Christmas, Christians, and Jews

(Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Crèches and crosses in public places threaten no one, but they make adherents of the new secular orthodoxy uncomfortable

Once upon a time, long before the idea or phrase “sensitivity training” was born, the various religious groups in our heterogeneous society had developed a strategy for getting along with one another. It was a strategy based on civility and prudence. Since American society was then more provincial, more narrow-minded, than it is today, civility and prudence only worked up to a point. But I would maintain that they worked better than the current strategy, which by encouraging all of us to be perpetually “sensitive” to others, and especially sensitive to “militant” others, actually invites self-styled spokesmen for minorities to be aggressive, uncivil, and imprudent. Though religious discrimination has, thank goodness, declined sharply in the last fifty years, this decline is mainly visible at the individual level—the most important level, it ought to go without saying. What our liberals call “intergroup relations,” however—i.e., relations at the public level—seem to be worsening, as the new version of “pluralism” feeds destructively upon itself. Eventually, one fears, there could be disagreeable repercussions on the individual level as well.

Jewish-Christian relations are a case in point, and this Christmas seems an appropriate time to ponder the issue. It is my strong impression that, while relations between Christians and Jews as individuals are far better today than ever before, tensions between the two religious communities are being exacerbated. It is not a matter of a “resurgent anti-Semitism,” as some major Jewish organizations claim. Only within the black community is there evidence of any such resurgence, and since this phenomenon is as inexplicable as it is irrational, given the extraordinary Jewish commitment to the struggle for equality of civil rights, no one really has any idea of what to do about it. In any case, there is nothing even superficially Christian about black anti-Semitism, which is a peculiar, home-brewed racism that has little appeal to white Christians. What anti-Semitism still prevails in the larger society is primarily social, a reluctance to assimilate Jews into the social life and social activities of the non-Jewish community. Such discrimination has some nasty side-effects at the occupational and professional level, though on the whole American Jews seem to manage to evade those effects. In any case, as a Jew who is not particularly interested in participating in such an assimilation, I can live with it.

The kind of tension that is now building up between Jews and Christians has very little to do with traditional discrimination, and everything to do with efforts by liberals—among whom, I regret to say, Jews are both numerous and prominent—to establish a wall between religion and society, in the guise of maintaining the wall between church and state. The major Jewish organizations proceed from the correct proposition that legally and constitutionally we are not a Christian nation, to the absurd proposition that we are in no sense at all a Christian society. They are aware, of course, that the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christians, but insist that their religion be a totally private affair, one that finds no public expression and receives no public deference. Such insistence shows a lamentable ignorance of history, sociology, and psychology.

This ignorance is reflected in the quandary that these same Jewish organizations now find themselves in over developments in Israel. They really thought that one could have a Jewish state with a largely secular society inhabited by Jews? That the Jewish government of a Jewish state could blandly and resolutely ignore traditional, religious Jewish sensibilities? Since the original Zionist movements were largely secular and nationalist in their inspiration, many Israelis did once think along those lines. But, with the passage of time, this mode of thought has been chastened. No one in Israel today makes an issue of the fact that all food in the Israeli armed forces is kosher—though, in the nation’s earlier days, this was a matter for some controversy. Other similar innovations have relentlessly occurred over the years. Today, in Israel—still theoretically that strange hybrid: a secular but Jewish state—there is no debate over the separation of church and state, only a debate over where one draws the line in the involvement of religion with both society and state. There is every bit as much religious toleration in Israel as in the United States, and Christians and Moslems are free to practice their religion without let or hindrance. But the Israeli government closes down on Yom Kippur, not on Christmas.

Now, the United States is not Israel. It is not, constitutionally or traditionally, a Christian state but a fully secular state. Moreover, the United States is a pluralist society in a way that Israel is not, does not wish to be, and cannot be. (The “Law of Return” guarantees to Jews—and only Jews—the right to come and live in Israel.) But the fact that Christmas is an official holiday throughout the United States does indicate that the secular government of this nation of Christians is at least minimally respectful of Christian sensibilities.

I see nothing wrong with that, just as I see nothing wrong with the public schools in New York City closing down on Yom Kippur. It is common sense and common prudence for a secular government not to put itself unnecessarily at odds with the religious sensibilities of its citizenry. Diplomacy and tact is called for, not ruthless self-denial, which is what the American Civil Liberties Union calls for. Unfortunately, many Jews seem to think that the extreme secularism of the ACLU is their best guarantee of religious, social, and political equality. Since I believe that such extreme secularism is contra naturam—except in a nation of atheists or agnostics, which the United States is not—I also believe that the American Jewish community is misguided in its now-dominant dogmatic view of how the relations between the two religions are to be structured.

