Politics & Policy

Silent Night, Secular Night

Is Christmas verboten?

“Christmas is under attack in such a sustained and strategized manner that there is, no doubt, a war on Christmas.” So writes Fox News Channel host John Gibson in his new book, The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. Blue state or red state, putting up a Christmas tree and not having to call it a “friendship tree” or a “giving tree” can often be quite the battle. Gibson relays some of the stories in The War on Christmas.

Gibson recently sang his carols to National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Will you say “Merry Christmas” on air this year? Is that something that distinguishes Fox News from other media?

John Gibson: Fox News Channel put a “Merry Christmas” greeting on the air last year, as well as a “Happy Channukah” (though at this precise moment I’m not certain what spelling was used). I expect to see both again. As for me, I also say both depending on who it is I’m greeting, and yes, I do say the wrong thing sometimes. It happens. I trust that people understand no insult is meant if it happens to be the wrong greeting.

Lopez: You take on Aaron Brown in your introduction. Is this all a competitive anti-CNN thing?

Gibson: I wouldn’t say I “take on Aaron Brown”. I just pointed out what he said, and why he was wrong diminishing the importance of Christmas to a great number of Americans. As for the general anti-CNN thing, that’s just the nature of competition. I want to beat them everyday, and I usually do. It’s not that anybody’s counting, or paying excessively close attention, but I have beaten my CNN opponent for 44 straight months.

Lopez: Isn’t it a little much to be talking about “War on Christmas?” If Islamist terrorists were targeting Christmas celebrations, okay. But Festivus doesn’t seem to rise to the level of war, does it? Do you hurt your argument by over hyping the problem?

Gibson: Do I hurt my argument by over hype in my choice of title, “The War on Christmas”? No. I think there is a general war on Christians underway in our country. You hear it in political discussions all the time when a Democrat or a liberal will decry the power of those “right wing evangelical Christians,” and you hear it in the arguments about Intelligent Design, abortion, prayer in school, the Ten Commandments on courthouse walls, and frankly, a bunch of other ordinary discussions.

So in The War on Christmas I expose how that casual, accepted anti-Christian bias shows up once a year around Christmas when people in positions of petty power, such as school administrators, or municipal-hall managers, will suddenly pop up saying things like “We can’t have that Christmas tree in here because it’s too Christian.” I had a long discussion with a city human-resources manager who said precisely that. What I find shocking is that people like that man do not hear the sound of their voices. Substitute any other religion for the word “Christian” and these very people would be up in arms with the cry of prejudice and bias, but if the bias is directed at Christians, it is perfectly acceptable.

Also, if you look at the newspapers over the last five years you find these stories popping up every Christmas season, with almost exactly the same arguments made, and almost exactly the same result each time: disaster.

I do believe the atmosphere is improving in some places, because people have recognized the downside of institutionalized hostility to religion in general and Christianity in particular. Tolerance is the tradition in this country, and tolerance should be extended to Christians during their important holiday period.

Lopez: Not to belabor, but: Isn’t some of the “Happy Holidays” stuff out there understandable, polite, appropriate? When you’re on air, you’ve got Christians, yes, but Jews and Muslims and others are also tuning in. Should they have to be hearing about a Christian holiday—in their faces as if there were something wrong with them for not celebrating it? Or are you all for dumbing down Christmas to make it a secular holiday everyone can celebrate?

Gibson: …Yes, if you are greeting someone you know to be a Jewish person you might want to give the appropriate greeting. But I’ve also had Jewish people say to me that they don’t feel insulted when a Christian says “Merry Christmas” and even though there is no logic to wishing a non-Christian “Merry Christmas” if taken literally, I think most people get it, and understand no harm is meant and it is a greeting of simple well wishing.

This issue of non Christians being confronted with Christianity wherever they go at Christmas time seems to me to be best answered by “Well… DUH!” It’s a Christian holiday and it’s a big one. Eighty-four percent of the country self identifies as Christian. Ninety-six percent of the country observes or celebrates Christmas in some form, if only slightly, so what would one expect? I think Christmas does require the forbearance of non-Christians, but I don’t think it should be a big issue. Once again, the American tradition is tolerance, and I see no reason why tolerance should not be extended to the majority religion and its secularized symbols.

As for the issue of dumbing-down Christmas, I’m probably the wrong guy to ask. People active in church, or actual clergy will say “yes,” and will insist that a Christmas tree is not a religious symbol of Christianity the same way that a crèche is. And consequently, they continue to insist that the proper public display of a Christian religious symbol is the crèche. I would say they are right, and I urge them to continue to make that argument.

Lopez: Are you pro prayers in school?

Gibson: I am pro prayer in school if the urge to do some comes from the person praying, and not an official or functionary of the school or local government. I understand that here in New York vacant classrooms are made available for Muslim students to pray when their own religious conscience requires, and the same right should be extended to Christian or Jewish students, or students of any other religion. We all know when religion impinges on the life of people other than the faithful, and I see no reason students may not exercise their constitutional right to pray.

Now, more to the point: Should football coaches be allowed to lead a prayer? I don’t see why not. Should there be prayers over the public-address system at schools? I wouldn’t think it’s the best idea, but I also don’t see why not. It depends on the community and the people involved. If the question is, should non-believers be subjected to the prayers of believers, I say “come on… what’s so damn hard about sitting quietly for a minute with your mouth shut?”

Lopez: Your subtitle blames liberals for this Christmas “war,” but is it really the Left’s fault? Is there something fundamentally liberal about not wanting “Christmas?” They’ve never invited me over, but I assume the Kennedys celebrate Christmas and all.

