‘When people hear of the ‘war on Christmas,’” Sarah Palin writes in her new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, “they sometimes don’t get it.” The former governor of Alaska and Republican vice-presidential nominee explains:
Americans live in the red-and-green mistletoed world of Christmas in December, hearing “Santa Baby” on a perpetual loop at the mall, hushing the kids in the Swagger Wagon when “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” comes on the radio, and dealing with Christmas ads even before November’s Thanksgiving turkey has time to cook to the appropriate internal temperature. If there is a “war on Christmas,” they must wonder, surely the green glitter and constant car-with-a-gigantic-bow ads mean Christmas is a winning battle.
“Sure, the commercial aspects of Christmas are stronger than ever,” Palin goes on to observe, “but the essence of Christmas is being lost in the shuffle. And that’s at least partly by design. What is the essence of Christmas? The magic of Christmas morning and seeing the joy that comes when your kids discover Santa really did give the new Lego sets — or dictionaries — they desperately wanted?”
What is the essence of Christmas, what the true joy of it? How is it all about so much more than December 25? In the hours before Christmas, Palin answered some e-mail questions from National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: “People who reject Christianity, who turn their noses up at the religious origins of Christmas, are also rejecting the faith of many of the men and women who have made this world a better place: Martin Luther King, Jr., William Wilberforce, Mother Teresa.” Why do you find this important to point out? Non-Christians, too, make positive contributions to the world, after all.
SARAH PALIN: It’s amazing that people like Martin Luther King Jr., William Wilberforce, and Mother Teresa are universally loved while their faith is scorned. Has it not occurred to the secular elite that faith motivated these great heroes’ actions? In an age when Christianity is increasingly scorned, few people realize they live with and take for granted the benefits of Christian thought. Ending slavery, ending segregation, the great wave of concern for combating poverty — each of these movements has been motivated to a large degree by Christian faith. The fact that these movements also had non-Christian supporters does not diminish the truth of this point, and we are not dishonoring other religions when we honor Christianity.
LOPEZ: You dedicate your book to your mother and father, crediting them with giving you a “unique and inspiring upbringing.” What was unique and inspiring about it?
PALIN: The greatest gift they gave me was my upbringing in Alaska, where I gained respect for the work ethic and competition and a foundation of faith.
LOPEZ: What is Eskimo Bingo, and do you recommend it?
PALIN: I’m literally, right now as I take a minute to email you these answers, baking and wrapping gifts for tomorrow’s big game. You’ll have to read my book to learn the rules.
LOPEZ: What’s the Alaskan difference — from the lower 48 — and yet what’s uniquely American about it?
PALIN: My brother and dad recently wrote a book about Alaska where they spent chapters answering this by discussing everything from what motivates people to move here to what kind of humor they develop because of living in Alaska. I could spend days discussing this and we’d still only scratch the surface. You need to live here for at least a decade and become a Sourdough before you really “get” it. Alaska is uniquely a land of extremes — extremes in weather, in vastness, in rich natural resources, in awe-inspiring beauty, and in independence. It was the inexpressible beauty of Alaska that led me to truly know that God exists because only an omnipotent Creator could create something as complex and wondrous as my surroundings up here!
LOPEZ: “It’s a miracle what families can endure,” you write. You’ve had some incredibly public family challenges. How does a family do it?
PALIN: I don’t know how other families deal with problems without having a sustaining faith. Our faith in God and knowing all things happen for a reason, our love for each other, our recognition that others take tougher shots than we do, our compassion for those with unique challenges — these things sustain us. And keeping a sense of humor when the yahoos come out in force to spew their frustration when they spend their time reading interviews like this one!
LOPEZ: Is there something about that sense of family that we’ve lost as a culture?
PALIN: Sometimes it seems that way. I sure appreciate having a big extended, diverse family. They’re my rock and I hope others have that same bedrock foundation in their lives. There’s no substitute for the multigenerational love, wisdom, and support of an extended family.
LOPEZ: How can Christmas help?
PALIN: Traditions matter, especially this tradition. There is tremendous value in gathering annually in a spirit of love, generosity, and festivity. Most importantly, we need to remember the “reason for the season,” that God sent His only begotten Son, so that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. When we gather for Christmas, we enjoy each other and we honor Christ. What could be better for a family?
LOPEZ: Do you worry about gifts at Christmas? That they miss the point of the holiday? How can we redeem Christmas so it is about the Savior?
PALIN: Nope. I don’t worry about gifts — I love that part of the tradition! When people wring their hands about the presents, I get it, though. It costs money and sometimes people aren’t as thankful as you think they should be when you spend your time and money on them. But presents aren’t the problem. Our hearts — as ungrateful as they sometimes are — need a fresh application of the gospel at Christmas more than ever.
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you write that “Mr. McScrooge is a legal force to be reckoned with”?