The Jewish view, that religion ought to be an exclusively private affair with no public involvement, is the understandable view of a religious minority with long and vivid memories of official anti-Semitism, discrimination, and persecution. But the inescapable truth is that Jews are not going to be able to impose this view on the Christian majority of the United States. It is just too extreme—so extreme that, even now, the major Jewish organizations stop short of arguing against the status of Christmas as a national holiday, or school closings on Yom Kippur in some localities, or all sorts of other, traditional intrusions of religious expression and ritual into public life.

One reason American Jews were able to take seriously the prospect of a near-total divorce between religion and society was the attitude of the major Protestant organizations, whose liberal Protestantism was more keenly interested in social reform than in religious belief. Jews prefer Christians whose Christianity is lukewarm and therefore, they feel, less likely to lead to Christian anti-Semitism of a kind our Jewish ancestors experienced for centuries in Europe. This is perfectly understandable. But it is also a parochial perspective, out of tune with current realities, and this for two reasons.

First, the anti-Semitism that has been so dangerous to Jews in this country, and is still so dangerous today, is not Christian anti-Semitism. It is neo-pagan anti-Semitism (Nazi and Fascist), or Moslem fundamentalist anti-Semitism, or Marxist anti-Semitism, or simply nationalist chauvinist anti-Semitism of a kind one now finds in Japan (of all places!) or Latin America. Our major Jewish organizations are oriented, almost hypnotically and surely atavistically, to the past rather than to the present or future.

Secondly, it is ridiculous to think that liberal-modernist-secular Protestant Christianity would remain forever “the wave of the future,” and that never again would Christians want to be devout. Ever since World War II and the Holocaust, large numbers of American Jews have felt impelled to become “more Jewish,” in one way or another. But the American Jewish community as a whole—always excluding the ultra-Orthodox, who are uninterested in Christians—was surprised to discover, was positively alarmed to discover, that something like a Christian revival was also occurring, primarily among the evangelical wing of Protestantism. So the Jewish organizations keep anxiously looking for signs of anti-Semitism among “born-again” Christians, exaggerate the few such expressions they do find, and wait for this phenomenon to pass. I don’t think it will pass. I believe the secular era is fading, that Jews (at least those who remain Jews) will become more Jewish, Christians more Christian, Moslems more Moslem, Hindus more Hindu, etc.

American Jews are utterly unprepared for this new world, in which Christians wish to be more Christian without necessarily being anti-Semitic. They doubt the very possibility of this happening. I am willing to contemplate such a possibility. Which is why I refuse to get excited about a crèche being erected outside a town hall, or students in public schools singing Christmas carols or even putting on a Nativity play. In those communities that are predominantly Christian, this is to be anticipated and Jews can live with it.

Indeed we Jews always did live with it, in the America of my schooldays, before the courts became militant agents of secularism. To be sure, we lived more comfortably with it to the degree that our fellow Americans who were Christians exercised a suitable degree of tact and prudence. In my own school, our principal, confronting a student body that was perhaps one-half Jewish, would read from the Bible at assembly—but he would read only from the Psalms, the most purely interdenominational part of Scripture.

Tact and prudence: the recovery of these virtues, by both Jews and Christians, seems to me the key to decent relations between these two religious groups. I think it is foolish in the extreme for Jews even to appear to be anti-Christian, just as it would be wrong for Christians even to appear to be anti-Semitic. A lot of nice diplomacy is called for, but our religious leaders ought to be capable of that.

This Christmas, as in all Christmases past and future, there will be no Christmas tree in my home. But I am not anti-Christian and see nothing wrong with the Christian majority erecting Christmas trees on public property. Indeed, I have what I regard as a theologically positive view of Christianity. Like the greatest Jewish theologian of this century, Franz Rosenzweig, I see Christianity as a sister religion to Judaism, as a form of “Judaism for the Gentiles.” I can understand that some Christians might not think this theological view to be as positive as they would like, that they might even find it somewhat patronizing—just as I find somewhat patronizing the Christian view of Judaism as a necessary prelude to Christianity. But true theological difference of opinion ought not to impinge on the ability of the two faiths to live amicably together.

— This article first appeared in the December 30, 1988, issue of National Review.

Irving Kristol (1920–2009) was an American journalist and founder of The National Interest.