Like light displays and an onslaught of catalogs, controversy over Christmas has become a December tradition. Whether it’s Christmas trees removed from government buildings, Santa Claus expelled from public schools, or retail employees wishing customers “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas,” debates rage about whether to celebrate the Christian holiday Christmas or the secular (and politically correct) “Christmas season.”
Politicians and governments have two strategies for ducking this controversy — they can hide behind claims that anything vaguely religious is out-of-bounds, or take the multicultural path of incorporating every imaginable faith into holiday expressions. Private entities have tougher calculation to make. In our easily offended society, mass marketers teeter between angering secularist with explicitly religious trappings and alienating Christians by neutering Christmas of its religious significance.
In the private sphere, individuals have an outlet for their grievances. Consumers can vote with their dollars, patronizing stores and corporations that reflect their values and shunning those that don’t. When Target — the nation’s second largest retailer — decided not to allow the Salvation Army (a Christian aid group) to solicit donations in front of their stores, many customers condemned the decision and pledged not to shop there this season. In fact, according to MSNBC, five thousand clergy members encouraged churchgoers to boycott Target because of this decision, which one pastor characterized as “an attack against American tradition.”
Last year, Wal-Mart embraced a “Happy Holidays” theme, minimizing specific mentions of Christmas. This provoked an outcry from some Christian communities, and Wal-Mart reversed this decision for the 2006 Christmas season. Best Buy, however, has decided to continue defaulting to “Happy Holidays,” which a company spokesman described as “the most respectful position” available.
Who is right when it comes to the appropriateness of public Christmas displays? To an extent, it doesn’t matter. When these decisions are made in the private sphere, there is no need for a one-size-fits-all judgment. And most shoppers don’t pay attention to companies’ Christmas-related policies: They just want the best deals and the least hassles. Yet it’s healthy that individuals have the option of boycotting a specific store. It gives individuals power.
Debates become much more contentious when individuals don’t have this freedom. Consider the public-school system. Not only do school administrators struggle to handle the holidays, they face numerous other issues entangled with religious overtones, from the teaching of evolution and sex education to the content of American-history classes.
These issues become emotional and often rancorous because individuals have little ability to exercise individual choice. Most children still are assigned a public school based on their zip code. Parents who disagree with policies or practices at that school have limited options: They can move, pay private-school tuition, or teach the student at home themselves. A lucky few in communities across the country can benefit from programs that allow for greater choice within the public-school system. But, in general, most families — particularly low-income families — have few realistic alternatives to the neighborhood public school.
Private schools are an appealing option for those who can afford it. They allow parents to select a school that they believe not only will provide their children with a quality education, but that also reflects their values. Nearly half of all students attending private school are enrolled in Catholic schools, and many of those students’ families are not religious: An estimated 13.5 percent of parochial school students (more than 300,000 students) aren’t Catholic. Their parents know that their children are going to be exposed to Catholic teachings as a part of their curriculum, but they have decided that the other attributes of these schools — perhaps the character education, the consistent discipline, the challenging courses — outweigh any discomfort with the religious element.
That’s how choice works. You won’t hear many complaints from parents who have selected a school for their children; if they are unhappy, they’ll take their business (and their children) elsewhere. Peace on Earth — at least when it comes to squabbles over religion in the public square — is best achieved by giving individuals as much control as possible over how they live their lives.