Decouple the language of rights from their theological foundation and rights become mere assertions.
From the perspective of someone whose religion does not celebrate Christmas, two conclusions unrelentingly suggest themselves at this time of year: First, if there is a war on Christmas, Christmas is winning. Second, the partisans holding out in the forests for a homogenized society that rallies to the slogan “Seasons Greetings” need to lay down their arms.
The problem with the first group—the “war on Christmas” crowd—is that it plays to conservative identity politics, which is to say it trades in the currency of outrage and victimization and is consequently unbecoming.
The fact that Starbucks now serves both Holiday Blend and Christmas Blend coffees is not the driving force behind secularism, political correctness, or whatever else excites the frenzied imaginations of those who see Christmas as embattled. If anything, the far greater threat to the Christmas holiday is not those who say “Seasons Greetings” out of misguided but benign civility. It is those whose explicit “Merry Christmas” is commercial rather than religious in character. Commercialization is a legitimate complaint of those concerned about Christmas. But the cultural status of the holiday might give them an opportunity to spread its religious core that they are too distracted by outrage to take.
That said, if those who take offense at “Happy Holidays” need to relax, so do those who do not celebrate Christmas and who therefore insist on their right not to be told to have a merry one. That is true for several reasons.
One is that offense is inseparable from intent, and wishing strangers or coffee drinkers or parade watchers a “Merry Christmas” is intended as no more than a solid bet that the recipient of the greeting will belong to what is, by far, the dominant religion in American society—or who at least celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. People should no more take offense at “Merry Christmas” than they should feel wounded by hearing “peace be upon you” in a Muslim culture. That does not mean American culture prioritizes one religion over others or that it denigrates non-believers. It simply means we need not take offense where none is intended.
Second, what members of religious minorities need above all is confidence in their own beliefs. If their traditions will be snuffed out by the whispered breath of someone murmuring “Merry Christmas” in another zip code, then minority religions have more serious worries than the onward march of Christian soldiers.
The constant worries about the “December dilemma” that supposedly afflicts non-Christian children—and trust this parent, the kids are over it and were, in fact, never all that concerned about it in the first place—or handwringing over the allegedly slippery slope of public expressions of religious belief fundamentally reflect self-doubt more than secularism. That insecurity threatens minority traditions more than the pervasiveness of Christmas.
The rush to offense generally comes from a posture of weakness. I grew up in a small Texas town that had not gotten the Supreme Court’s memo about prayers on the loudspeaker before football games. I was also a member of the only Jewish family in town. I was in college before I learned I was supposed to be offended. If anything, being a member of a religious minority strengthened rather than assaulted a sense of identity.
Indeed, the “otherness” of Judaism has been central to its preservation. Thus the most important reason to maintain the distinctiveness of greetings like “Merry Christmas”: The generic alternatives will not yield a pluralism of multiple perspectives. They will produce a pluralism without perspectives—which is to say they will act as a solvent on pluralism itself.
The beliefs minority religions seek to defend are reinforced by reminders of difference, which is among the reasons I am honored to work at a Catholic college that understands that its particularly Augustinian perspective on education is central to its identity and distinctiveness. In a diverse world, to say, “I believe this,” or at least to do so with conviction, is also to declare, “I do not believe that.” That does not, or should not, offend any more than minority religions should be insulted that Christians do not agree with them. On the contrary, respectful social reminders of their distinctiveness will help minority religions thrive.
Nietzsche was wrong about most things but right about this one. He explained the vitality of difference to a thriving life:
And this is a general law: Every living thing can become healthy, strong and fruitful only within a horizon; if it is incapable of drawing a horizon around itself or, on the other hand, too selfish to restrict its vision to the limits of a horizon drawn by another, it will wither away feebly or overhastily to its early demise.
He meant that limitations are preconditions to growth or, in Nietzschean terms, life. Religious minorities should not welcome horizons “drawn by another,” but they should be eager to draw boundaries themselves. A genuine rather than corrosive pluralism helps to reinforce these differences and thus the beliefs that operate within them.
The absence of religious difference—or the refusal to recognize it—is all “unum” and no “pluribus.” Its tendency is to dissolve any perspectives at all and, therefore, the ability of traditions to learn from each other while preserving themselves.
So by all means, wish me a “Merry Christmas.” Next autumn, if walking through a Jewish neighborhood, take no offense at “L’shanah Tovah.” The same goes for other religions and the cultures that attend them. A salutary pluralism of genuine difference will reinforce them all.