Power Dynamics, Bad Faith, And The War on Christmas

Power Dynamics, Bad Faith, And The War on Christmas

I once told a right-wing filmmaker that my kindly old grandmother had been arrested and held without bond for wishing a Target cashier Merry Christmas. President Obama, I said, had created a special federal law enforcement task force tasked with snuffing out the last vestiges of traditional Christmastime celebration in the US, and my grandma had been hauled out of a Target in suburban Maryland by jackbooted federal troops. 

My poor grandma, I told this guy making a movie about the end of Christmas in America, had become a casualty in Obama’s vicious, totalitarian War on Christmas. 

And the filmmaker believed me. Within minutes, he messaged me on the site formerly known as Twitter to ask for details about my grandmother’s unjust arrest and subsequent persecution in these Communist States of America, ruled by a ruthless centrist Democrat. I expanded my Persecuted Grandma Universe over a series of messages with the guy until, I suppose, my fiction became too unbelievable even for the broken-brained Christmas warrior. Let’s just say he was not happy with my carefully-concocted mockery.

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It was after that exchange that I realized how much bad faith was required to believe the recognition and celebration of Christmas in the United States was under attack. That an openly Christian president – perhaps the most devout man to ever hold the office – was seen as the shadowy organizer of the War on Christmas from 2008 to 2016 reveals how dishonest and ludicrous the right wing’s narrative had become. Barack Obama talked more eloquently about Jesus Christ than any other modern president and was unquestioningly seen as the orchestrator of a nationwide effort to squelch Christmas traditions. 

Obama, of course, was followed by the most Christless man on earth, Donald J. Trump, who actively loathes religious people and who received the undying admiration of those religious folks when he said things like, "We're bring back Christmas, folks."

The faith: It’s very bad. Some are saying it can't be worse.

Like any sort of bad faith worth its salt, the bad faith around the War on Christmas requires Christians – or Christmas celebrants – to be a persecuted minority (as an example of how intense this persecution complex can be: My dad, a big church guy, asked me a couple years ago if he could say Merry Christmas at a literal Christmas party. I said yes dad, there’s a manger scene on the dinner table, I think you should be in the clear). There can be no War on Christmas if one acknowledges that the US is a nation dominated on every level by Christians, and that any real attempt to stop the recognition of Christmas would never get a moment of political oxygen on any level of government anywhere in the country.

Acknowledging that reality – what we might call objective reality – would instantly and irreparably undermine the charge that Christmas lovers are indeed under attack. 

From there, with the power dynamics flipped on their head, conservatives can go on pretending their precious December traditions are being taken from them, one odious left-wing policy at a time. Once the narrative is properly shifted and the United States government and various other Democratic-controlled local governments are openly hostile to any and all Christmas celebrations, then one can lash out at this outrageous infringement of one’s liberty. One can act any sort of way once one is deemed to be oppressed – that is the idea behind all bad-faith politics.

Any official effort to be inclusionary during the Christmas season can be interpreted not as a good-faith effort to ensure Americans aren’t excluded, but as a monstrous government plot against the tiny baby Jesus, cooing in his manger, pooping in his swaddle and keeping Mother Mary up all night when all she wants is four consecutive hours of goddamn sleep. 

A Nativity Scene And 'Our Heritage'

The War on Christmas doesn’t rage like it used to.

Probably that’s because we don’t interact with each other the way we did before the COVID pandemic, which served as the final blow to whatever social ties remained in our fraying country. With all in-person ties severed, we battle online. Or maybe everyone got burned out on the War on Christmas. Wars tend to fizzle after soldiers spend years and years in their foxholes, gaining one foot, one inch at a time, even if those foxholes are cubicles or home offices or bedrooms or kitchens. 

The war flared up last week in Toledo, Iowa when a national group known as the Freedom From Religion Foundation demanded a local fire station remove its Christmas nativity scene. The religious symbol had been displayed at this fire station for fifteen years before the foundation issued a formal complaint and Toledo officials told the station to get rid of the scene. What news accounts of this Christmas war front won’t tell you until the bottom of every story (yes, I read six news stories about this thing) is that the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph and all the cute barn animals were moved just down the street from the fire station onto private property. Toledo residents still drive by it on their way to work or school or the grocery store; it’s still visible from the road. The Reason for the Season is still very much on display in this little Iowa town. Nothing has changed. No one has been tread upon.

Toledo residents’ complaints about the nativity scene removal – issued at a city council meeting shortly after the display was moved – were revelatory for anyone who wishes to understand the good-faith Christmas warrior. One resident said the Freedom From Religion Foundation came to Toledo “because you don’t want us to have our heritage.” Right-wing media outlets covered the removal of the nativity scene as godless outsiders marching into Small Town America and dictating what the good folks could and could not celebrate during the Christmas season. 

