Politics & Policy

The Power of Christmas

What it teaches us all, believers and atheists alike.

The Battle of Christmas is becoming a major event in the current history of liberty. In city after city in the United States and Europe, a war of sorts is being declared on Jesus Christ. He has been designated persona non grata. In public life, He is officially abolished. European bureaucrats do not even want Christianity mentioned in the new European Constitution, or to have anything to do with the European Commission.

In one of our own fair cities, one may no longer speak of the “Christmas Season”–only of “Sparkle Season.” Elsewhere, in personal greetings the correct phrase is no longer “Merry Christmas” but something more indirect and evasive like “Best wishes of the season.”

What is going on? We seem to be returning to a degree of Christophobia, after a tremendous run of 1,669 open and happy Christmas celebrations since the very first one in 336 A.D. in Rome. After the killing of Christians by the Roman emperors had ceased, and Constantine at last removed the legal impediments to the public expression of Christianity in 313 A.D. (and, incidentally, a few years later fixed the date of Christ’s birth on December 25), Christophobia faded, except for the totalitarian banishment of Christianity, and all religion, by the Soviet Union in the 20th century.

Now, in the New Europe, the Italian minister for European affairs was forced to describe the convictions of his personal conscience on homosexual conduct. The EU authorities were not content with two prior assurances from him (in the same interrogation) that he respected the laws and civil rights of homosexuals out of respect for their personal dignity, and would uphold political and civil protections for them. No such questions were asked of Romano Prodi or any other European official. It would be unconstitutional in the United States to impose a religious test for public office. Governmental bodies even in Europe should make no intrusions into the realm of conscience; what counts in a public official is his commitment to the rule of law and faithful protection of civil and political liberties.


Many Europeans still recall that in 1948, when Communism took over many nations to the East (Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and others) and threatened to win elections also in the West (France, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere), what saved the latter group was the sudden strong emergence of the Christian Democratic parties, drawing on spiritual resources many centuries old.

Then, some decades later, what saved Central and Eastern Europe from the deadly grip of the Iron Curtain was Solidarnosc, a labor union steeped in Christian principles of liberty and non-violence. Christians and Jews together upheld the priority of the human spirit over the might of the Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov together celebrated the power of truth over the regime of lies. Theirs was at bottom a Hebrew notion: that one of the names of the Almighty is Truth, and that the power of truth is shattering and irresistible.

As Natan Sharansky reminds us in his new book on the power of freedom, The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror, he found strength in identifying himself with his family and their Jewish roots going back some 55 centuries. And in the same process of self-identification many others reopened their inner ties to Jesus Christ.

It is important to plumb the depths of this rediscovery. The KGB prescribed 18 different diets for prisoners, scaled for severe punishment. They also prescribed 20-some degrees of torture. Yet what Sharansky and many others discovered is that under interrogation power passes from the torturer to the tortured. For what the interrogator wants only the one interrogated can give him, and as long as the latter holds on to fidelity to truth all the power is his. For the interrogator wants him to lie. The interrogator tempts him and tries to undermine his resistance by asking relentlessly, “Who will ever know? All those who agree with you have been compromised; they have been told you have confessed to spying; everyone has contempt for you; you are alone; be practical; just tell us what we want to know, no one else will ever see it. Who cares about you anyway? Just end this. For you and for me, just end it.”

But when a person under torture refuses to be unfaithful to what he sees as the light within him, he soon begins to wonder about the nature of that light. If it is part of himself, where is it? When his torturer torments his flesh, emotions, passions, imagination, mind, and even his self-identity, then what on earth is that light? What is he being faithful to? And why does it seem so important, so absolutely vital, to be true to it? Some in this nothingness begin to address that light as a person, whose name is Truth.

And so the chain of reflection runs like this: Truth is not a proposition, but a person–a light, a kind of intelligence, who in the songs of one’s childhood is called Lord, or Creator, or Beloved, or Judge, or One-to-be-feared. It is God. For others, not willing to turn to God, the experience of this searing demand for honesty remains as a burning memory, radiating as a sentinel over the rest of their lives.


In this way, by a kind of via negativa, were some of the hidden depths–and real strengths–of the Western tradition rediscovered in the 20th century.

What we mean by God is something like irrepressible inner light, which is not quite a part of us, but apart from us, and yet deep within. It is closer to us than we to ourselves.

As Sharansky also notes in passing, although he is not a Christian, Jesus Christ taught humans to give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s. One does not have to be Christian to take that lesson, or perhaps even to admit that Jesus Christ is the world’s greatest teacher of the illegitimacy of totalitarian government. The very idea of everything belonging to Caesar is false in principle. The modern idea of democracy follows in the wake of this teaching of Christ.

