We love the holiday season. We cherish teaching our kids the story of Hanukkah, singing carols, enjoying the lights on neighborhood homes -- and we especially appreciate the uptick in the expression of good will to all people. In our country, people of all creeds get to celebrate according to their beliefs and traditions; we are fortunate, indeed. And yet, the holiday season also brings us unwanted stress from fending off attacks in what we call "The War Against Getting Along." Let me explain.
Jon Stewart said, "Religion. It's given people hope in a world torn apart by... religion." He was referring to the historical tendency of religions to fight amongst themselves for superiority, even to the point of oppressing minority religions. In the Hanukkah story, for example, Antiochus ruled over the Jewish people and felt that, as part of a Grecian nation, the Jews should be forced to acknowledge the superiority of the Greek gods. Ancient Romans persecuted Christians, Christians went on Crusades against Muslims and other non-Christians. Puritans came to the US to avoid the persecution by the Church of England and then went on to persecute non-Puritans. It takes years of history to understand that it's wrong to force others to adhere to religious views against their will -- even when you are a member of the majority group. How can people of different religious views coexist without oppressing and killing each other? How do we protect the rights of all people to practice their beliefs as long as they don't harm others?
The best, perhaps only, way for people of different views to live together is to protect religious expression in homes and in places of congregation and to keep religious expression out of the public square. Such a prohibition does not extend to ethics and decent behavior -- public discussions of these topics are crucial to all people and are separate from religion. But, separation of church and state is what allows us to live together. It is not anti-religious -- it is pro-getting along and pro-protecting all religious groups. It also isn't anti-Christian -- many Catholics still remember when their rights to religious expression were under attack. In exchange for asking all groups to practice a tiny bit of self-restraint in the public square, we get a society in which we all have the rights to our own religious practices. What a bargain! Our goal is peaceful coexistence, but we can just as easily claim this rule follows from politeness, decency, and respect for our neighbors and friends.
To us, this lesson is one of the most important lessons of the holidays. That's why it pains me that the very same season has become host to an annual event that is the antithesis of religious tolerance. I'm referring to television personality Bill O'Reilly's made-up "War on Christmas." The call to arms is to fight back against people who care about protecting our collective ability to coexist in America. O'Reilly's targets are usually "secular progressives" and includes pretty much all progressives, atheists, and the Jews and Christians who care about religious tolerance. Of course, there is no war on Christmas. No people have been prevented from celebrating with their families, decorating their own homes, going to churches, giving to charity or buying gifts.
O'Reilly is outraged by the safeguards we have in our great democracy that protect all people's religious rights. He is insulted that his brand of his religion is put on equal footing with other religions. When he explodes over the indignity of being wished "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" he is essentially saying "How dare you not acknowledge the superiority of my holiday over those others!" Insisting that one's religious beliefs deserve superiority over all others is incompatible with a free society. O'Reilly and his followers are not defending Christmas, they are actually attacking the very idea of getting along.
While it is tempting to ignore O'Reilly's rantings, it would be a mistake to do so because his claims, as outrageous as they are, have been sticking. As progressives, whether secular or nonsecular, we are people who care about tolerance. If we don't continually remind everyone that our goals are for humanity to get along, to be healthy, to thrive, and for all to have basic human rights, we will be defined by the likes of O'Reilly as "anti-religion." So, this time of year, please be sure to point out to people that December isn't just a great time to separately celebrate our own diverse and wonderful traditions. It's also a perfect excuse to jointly celebrate our wondrous Constitution that protects diversity itself.
Lisa Littman, MD, MPH
Michael Littman, PhD