The Christmas War on Atheism: What's the Religious Right Whining About When It's Really Non-Believers Who Are Under Attack?
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It’s that time of year when, if you tune into Fox News or right-wing talk radio, you’re sure to hear the phrase “war on Christmas” repeated ad infinitum. Perhaps you’ve also seen Rick Perry’s new war on Christmas ad, which gives the added gift of rabid homophobia, while absurdly accusing President Barack Obama of leading a war on religion.
But in reality, this year, like most years, it's right-wing Christians who are waging a war on the right of non-believers to avoid having religion shoved down their throats.
Say “Merry Christmas” -- or Else
“I was working at Target the year  Target was supposedly prohibiting employees from saying Merry Christmas,” Kathy Johnson of American Atheists told AlterNet. As a volunteer wrapping packages, she was told employees were welcome to use whatever greeting they preferred, whether that was “Happy Holidays,” “Season’s Greetings,” or, yes, “Merry Christmas.”
That the claim was false didn’t stop the right-wing American Family Association (AFA) from mounting a campaign claiming that “Target Stores have decided to ban ‘Merry Christmas’ in their stores starting this holiday season.” AFA compiles an annual list of companies it views as waging a “war on Christmas.” Target earned a place in 2005 for these unfounded accusations.
For AFA, it’s not enough simply to talk about Christmas -- you can talk only about Christmas. When the Gap aired the jingle “Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go Solstice” in 2009, the AFA fumed that it would mention a holiday of “witchcraft.” An article by AFA director of issues Analysis Bryan Fischer made the strange argument that the Gap’s inclusive advertising followed in the footsteps of “atheist Nazis” who started the war on Christmas. In response to the AFA’s online campaign and a boycott, Target added references to Christmas in its ads.
Ruth Marcus put it well in the Washington Post, declaring that the Religious Right “reached its most imposition-of-Sharia-law-like level of intolerance in the campaign to cow stores into saying Christmas.” With a quick search of the company’s Web site, Marcus found “39,197 match(es) for 'Christmas' at Target.”
Let’s get real: Target clearly wasn’t waging a war on Christmas. If anything, right-wing Christians were waging a war on atheism, secularism and tolerance of other faiths, and fighting for special treatment: prominent advertisement of Christianity and Christianity only. But, because Christians make up a majority of the country and enough are swayed by Religious Right rhetoric, they have the power to cow companies like Target.
Meanwhile, Kathy Johnson was harassed by aggressive Christian customers who, when she chose to say "Season's Greetings" or "Happy Holidays," would “slam their stuff down on the counter and say ‘I think you mean Merry Christmas.’”
Over the years, Johnson says, American Atheists has received “lots and lots of reports of store employees being harassed by so-called Christians for either trying to be inclusive or expressing their own personal preferences.” Johnson was not aware, on the other hand, of any case in which a store was actually guilty of banishing “Christmas” from employees’ vocabulary.
“I'm an atheist, and I love the holiday season,” Johnson said. “It's just sad to see these people, it's almost as if they have something invested in being a persecuted minority ... and if they can't be one, they'll make up circumstances where they are. And they do it every year and make themselves miserable in the process."
The “war on Christmas” victim narrative usually tries to obscure what's really at stake: the promotion of Christianity at the expense of other faiths and non-belief.. But once in a while, a soldier in the battle let's the real purpose slip, as when Fox and Friends co-host Gretchen Carlson summed up her movement’s perspective in 2008: “I am tolerant. I'm all for free speech and free rights, just not on December 25th.”