In parallel fashion, a leading figure of Enlightenment thought in Italy today, Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and publisher of La Repubblica, has reminded readers of his own paper that Jesus Christ introduced into modern Europe the idea of the dignity of every single individual, especially the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable. That is what gave meaning to the terms Equality and Fraternity in the triadic slogan of the French Revolution. To come to the aid of the poor is an essential idea of modern democracy.

And this idea, too, springs in great vividness from the Christmas scene of the endangered infant, the poor shepherds, and the humble animals seeking shelter in the stable under the cold stars, celebrated by angels. It is the poor and the humble who are chosen by the Creator for His greatest gifts.


There are other ideas key to democracy embedded in the Christmas drama. Here I must acknowledge that I am using “democracy” where in many ways a term such as “republic” would more accurately serve; but contemporary usage almost demands it. One of the most important of these other ideas is the inalienable liberty of individual persons.

And how is this form of liberty rooted in Christmas? Read again Jefferson’s argument in his Bill for Religious Liberty and Madison’s argument in his Remonstrance. For both, religion is a duty every person owes to his Creator–a self-evident duty but one to be rendered according to the conscience of each individual. And why is that? Because that is the decree of the particular God they have in mind. That God is found in Judaism and Christianity, in the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and also Jesus, Who demands to be worshiped “in spirit and in truth.”

This God, as William Penn of the Society of Friends explained, created the world so as to place within it women and men to whom He could offer His friendship. They would be free to accept or reject his friendship, since He wished not slavish friendship but the friendship of the free. “The Light was sent to shine in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not.” Since He made the universe for friendship, the Creator had to make it free. Freedom lies at the heart of things.

And so, to continue the Jeffersonian and Madisonian argument, each man must make a choice, face-to-face with his Creator. This choice cannot be put off on one’s mother or any other person: It is inalienable. The choice cannot be evaded. And if it is the inalienable duty of every individual, then it must also be an inalienable right. This duty belongs to every individual, and no state or jurisdiction can block its accomplishment. This is a duty precedent both in time and in obligation to all others. It is precedent to civil society, and it is precedent to the state. It is rooted in the relation of individual to Creator.

So powerful is this relation that it holds even for those who deny that there is a God. For the Creator leaves it within individuals’ freedom to make such a denial. As Jefferson spells out, we humans can bow our knee to nothing else besides evidence, and if the evidence for God in this world does not convince us, so the Almighty has left us free to conclude. It lies in his almighty power to coerce us, but the Holy Author of our religion chose not to do.

And who was this Holy Author? For heroes such as Sharansky it is the God of his fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. For the great majority of Americans, the Holy Author of our religion is Jesus Christ, whose birthday the whole nation celebrates on Christmas.

There are many reasons why atheists should (and a good many do) celebrate Christmas. Among these are simple ones, like the color and brightness and good spirits of that time. Other reasons include the contributions this humble child born in a manger has made to the thrust of Western experiments in freedom. These reasons are as easily understood by atheists as by devout Christians (who come in every degree of understanding, or lack thereof). At times they have been better understood by atheists, at least in practice.


In any case, knowing that this really is a wonderful life, in which implausible dreams can come true, I have been dreaming that one Christmas soon some atheist will start a movement of “Atheists for Christmas.” The purpose would not be to declare that such atheists are Christians. Rather, they or others similarly placed are in a position to state, without partisanship, the positive contributions that Christmas dramatizes for the understanding of freedom and virtue in our time.

It is not just that without Christmas the year would be much drearier. It is rather that Christmas is in fact centered upon the mystery of liberty. During one Christmas or another, each of us is going to have to make a decision: “Who is this baby in the manger?” The consequences for our own lives that follow upon that question are tremendous. Yet the child appears before our eyes, not in the glory of his terrible swift sword, but in helplessness and need–not as overpowering, but as altogether unthreatening. The decision thus depends upon the free conscience of the observer, upon his inalienable liberty.

For that reason, too, Christmas also instructs us to recognize all around ourselves many persons of good will. Even when their answers to that question differ from ours, we owe their inalienable dignity our respect and honor. Freedom, then, and also charity, forbearance, and tolerance–and not merely tolerance, as George Washington confided to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, but mutual respect–are all implicit in the scene at the crib.

Therefore, those of us who are Christians ought to launch a reciprocal campaign of “Christians in Gratitude to Atheists,” to honor the contributions of nonbelievers to our free institutions. Let us give credit to all who helped add to natural rights, the free institutions that support them, and the consent of the governed, due process, and the separation of powers.

The defenders of liberty in this coming century may be not too many but too few, and all of us will surely need one another before this century is done. We will also need Christmas, and all that it strengthens in us, and reminds us of.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.


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