Gibson: I have gotten a lot of quibbling about my use of the word “liberal” in the subtitle. First, it certainly is not the conservatives doing these things. Second, if there is a distinction somebody wants to make between liberal and far-Left, I’d have to say “Ok….fine.” I think it’s clear it is liberals who are the purveyors of an anti-Christmas, anti-Christian bias. Not all liberals. Certainly not southern liberal churchgoing people, because I point out in my book that it is the First Amendment Center, founded by a well-known liberal newspaperman, which has come running to help out school districts that have gotten in a big Christmas catastrophe by banning or suppressing Christmas symbols, but I don’t think there’s any question that “liberal” is an apt description of the lawyers and others who take action to remove Christmas from schools or city halls or law schools.

I am acquainted with at least one of the famous Kennedys you refer to, and yes, I understand they celebrate Christmas with vigor, and they would not be the liberals I refer to.

Lopez: How much is the ACLU to blame for this war on Christmas nonsense?

Gibson: First of all, there are many ACLUs. One in every state, at the very least, and a national organization. So an ACLU lawyer in one place might do something markedly different than an ACLU lawyer in another place. For instance, in Massachusetts the local chapter of the ACLU sided with the Bush Justice Department in a suit over a student’s right to give a gift that contains a religious message to another student. Both the ACLU in Massachusetts and the Bush Justice Department prevailed in their argument that the gift was constitutionally protected free speech on the part of the student. ACLU lawyers have taken the other side of the same issue elsewhere in the country.

Having said that, generally there is an ACLU component to a Christmas controversy. There is either an outright suit brought by an ACLU lawyer on behalf of a complainant, or the threat of such a suit in the background of nearly all the stories I cover in my book, and generally I think you will find the ACLU weighing in on the “December Dilemma” every year.

Lopez: Why do you care about Mustang, Oklahoma?

Gibson: Mustang, Oklahoma, seemed to me to be the last place in the world where you’d find a school administrator banning anything having to do with Christmas. But it happened, and it was a disaster for school administrator, Karl Springer. Voters turned down a school-bond issue in an election that followed Springer’s decision to cancel a religious scene from the school Christmas pageant. He was under fire and really had no safe harbor, until he heard about a (liberal) group which works with people like him to establish a religion policy for schools that everybody in the community can agree with and live by. It was an interesting story even beyond the obvious headline that this kind of story isn’t expected in a red state place like Mustang, Oklahoma.

Lopez: The courts aren’t totally warm to Christmas. Which leads one to consider the dangers of judicial activism. Do you have a dog in the Harriet Miers fight?

Gibson: I don’t have a dog in the Harriet Miers fight. I’ve been amused at the state of apoplexy among some of my conservative friends, and the brand-name conservative pundits who I always enjoy hearing. I don’t think an entirely unqualified person should be nominated to the highest Court in the land, but I’m not sure she’s entirely unqualified. I’ll wait to see what she sounds like in her hearings. But it is obvious her nomination is in trouble, and I think her conservative opponents may actually have succeeded in giving Bush second thoughts.

Lopez: Your last book was on Anti-Americanism. Is there any kind of tie-in with the “War on Christmas”?

Gibson: The only tie-in I can see is that the anti-American crowd in Europe is always making a lot of noise about the religiosity of America. That bunch is extremely intolerant of Christian religionists, and tends to always make a false and vicious association between American Christians and Muslim terrorists. But other than that, I wouldn’t think there are a lot of similarities. In Hating America: The New World Sport the idea was to look over newspapers and other publications for what the world was saying about us. In The War On Christmas the idea was to talk to the people involved in some emblematic anti-Christmas incidents in this country, to interview them in depth about what went into these various (bad) decisions, and what happened after. So the books are different in many ways.

Lopez: Why are you making me think about Christmas already? I have a few weeks yet until I even have to fight for the best Turkey Day Butterball in the supermarket.

Gibson: I am making you think about Christmas already because the book business moves at the speed of freight companies, the people actually shipping books. So it’s slow, and if it doesn’t start now, it’s already too late.

Lopez: Aren’t you a pure, politically virginal, totally objective journalist, Mr. Gibson? How can you possibly take sides on an issue as you have in this book (as well as your previous one)?

Gibson: I’m pretty much not a virginal anything. No, I deliver the news, I interview people, and I have an opinion when I reveal to the audience. I have been doing opinion in a piece called My Word for five years or so. I enjoy it. Nobody’s fired me yet.

Lopez: What’s your goal in getting this book in people’s hands?

Gibson: I want people to understand that the idea that religious tolerance is good includes the idea that it’s also good to be tolerant of the largest religious group in this country. I don’t think Christmas, nor Christians, should be suppressed. I think people should recognize that Christians are called to spread the word, and their efforts in that area should be afforded the same tolerance we afford other religionists.

Lopez: As an early Christmas gift: Tell me something about Roger Ailes I don’t know and will get a kick out of knowing.

Gibson: Roger Ailes is best boss I’ve ever had in television, and that includes a bunch of people. He is clearly the smartest person in the media today. He is also the most loyal and (here’s the shocker!) caring boss I’ve ever had. When I say “caring” I mean about many people who work at Fox, not just me. People who are in hospitals hear from Roger, people who are struggling hear from Roger, and people who need to speak to Roger will find that he usually makes time so they can see him. I think anybody working for Roger is very lucky. I know I am.

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