'Tis the Season for Religious Right Bullies

By Annie Laurie Gaylor

An ill-spirited public relations gimmick contending Christians are being persecuted in December is being spun" by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Channel, the rightwing Liberty Counsel and American Family Association.

The media obligingly have picked up on the phony ruse, which is not only a fundraising tool but a campaign of intimidation.

"Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign" harkens back to that biblical verse in which Jesus is quoted paranoically as saying that "He that is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30).

The (misleadingly named) Liberty Counsel, a Florida-based rightwing Christian legal group that has interceded in several Foundation lawsuits, claims it has 750 attorneys waiting in the wings to sue public schools. They claim these attorneys, for instance, might sue if a public school neglects to schedule "Silent Night" in a December concert. The Alliance Defense Fund (which didn't do so well defending against our victorious federal lawsuit over public funding of MentorKids USA earlier this year) claims it has 800 attorneys chomping at the bit. It looks like this battle is taking on biblical proportions (and, I expect, biblical exaggeration).

School officials are already between a rock and a hard place when it comes to December: trying to be inclusive, protecting the rights of all students (including those with minority viewpoints), balancing free speech with state/church dictates, and ensuring that activities have an educational, not a devotional, component.

Not even multinational corporations are safe from the manufactured ire of the power-hungry religious right. As columnist Adam Cohen of The New York Times put it: "Religious conservatives have a cause this holiday season: the commercialization of Christmas. They're for it."

Target was targeted by this Christmas cabal for a boycott on the weekend after Thanksgiving, for allegedly committing the sin of employing the greeting of "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." The boycott was a flop, despite Fox News' best efforts.

Even Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation best known for its international sweatshops, its failure to dispense the morning-after pill to women customers and its refusal to pay many employees a living wage, was not safe from the far right feeding frenzy. The Catholic League's Bill Donahue called a boycott of Wal-Mart in early November, also for the crime of using the greeting "Happy Holidays." The boycott was short-lived; Wal-Mart quickly capitulated.

Boycotter, heal thyself: O'Reilly's own website sold "The O'Reilly Factor Holiday Ornament" in its "Holiday Collection," until bloggers pointed out the contradiction and he renamed it.

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Don Wildmon, host, and Annie Laurie Gaylor

The weekend of the Target boycott I was in New York City, and I appeared briefly on a Fox News weekend report opposite aptly-named Don Wildmon of the American Family Association (who is never happy unless hysterically calling a boycott). I mentioned the irony of the Christian right demands.

"The Christians stole Christmas," I observed, pointing out that today's tokens of Christmas, which the far right is so eager to promote, stem from pagan festivities practiced for millennia around the time of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere.

Wildmon pricelessly responded that he had never heard of "this Winter Solstice."

The original Puritans certainly knew about it. That's why they banned the celebrations of Dec. 25, correctly viewing the partying, gift exchanges, festivals of light and decorating with evergreens as vestiges of the infidel past. Christmas carols often plagiarized traditional music (the love song "Greensleeves" became "What Child Is This?"). The custom of Christmas cards only came on strong with British Victorians, along with the decorated tree.

There is no reference to "Christmas" in the bible. New Testament references would place the supposed birth of Jesus in spring, not winter. It is actually the returning sun, not the birth of a son, that is society's traditional reason for rejoicing. As is typical with vanquishing religions, Christians found it useful to absorb some of the favored customs of their missionized prey. Then they conveniently forgot the origins, to the point today where a majority of believing Christians do not know they are actually observing a "natural holiday"--the shortest and darkest day of the year, the harbinger of the new year--in a manner similar to that of pagan predecessors.

The December "war" is not being waged by nonChristians, it is being waged against them. Turning our public schools into Christian-celebrating factories, assaulting commercial attempts to include all customers, is the opposite of "Peace on Earth, Good Will to All."

I can attest to the "No Peace for Infidels, Malice to All (nonChristians)" mentality. Two five-minute appearances on the Christmas subject on Fox News, including The O'Reilly Factor, have yielded hundreds of poorly spelled, ungrammatical and mainly vicious emails from pious believers (I'm told I am a "drunken whore" who "should be kept off the airways"). In two brief (and sober!) interviews, I was outnumbered two to one.

For expressing a view in favor of diversity, government neutrality and freethought, I was told by these emailers that I "should be shipped out of this country" and consigned, eventually, to hell.

The rightwing needs to listen to their friend George Will, whose column this year, "The Christian Complex," derided the fact that "many Christians are joining today's scramble for the status of victim . . . their persecution complex is unbecoming because it is unrealistic."

The campaign may be based on make-believe, but the threat implied is not. Wildmon has said that nonChristians "should know that they are living in a predominately Christian nation."

He should know that even if a majority is nominally Christian, our nation remains secular.

"Happy Holidays" is inclusive--and for that matter, so is "Reason's Greetings."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.
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