Perhaps you noticed during the recent Christmas season the studied effort among newscasters to avoid saying the word “Christmas?’ With conspicuous exceptions, the talking heads went to unusual and almost comical lengths to steer around the offending word, though from time to time some would lapse into older customary usage in spite of themselves. “Merry Christmas,” even as a gesture of simple social amiability, appears at last to have entered the No Man’s—make that No Person’s— Land of political incorrectness.
The erasure of religious symbols from American public life is hardly a new phenomenon, but this year’s cleansing exceeded all hitherto existing efforts by a wide margin. The quantum leap, one suspects, did not occur by accident. Television and radio hosts don’t invent such novelties on their own. The latest surge of secularism suggests the heavy hand of news directors, officious lawyers, and assorted other corporate types who think that words like “Christmas,” even when deployed in a secular setting, might be interpreted as a gesture of religious preference. God forbid.
The highminded habits of the news media parrot (and may have been prompted by) those of advertisers, general merchandisers, and even greeting card companies who seem embarrassed by the slightest insinuation of even the blandest forms of Christian sentiment. A similar disposition has now infected certain employers, who, in the spirit of an unrepentant Ebenezer Scrooge, prevent employees from displaying religious symbols to which an imagined someone else might take offense.
Government officials, who have forgotten (if they ever knew) the true meaning of religious pluralism, aid and abet private parties by contriving mean-spirited gestures of their own. This past season’s award winners were the attorney general of Arizona and the mayor of Kensington, Maryland, who sought to ban Santa Claus from publicly sanctioned activities. The all-time grand prize for idiocy, however, has been retired by the city fathers of Pittsburgh. A few years ago, the secular ayatollahs of that fair city replaced public celebrations of Christmas with something called “Sparkle Season.” Now everyone from Wiccans, Druids, and, for all I know, extraterrestrials can walk the streets of Pittsburgh in December without fear of being assaulted by the faintest reminder of a divine presence.
Perhaps the most striking feature of these new dispensations is their gratuitous character. Almost no one takes them seriously—except the flaks who contrive and indulge them and the organizations like the ACLU and Americans United that earn their living by enforcing them. The people in whose name the changes are invoked exist more or less exclusively in the imaginations of the bureaucrats who write the rules. When the press poked into Kensington’s prohibition of its traditional Santa Claus parade, it turned out that the change in policy was prompted by what a city spokesman described as “a couple of” phone calls.
One can have great sport recounting these wretched excesses, and as with the Kensington example, the offending regulation is sometimes laughed into oblivion. But after the laughter subsides, one cannot ignore the accelerating paganization of American culture. The phenomenon is by no means confined to Christmas.
The public may not demand the desacralization of the culture, but it tolerates those who engage in just that work. Public passivity gives license to the secular pecksniffs in commercial and public life who are offended by even indirect and watered-down references to divine imagery.
The arbiters of the new paganism occasionally overplay their hands, but for every reversal of some aggressive silliness, there must be ten others that stick. Over a long period, these can effect a radical change in culture. Nowadays, we are so used to the profanation of Christmas, indeed of virtually all public religious ceremonials, that we fall silent at each subsequent incursion. Santa—hardly a religious figure—was restored to Kensington’s parade when a couple hundred good citizens threatened to dress in costume and march anyway. But you will not read about exasperated citizens protesting against the imposition of Sparkle Season in Pittsburgh or any of the other major assaults against traditional religious sensibility.
Citizens who behave like sheep will be treated like sheep. That is what the new cultural czars count on, and that is why the desacralization of American culture is likely to continue.