PALIN: As I wrote in the book (and, by the way, why’d you wait until two days before Christmas to ask me about my book?!), there is a unique legal doctrine that gives the “Mr. McScrooges” of the world (my stand-in for angry atheists) the ability to sue over public religious displays even when they’re just offended by what they see. Then, if they win, a town can be on the hook for huge legal fees. We can’t sue simply because we’re “offended” in other areas of the law, but courts allow these atheist lawsuits to go forward. It’s a quirk in the law that wastes resources and stifles the First Amendment. Your rights aren’t violated when you’re offended or your feelings are hurt. Hey, Mr. McScrooge: Buck up, grow thicker skin, and become tolerant, as conservatives are constantly told to do.
LOPEZ: “The atheists are trying to make Nativity scenes such a pain for cities to maintain that the public officials will simply remove all religious displays entirely.” Why, really, do we need religious displays on public property? Aren’t they more appropriate at church?
PALIN: It’s about history and truth. It’s a simple fact that America was built largely on a Judeo-Christian foundation, and it’s a simple fact that our nation has a rich Christian history drawn from the thousands of years of our Judeo-Christian tradition. Without this tradition, our nation would be distinctly different. These displays acknowledge faith while reminding us of our very real history. They’re appropriate at church, yes, but they’re not inappropriate in the public square. They remind us of our heritage — a heritage that our founders clearly acknowledged was crucial to our long-term well-being as a nation. In fact, in my book, I quote John Adams, who wrote: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
LOPEZ: “Christmas has come under attack in recent years, and it’s not just some figment of the religious Right’s imagination.” But do you ever hesitate to use the phrase “war on Christmas,” given that there are actually people in the world who risk their lives to go to church and to live as Christians out in the open?
PALIN: I care very deeply about Christians being persecuted for their faith. In fact, I’ve been talking for months about the American pastor Saeed Abedini, who is tortured in Iran simply for his Christian faith. The Obama administration is cutting deals with his torturers, and it’s shameful.
So, absolutely, other Christians experience much worse injustices, and I certainly do not in any way want to belittle the suffering and persecution that Christians in other parts of the world are enduring for their faith. However, we can also honor their struggle by being vigilant here at home in protecting our religious liberties. America has long been a haven for religious freedom, and that fundamental liberty is increasingly under attack.
We know the difference between a shooting war and a political or cultural war, and so do those who hear this term. Here’s the bottom line: There is — unquestionably — an effort to drive Christ from the public square, and since Christmas is inseparable from Christ, that effort shows itself most publicly during the Christmas season.
LOPEZ: Are Christians part of the problem? We can surrender to secularism ourselves? We’re not all living lives that overwhelm the world with the radical call of the gospel, are we?
PALIN: I’ve personally never met a Christian who claimed to be perfect. Christians are by definition people who recognize their imperfection and hence their need for Christ. In fact, we’ll never overwhelm the world with our own goodness. It’s Christ who overcomes the world, not Christians.
LOPEZ: When you write that “there is no ultimate peace apart from Christ, and it is Christ who empowers every act of ‘goodwill toward men’ in our otherwise fallen hearts,” what does this mean to you, practically speaking?
PALIN: It means that I can take the kids to the soup kitchen over Christmas and not leave with a puffed-up sense of pride because we “did the right thing.” Rather, I identify more with people in need because I’m so desperately in need of Christ in my own life.
LOPEZ: How is it that A Charlie Brown Christmas is still airing on prime-time TV and remains so popular given its explicit Christianity?
PALIN: It’s a beautiful expression of the gospel. The Bible teaches that God set eternity in the hearts of men. I tend to think that short, sweet cartoon touches the longing for eternity in the human heart.
LOPEZ: Is there a secular case against secularizing our culture? Why should an atheist want to defend Hobby Lobby?
PALIN: An atheist should want to defend Hobby Lobby if an atheist supports the right of conscience. Would an atheist business owner appreciate being compelled to buy Bibles or evangelistic material for his or her employees?
LOPEZ: Is it a bit much to say the “logical result of atheism” is “moral decay”?
PALIN: The morality of atheism rests on individual choice, with each person doing what’s right in his or her own eyes. Of course there are many decent and moral atheists, but if you take an objective look at atheism’s historical track record you’ll see that its natural progression is moral decay. Don’t take my word for it. Look at what might be called the great atheist empires of the 20th century, and you see a horrific legacy of death and despair — from Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, etc.
LOPEZ: What’s so troubling to you about Kwanzaa?
LOPEZ: What do you have against women-only gym hours at Harvard?
PALIN: I find it inconsistent that universities will bend over backwards to protect some sensibilities even as they spend enormous effort and endure many lawsuits in the quest to kick others — like Christian clubs — off campus. It’s a ridiculous double standard. What I’m opposed to is the double standard.
LOPEZ: Will you ever stop referring to the “lamestream” media?
