higher than ever—37 percent, including 71 percent of those who say they voted for Trump in 2020. Why do these kinds of cultural conflicts persist in the U.S.?
Dan Cassino is a professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, the executive director of the University’s FDU Poll, and the author of Fox News and American Politics. Cassino sees the War on Christmas as likely to remain an enduring narrative in U.S. political life into the foreseeable future. At a time when political identities are increasingly central to Americans’ personal identities, and increasingly fraught, political and media entrepreneurs are always ready to activate anxieties about these identities. This is true of commentators on the right, who advance the story of the War on Christmas, and also of the progressive podcasters and late-night comedians who ridicule them for it. As long as these dynamics continue, Cassino says, the notion of the War on Christmas will keep imbuing seasonal aspects of American life—from wintertime school events to “holiday” cups at Starbucks—with increasingly polarized political conflict. Specific battles may end, but in the contemporary United States, culture war is a renewable resource.
Graham Vyse: Where did the idea of the War on Christmas come from?
Dan Cassino: It started with a Bill O’Reilly broadcast in December of 2005. A second-tier Fox News commentator, John Gibson, had written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, and he went on O’Reilly’s show to talk about it. For several years, it was only Fox News talking about it, other than people who were mocking the idea. The issue started to get real traction around 2010 and 2011, coinciding with the rise of the conservative Tea Party movement and concerns on the U.S. right that President Barack Obama was insufficiently Christian or insufficiently American.
Gibson seemed to have gotten the term “War on Christmas” from a British-born nationalist who was writing about it earlier in the 2000s, so you can even link this to Brexit—the notion of immigrants coming to a Western country and not celebrating Christmas and ruining our culture. The idea was brought into American politics specifically with the idea that public schools weren’t doing Christmas plays but rather “holiday” plays. What Gibson was talking about—and certainly what O’Reilly seized on—was the idea of a War on Christmas as emblematic of secularization taking God out of civil society. O’Reilly described the War on Christmas as the spearhead of a movement to bring in abortion on demand, gay marriage, and the whole liberal agenda. The War on Christmas was a way of getting rid of the Christian essence of American society, as he saw it.
Vyse: How does all this fit into the broader history of politicized culture wars in America?
Cassino: Since the War on Christmas started off as a school issue, we can see it in the long history of controversy over prayer in school and the teaching of evolution in school. Very few people today argue that public schools should be overtly Christian, but what made the idea of the War on Christmas successful was that it was broadened to include corporations like Starbucks. If Starbucks has “holiday cups,” for instance, it’s seen as a sign that they’re against you and pro-secularization. It politicizes everyday interactions and becomes a powerful cultural marker—a way you can assert partisanship. We’re at the point in the U.S. society where, if I say Happy Holidays to someone instead of Merry Christmas, I could be perceived as implicitly announcing something about my political beliefs.
More from Dan Cassino at The Signal:
There’s a cultural currency in perpetuating the idea of a War on Christmas, because it comes up in everyday conversation. If you’re looking for a War on Christmas, you’re going to find it. You’re going to find the person at the store who says Happy Holidays—or the person on your block. Since it’s such an easy cultural marker, it’s become ingrained in Americans and part of their partisanship. An aspect of your social identity as a Republican or a Democrat is what you say to people around the holidays.”
If the belief is that Christianity is being de-centered by public institutions, there’s a lot of evidence for that. Public schools don’t do the kinds of religious things they did 50 years ago. Mississippi had kids saying a state prayer or reading from the Bible as late as the 1980s. Now, of course, that’s less about a War on Christmas and more about trying to take religion out of public institutions as part of a First Amendment obligation to maintain the government’s neutrality with regard to religion. Is there less Christianity in schools now than in the past? Of course. America is a more secular society than it used to be. The question is what that means, and that’s where the disagreement comes.”
Culture wars die out when they stop being useful, either because everybody agrees on something or nobody agrees on something. Being against marriage equality isn’t going to be a cultural marker in America 20 years from now. There are still people against it today, but that’s dying out. U.S. society is becoming almost unanimous that marriage equality is fine.”
Happy Holidays
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