Never did it occur to these outlets or the folks who spoke out at the city council meeting that there could possibly be a non-Christian – maybe a Muslim or a Jewish person or, hell, even an atheist – who wasn’t comfortable with the brazen mix of church and state. It did not dawn on them that a government-funded facility maybe shouldn’t openly endorse a certain religion. But then, when you cite “our heritage” as the reason a publicly-funded place should be allowed to promote a singular religion, you’re giving the game away. You’re operating in good faith.

And with good faith, the War on Christmas cannot be properly waged. Or waged at all.

The War Comes To Starbucks 

It was during the Obama era that the War on Christmas bullshit reached a fever pitch every December, with Fox News talking heads ranting and screeching and sometimes literally crying over so-called attacks on their favorite holiday. You had Megan Kelly dedicating weeks of coverage to a mall somewhere in the midwest having a black Santa Claus. Anything President Obama said during the holiday season that wasn’t perfectly in line with right-wing thought and the perception of persecution – something as innocent and well meaning as wishing Jewish folks a Happy Hanukkah or acknowledging the existence of Kwanzaa – was received as an existential threat to Christmas enjoyers. That George W. Bush and every other modern president had also tipped their cap to these wintertime holidays didn’t matter to the American right during the Obama presidency. 

With the memories of goldfish half baked on weed, they would pretend Obama – again, a devout churchgoer – was the first president to join the lunatic left’s War on Christmas. 

I worked remotely for most of the Obama presidency writing and editing stories on reproductive rights and often found myself at the bar of a local Starbucks, trying not to spend twenty-five bucks a day on fancy-ass coffee, asking strangers to look over my laptop and backpack when I was about to piss my pants after my coffee, and quietly judging people’s orders. You can tell a lot about how seriously someone takes themselves by their Starbucks order; that’s why I usually order a “small coffee,” much to the chagrin of the barista who has been trained to decipher the most ridiculously complex coffee orders. 

Around Christmas every year, there would be right wingers who strolled into the Starbucks – this is before there was such a thing as fascist coffee brands – and trolled baristas about the store’s coffee cups, which did not, they liked to point out, feature Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the three wisemen, or any other religious figure associated with Christmas. During the awful Christmas after Donald Trump was elected president, I watched as an alpha male in a power suit came into the Starbucks and told the barista to put “Trump” on his cup. This, you see, forced the barista to shout “Trump” when the guy’s coffee was ready. He scanned the store for some kind of reaction to the barista being forced to shout the name of the asshole president-elect and no one so much as flinched. We continued doing our work, talking to folks, reading, sipping our drinks. The right winger was so deflated I almost felt sorry for him. Almost. 

There were other times when Starbucks patrons were minding their own business, busy with their tablets or phones or laptops, and someone would storm in and rant about the lack of Christianity in the company’s Christmas cups and decorations and trappings. “God will judge you,” I heard a middle-aged lady say to a Starbucks manager after expressing her virulent displeasure with the store’s lack of baby Jesus. 

For these folks, the culture war has replaced politics. The War on Christmas, in fact, is the ultimate manifestation of the culture was as politics, reducing political action to identifying strongly with an in-group – in this case, Christian nationalists who believe the US was founded as a Christian theocracy – and publicly badgering anyone and everyone in the out-group. Demanding corporations comply with hard-right Christian orthodoxy is in the same tradition as shooting cans of beer with a machine gun because one trans person drank the beer on Instagram or smashing electronics with a hammer because the electronics company CEO said we should address systemic racism somewhat.

For the right, owning the libs is not just a guiding principle, it is a civic religion. 

This watering down of politics into culture war bullshit isn’t unique to the American right. The left – or, at least, culturally liberal Americans – express their solidarity with underrepresented and aggrieved and marginalized groups with lawn signs and T-shirts and online avatars. That’s nice, but it’s not really politics. Usually it’s a signifier to other culturally liberal white folks to say hey, I’m one of the good ones. If you need more proof, check out my sign showing support for the gays and people of color and science and democracy and shit. While berating Starbucks workers or putting bullets into a Bud Light or wearing a pro-LGBTQ shirt makes us feel good about ourselves, none of this constitutes political engagement. It’s a lazy substitute. Maybe it’s all we have left in what could be the waning days of representative democracy in the United States. 

I talked to my kids last December about wishing Merry Christmas during the holiday season. My son said his teacher had avoided the term, and I told him that was probably the right call since not everyone in my kid’s class celebrates Christmas, either the religious version or the Hallmark movie version. I told them it was perfectly fine to say Merry Christmas to people who did the whole Christmas thing, but that it was not OK to force the seasonal greeting on strangers. They would survive such a greeting, I told them, but it could make them feel a little weird, a little uncomfortable. And we don’t want to make anyone feel that way. As Kurt Vonnegut said: "There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'"

It was a simplified message for children, and it’s one that should be given to adults who turn themselves into Christmas War martyrs this time of year. 

Follow Denny Carter on BlueSky at @cdcarter13.bsky.social and on X at @CDCarter13.