On the O'Reilly Report last week, right-wing political commentator Bill O'Reilly declared that the "Judeo-Christian tradition is under attack" in certain American public school districts. The issue at stake was the decision of five school districts to rename Easter eggs and bunnies spring eggs and spring bunnies. Eggs would continue to be painted and hunted as symbols of springtime renewal, but without any direct reference to the Christian holiday.
The underlying concern seems to be a desire to allow children to participate in these culturally significant traditions while avoiding subtly instructing all American Children in Christian theology. While most Christians would assume that crafts do not serve as adequate catechesis for anyone, the instruction of our children is a delicate affair. The school districts engaged in these reforms have, we must assume, well-intentioned concerns about the education of children.
For O'Reilly, however, this is about secularization. The de-Christianization of Easter is part of a larger ongoing project by "the SPs" (secular progressives) to dismantle the religious structures of modern America. Their ultimate goal, O'Reilly went on to say, is to marginalize religion in all forms and "set the stage for a totally secular society in the future"
O'Reilly's argument has been met with derision. This is the second in O'Reilly's 'war on Christian holidays' series. And while the war on Christmas engaged liberals, conservatives, Christians, and non-Christians alike, O'Reilly's critics have declared the sequel a flop. Some media commentators described this new war on Easter as "silly" and laughable, implying that this time his scaremongering and opportunism have failed to translate to the broader public.
It is easy to get caught up in the specifics. For example, there's an irony to championing the Easter bunny as a Christian symbol when it is anything but. Eggs and bunnies are the stuff of holiday candies and seasonal change. O'Reilly appears to want to keep the Christian in consumerism. If a defense of Easter is called for, surely we should champion the Lamb of God, not the Hershey's chick?
Additionally it's difficult not to notice how the "war on Easter" vindicates Christians themselves. Christians need not address why it is that church attendance is declining when they can blame the amorphous powers of secularization. Any failings on the part of organized religious groups can be accounted for with reference to this progressive conspiracy.
But commentators should be wary of dismissing O'Reilly as opportunistic and peddling snake oil. He is representative of view - a view shared by many others- that there is a war on Christianity in America. In this view the great and good fight for survival against the powerful and organized efforts of the secular progressives. It is precisely this argument that gives his claims about the war on Easter their power.
The attacks on pastel eggs and charitable rabbits may seem inconsequential to some, but for O'Reilly they are part of a larger organized effort to undermine the very fabric of good Christian society. In his monologue about Easter he transitions smoothly from Easter egg hunts to high stakes religious and political issues like abortion, the restriction of free speech, and the legalization of drugs. All of these issues, he claims, are part of the secular progressive agenda. Removing Easter from schools would be a tactical victory in the imagined war on religion. Today they come for the Easter bunny; tomorrow they come for religion as a whole.
For those who do not share O'Reilly's perspective about the war on Christianity and the agenda of the secular progressives, his argument appears laughable. But for those who do he's a herald of the apocalypse. He is the seer who reads the tea leaves and understands the connections between seemingly unrelated current affairs. He sees the work of the Devil in the details.
Nor should we expect O'Reilly to abandon this perspective anytime soon. In a brief conversation about his forthcoming book Killing Jesus, O'Reilly stated that Jesus died because of taxation. Without going into detail about the specifics of his argument, he went on to discuss the similarities between Roman treatment of Jews at the time of Jesus and the current administration's encroachment on the liberties and properties of modern Americans.
It is not difficult to connect the dots or extract O'Reilly's larger point. In this modern day passion story, O'Reilly and like-minded individuals stand with Jesus and the oppressed Jews of ancient Galilee. The current administration and SPs stand with the Christ-killer Romans.
The essential worldview and polarizing rhetoric is always the same. This is not just the stuff of Republican primaries, this is a sincerely held belief about the way the world and society is organized. The primordial struggle between good and evil that led Jesus to die continues to play out in modern America. And in this kind of war no skirmish is too small. Every incident deserves attention because small strikes to the foundations of society threaten the integrity of the whole.
Whenever anyone claims to "stand with", "act like," or "speak for" Jesus in a modern debate they are politicizing Jesus and claiming his legacy for their own agenda. In this regard O'Reilly is no different from any other Christian -liberal or conservative - whose says that his or her position is representative of that of Jesus.
But this polarizing worldview and the casting of modern political groups as latter-day Judases and Pilates are demonizing and dangerous. The minute those who disagree with us are identified as militant enemies then further discussion is moot. The need for total victory trumps explanation, debate, and reconciliation.
It is easy for critics to snicker at O'Reilly's argument as cheap rhetoric, but there is nothing cheap about the impact of this rhetoric and the divisive and polarizing effect it has in society.
O'Reilly has called the actions of the school boards in this case "stupid" and his critics have responded by calling his argument "silly." This content-less criticism and bland name-calling fails to address - much less get to the heart of - the other side's motivations and concerns. The view that Christianity is under attack in modern America is not going away anytime soon. This bellicose religious rhetoric has to be addressed and disarmed before we can move from imagined cultural civil war to self-aware united states.