Gridlock In The Public Square Updated: “Khristmaskampf” And The War FOR Christmas
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[Peter Brimelow writes: Eugene  Kontorovich caused a huge fuss with his 1997 New York Post Op Ed article on the War Against Christmas, which we rescued in from pre-internet oblivion last year.  It concluded: “Unless society draws a line—and the only obvious place to draw it is at Christianity—an unmanageable tumult will ensue: gridlock in the public square”.  Ilana Mercer made a similar point in 2008. I believe this is entirely correct: it is how the War on Christmas must ultimately end. Kontorovich, who has subsequently metamorphosized into a law professor, has now kindly supplied us with his further thoughts.] 

Quite a while ago, I wrote an essay in the New York Post, The Gridlock to Come in Our Public Square (July 1 1997) about the settlement of a civil rights law suit in New York that required displaying the star and crescent along with Christmas scenes and menorahs during the “holiday season.”

The principle behind such demands seems to be that every creed deserves equal public representation regardless of its share of the population.

In a nation with many minorities, this is a recipe for the fragmentation of the public square; and in a nation that is also overwhelmingly Christian, it seems an unsporting burden on the inoffensive expressions of majority sentiment.

Since then, the legal fuss over Christian public religious displays has only intensified. One day in 2005 the Supreme Court said that a public display of the Ten Commandments is unconstitutional, but another display was OK. (Did the two versions of the Commandments in Exodus and Deuteronomy presage this split?)  Last year a case reached the Supreme Court about such scholastic questions as if a cross is erected in the desert on public land—but no one notices it for decades—does it sound First Amendment alarms?

As I have written in the Wall Street Journal, all this fuss is quite astonishing given there is a National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., created under a congressional charter [A Shining Target on a Hill That Nobody Tries to Hit, April 14, 2010]. Far from ecumenical, it is Episcopalian. (Amusingly, the founding bishop of the church told the bigwigs of the time the cathedral’s denomination was a nod to America’s diversity, the Anglican Church being at once catholic and reformed.)

Peter Brimelow has admired my 1997 piece far beyond its merit, calling it a “seminal document in the Khristmaskampf,” and has long encouraged me to update my thoughts on the matter for readers.

Certainly the tendencies I described all remain, and have strengthened. At the post office this morning, I saw holiday stamps for Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanza, and Eid, commemorating the end of Ramadan (which happened to be back in August). Hindus, Buddhists and others remain neglected by the postal service. One wonders if their feelings are hurt.

I am not as certain that the term “Khristmaskampf” properly reflects the dynamics of the situation. [ note: Brimelow’s term Khristmaskampf is formed by analogy to the 19th century German word Kulturkampf, representing Otto Von Bismarck’s attempt to drive the Catholic Church out of the Public Square/under state control.] The demands for an equal share of the public square may be constitutionally weak, and socially peevish, and fail the categorical imperative. But they are not a serious threat to Christmas, which is endangered far more by purely internal processes among those of Christian background. The commercialization of Christmas needs no further elaboration.

But clearly the biggest danger to Christmas is declining religiosity among Christians. This phenomenon is greatly advanced in Europe, but it is a mistake to think that because these processes have been felt far less in America, that it is inherently immune. The process involves both the weakening of individual belief, the diminished prestige and social control of religious institutions, and the growing acceptability of public contempt for the dominant faith.

The causes behind these changes are complex and largely mysterious, but they did in European religiosity without any Khristmaskampf. Indeed, Northern European cities still have large and beautiful outdoor Christmas markets and displays. It is inside the church that is empty. Thus I would worry that an overstated concern about a Khristmaskampf would shift the focus away from these important internal processes towards marginal external foes.

The ACLU may be wrong about Christmas displays, but if Christmas is stolen in a meaningful sense, I would look elsewhere for the culprits.  The Khristmaskampf is at most a symptom, not a cause, of declining religiosity.

Ironically, for the minority religions demanding equal holiday space (or at least for Judaism, the one with which I am most familiar) all this may be rearranging menorahs on the deck of the Titanic. Among Jews, the most religious—the Orthodox—are indifferent to Christian public displays. The public display fights are generally last gasp of quickly shrinking secular Jewish institutions. The Orthodox are busy with others things, such as fulfilling their religious mandates, and are confident enough in themselves that they do not bristle at reminders that theirs is a minority faith.

The Orthodox are also more focused on maintaining Jewish public symbols in Israel, which are endangered by process parallel to that at work in the US. UNESCO, which recently admitted the Palestinian government as a member state, denies any Jewish connection with the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hevron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and the denial of the Jewishness of the Temple Mount is a growing big lie.

In a further irony, those concerned about the Khristmaskampf, including some contributors, may be somewhat sympathetic to these efforts at delegitimization (to their political demands if not absurd historical basis), or hostile to efforts to cement Israel’s Jewish character.

Such beliefs work at cross purposes. The desire to make Jews share, at best, their holiest city, and give up other holy sites is quite similar to desire the divide public holiday displays in the U.S. among every complaining creed. If Jews are expected to yield their real-life three holiest places for the sake of fictional peace, shouldn’t American Christians give up some non-essential religious depictions so everyone can get along?

Looking across at Europe, one marvels how quickly a religious culture developed over millennia can unravel. A strong Christian culture would either find no challenge to its incidental use of public spaces for celebratory purposes, or would be entirely unaffected by them.

Looking for the War on Christmas is easy. The War for Christmas—for it to be something people actively want—is much harder.

Professor Eugene Kontorovich (email him) has escaped from journalism and now teaches law at Northwestern University. Follow him on Twitter: @EVKontorovich

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