PALIN: Sure, when they stop lamely applying double standards, lamely and lazily getting facts wrong when the facts run against their ideology, and lamely buying into and perpetuating stereotypes of conservatives. So, it’s entirely up to them.
LOPEZ: “Do we worship ourselves so much that another human has to die for our personal convenience?” you ask in Good Tidings, Great Joy. At the same time, you’ve written about the thoughts that might pop into a mother’s mind at the news of an unexpected pregnancy — even ones that popped into your mind. You’re not without knowledge of life’s challenges and compassion for those facing them. What do you think it would take to actually have a culture that “respects the sanctity of innocent life” and “does not condone killing its own children”? How can we make progress?
PALIN: We are making progress! The pro-life movement is the strongest it’s ever been. We’re winning the argument in the court of public opinion that acknowledges that a baby in the womb is precisely that — an innocent baby. And we’re making progress by loving moms, loving kids, and teaching the eternal value of life, the value God places on life. We encourage women by letting them know they’re strong enough to choose life. And we also let them know that there’s help, including adoption options, for them.
LOPEZ: What is the hope of Christmas? What does that mean practically, beyond Christmas?
PALIN: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” I can’t say it better than the prophet Isaiah. What does that mean? Life. Hope. Joy. At Christmas and beyond.
LOPEZ: “Christmas gently encourages you in your weakness.” What have prompted your reflections on weakness and on your faith in recent years? Has the public eye brought a struggle to the fore, deepened your faith in Christ? A little of both? Is there anything you’ve learned that you’re trying to impart in this book?
PALIN: I depend on Christ more than ever. Every passing year deepens my dependence on my faith. It’s not just the public eye that’s been a challenge, it’s also the same kinds of challenges lots of families face — like the challenge of having a son or daughter deployed in a war zone, or trying to raise kids and grandkids in today’s culture, or working hard to provide for your family. The challenges of life deepen my faith because I know I need God to make it each day. In the book, I encourage readers to have faith, to stand firm in their convictions — secure in the knowledge that God is faithful and loved us enough to send his Son to give us eternal hope. That’s an event worth celebrating!
LOPEZ: You don’t seem as enamored of Pope Francis as, say, Time magazine is, which just made him their “Person of the Year.” What’s your beef? In your last book you highlighted the work of some Catholics, including the Sisters of Life. Without getting into theological differences, would you like to see Christians working together more through churches with global reach on issues of human rights — including the rights of the unborn, the elderly, the poor, immigrants, the trafficked?
PALIN: Why do you say that? Because I answered candidly one simple tweeted question about the pope in Jake Tapper’s CNN interview? Let me clear this up again: I have great respect for Pope Francis. The answer I gave about Pope Francis in one interview was blown way out of proportion, so c’mon NRO, be professional about this. I even clarified on my Facebook page that I apparently wasn’t as clear in my response as some wanted. In that particular interview I was trying to say that I don’t trust the media to get it right when reporting on much, much less the Vatican, which is why I think it’s important to do your own research when it comes to things the media report about the pope. I have many Catholic family members and friends, and many assure me they believe Pope Francis is just as sincere and faithful a shepherd of the Church as his two predecessors, whom I greatly admired. (Keep in mind that I come from a big Irish Catholic family on my mother’s side. I heard from friends and relatives when my taken-out-of-context comment about the pope went viral, because these respected people in my life know who I am.) Of course, I love my Catholic family and friends, and I respect the work the Church does to help humanity, advance a culture of life, and lift up the poor from lives of deep hardship and dependence.
LOPEZ: Who is Sarah Palin? Everyone seems to have an opinion. That must be an odd reality. A blessed one, too, when it provides for opportunities like television shows and opportunities to raise money for pro-life groups, I imagine. What do you make of it all and how do you stay grounded?
PALIN: I’m a mom, an activist, outdoorsman, and independent Alaskan who’s been blessed with many opportunities that I’m very, very grateful for. It’s easy to stay grounded in Alaska, living with my family. How can I feel grand — at all — when surrounded by a land so grand and big and beautiful? And family has a way of keeping one grounded.
LOPEZ: Do you ever regret resigning as governor? Do you ever wonder how life may have been different had you stayed in office? Do you ever regret saying “yes” to John McCain’s request?
PALIN: In each case, I made the right decision after a great deal of prayer and reflection — none was made lightly, but rather with the full understanding of what was best for the people I love and, applicable to elected office, was serving. Once a decision is made, I don’t ask what “might have been,” instead I’m grateful for what is.
LOPEZ: Do ever you find yourself thinking about Mary’s “yes” during Christmas?
PALIN: Yes, and also the words of encouragement the angel gave her: “Be not afraid.” We all need that encouragement if, like Mary, we’re to say “yes” to the challenges, responsibilities, and blessings God has in store for us.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.