News & Politics

The Christmas War on Atheism: What's the Religious Right Whining About When It's Really Non-Believers Who Are Under Attack?

Right-wing Christians are waging a war on non-believers' right not to have religion shoved down their throats.

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.

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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 [2005] 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 Postdeclaring 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.” 

Separation of Christmas and State

The Christian Right isn’t content with just harassing private companies into singing Christmas’ praises; it also wants to control the presentation of public spaces, even if that means violating the Constitution.

Atheist groups and organizations for the separation of church and state have challenged the display of Christian paraphernalia in town squares and other government-administrated locations. To the Christian Right this presents a direct assault on Baby Jesus -- or at least his plastic counterpart in the manger. But why should Christian iconography and narrative be privileged in the public space? 

But many adherents of organized religion are so used to special perks that questioning them amounts to an "attack on religion." To them, setting the nativity scene and Christmas tree in shared public places where no other faith or secular group advertises, is a basic right.

But when atheist groups challenge the constitutionality of such displays, the issue is government endorsement of Christianity, not freedom of expression. “We always get accused of wanting to remove religious displays from the public, and that is completely wrong,” Johnson insisted. “I don't care if there is a nativity display on every lawn or every shopping mall or every piece of private property in the country. ... But they don't want them on private property, they want them on our shared space.”

Essentially, the Christian Right wants the government to back its religion. 

Since judges have declined to ban such displays altogether, permitting many as traditional “secular” Christian symbols or interfaith displays, American Atheists actually no longer sues to have them taken down. Instead, while fundamentalist Christians issue a call to arms to defend nativity scenes and Christmas trees from an atheist onslaught, often nonbelievers are asking them learn a preschool lesson: sharing.

In Arkansas, when the Secretary of State refused to allow a Winter Solstice display next to a nativity scene at the state capitol during holiday season 2009, atheists fought back against their exclusion. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, they simply asked to share the same constitutional rights a Christian group was afforded -- and to stop the war on Solstice.

Surely Baby Jesus doesn’t mind sharing public space with the Winter Solstice display? After all, Christmas isn’t really his birthday -- Biblical scholars have guessed that occurred sometime in the fall, but God knows whether that’s true. Early Christians likely incorporated the pagan celebration for the shortest day of the year into their own religion. So he’s already sharing the holiday.

War on ... Atheists? 

It’s not just at Christmas-time that the Religious Right tries to get its symbols where they don’t belong, then freaks out when an atheist group points out a little constitutional problem. In October of this year, Mayor James Bellar of Whiteville, Tennessee, raised the alarm: his town was under attack from atheist terrorists. What were they guilty of? Setting off bombs? Arson? Sending anthrax through the mail? Not quite: A prominent cross had been affixed to the top of the town water tower.

Acting on behalf of a local resident, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a freethinkers organization, pointed out that this represented an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion and thus had to be removed. Unlike the acceptance for certain holiday religious symbols, public crosses like this one usually represent pretty clear-cut First Amendment violations. As with Bryan Fischer’s accusation of the Gap’s advertising team as like “atheist Nazis,” Mayor Bellar’s overblown rhetoric and hostility against atheists is far from an isolated incident. Pastor Mike Stahl of the online Living Water Church gained infamy in August for advocating the creation of a National Atheist Registry, which would publish the names and photos of admitted atheists “for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net.” 

For Christians who believe in their right to have their religion, and only their religion, displayed wherever they so desire, any challenge seems to comprise a “war on Christmas” or “war on Christianity.” Yet despite the Religious Right’s predilection for playing the victim and smearing others, it’s the atheist minority that faces regular harassment and discrimination -- at the hands of evangelical Christians the vast majority of the time, according to American Atheists vice president Kathy Johnson. If we wanted to borrow from the Christian Right’s hyperbolic framing, a “war on Atheists” or “war on Secularism” would be a more appropriate title for the holiday season, and all year-round.

After all, atheism remains such political kryptonite, there’s only a single out atheist congressman, Pete Stark, out of 28 nonbelievers the Secular Coalition for America recently revealed that it knows of. The others remain in the closest for fear that the revelation would dash their political careers, with good reason: “Recent polls show that fewer than 50 percent of Americans would vote for an atheist presidential candidate, even if that candidate is well qualified,” American Humanist Association’s Fred Edwords stated in a press release. “Americans still feel it’s acceptable to discriminate against atheists in ways considered beyond the pale for other groups.” 

Kathy Johnson of American Atheists says: “Our wish is that 15 years from now, we'd be able to shutter up American Atheists because we're not needed anymore. And other organizations feel the same way." These secular groups aren’t out to wage war: they want atheists to live in safety, with access to the same rights as anyone, with no special treatment for one belief system. The Religion Right may view this as a threat to its abuse of power and privilege, but the contortion act required to present it as a war on Christmas or Christianity is quite the acrobatic feat.

Season’s greetings, everyone. Does that get me on American Family Association’s naughty list? 

Alex DiBranco is an editor at