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Wednesday, December 07, 2005

'Happy Holidays' Means Nothing

Jews, Muslims Join Fight for Christian Christmas

The movement defending Christmas as a Christian holiday has attracted some unlikely allies: religiously observant Jews and Muslims.

Their support bucks the assumption that religious minorities prefer a neutral approach to the season, desiring "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" at retail checkout lines or "Frosty the Snowman" over "O Holy Night" at public school concerts. Motivations differ, with Jewish leaders calling retailers' omission of "Christmas" an ominous sign for a country that used to consider itself "Judeo-Christian." Muslim leaders offer a more strategic reason: establishing firm ground on which to make their own holiday demands.

Scholars say the ballooning controversy and the unusual alliances taking shape illustrate the challenge an increasingly multicultural society faces trying to accommodate many religious expressions.

Islamic support for Christmas stems in part from religious doctrine. While observant Muslims can follow the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad in respecting Jewish and Christian holidays, they say they have little motivation to value Santa-based winter holiday celebrations.

When it comes to Christmas, "the more religious it is, the more acceptable it is to Muslims," said Ahmed Bedier, director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations' Central Florida office.

But there is also the issue of Islamic self-interest.

Bedier's organization recently requested that a school board near Tampa, Fla., include a one-day Muslim holiday alongside Christian and Jewish holidays. When the school board voted instead to scrap all religious holidays, Muslim groups -- along with their Christian counterparts -- protested. The holidays, at least the Christian and Jewish ones, were reinstated.

"We would like to see one standard applied in terms of recognizing religious holidays," said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Muslims, he said, would welcome religious Christmas displays -- for example at a public library -- as long as Eid al-Adha, the upcoming Muslim holiday marking the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca, was recognized in the same space.

At a Thursday (Dec. 1) Washington news conference, a small group of Jewish leaders spoke in defense of public Christmas celebrations, framing the issue as a struggle between a Bible-believing culture and the dark, potentially anti-Semitic, forces of secularism.

"Jews and other non-Christians have a stake in maintaining morality, based on a Judeo-Christian ethic. The disappearance of Christmas undercuts that ethic," said Don Feder, a former Boston Herald writer who founded Jews against Anti-Christian Defamation earlier this year.

While Jews once endorsed secularism as a safe alternative to Christian dominance, today they face a choice between "a sinister secular society on the one hand, and a society of benign Christianity on the other," said Daniel Lapin, an Orthodox rabbi and president of the Seattle-based Jewish group Toward Tradition.

Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, dismissed the group's effort as part of a "conservative political agenda."

"The overwhelming majority of Jews are wedded to the separation of church and state," said Foxman. Jewish leaders lining up to advocate for Christmas "want religion in government, setting morals."

That some Jewish leaders are aligning with Christians, many of them evangelicals, is not surprising, said Keith Seamus Hasson, founder and chairman of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Observant Jews tend to be more open to religious expression in the public square, just like Christians in 'red states,"' said Hasson. "Religious America breaks down along lines of fervency of belief, more than lines of theological content."

Christmas is a contentious time because the secular idea that religion should be kept private collides head-on with "an essential human drive to celebrate in public," said Hasson, author of the 2005 book, "The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America."

"The question is: how do you celebrate your own beliefs, while allowing others to celebrate conflicting beliefs?"

Hasson's answer is that Christians should assert their right to celebrate in public, while acknowledging that other groups have the same right -- the very argument that Muslim leaders advance.

When it comes to public schools, where disputes over religion often go to court, administrators and other decision-makers haven't gotten the balance right, said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center.

"There is a trend in public schools to move away from the assumption that everyone celebrates Christmas. But sometimes the move goes too far and becomes an overreaction," said Haynes, describing schools where nativity pageants are cancelled or Christmas carols eliminated. "The irony is that by trying to avoid controversy, (educators) have often created it."

The same might be said of the retail arena, where marketing experts say corporations don't want to alienate non-Christian or non-religious holiday shoppers.

Many department stores have dropped explicit references to Christmas because "it was considered safer to be neutral so as not to offend any particular customer group," said Irene Dickey, a lecturer in the management and marketing department at the University of Dayton's School of Business in Dayton, Ohio.

Some conservative Christian groups have gone beyond voicing complaints.

The American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss., said it has rallied 600,000 supporters to boycott Target, because the retailer doesn't use "Christmas" in advertising and in-store promotions. The group has similar complaints to make against a number of other popular nationwide retailers, ranging from OfficeMax to Sears.

"When it comes to affinity marketing, there is no greater affinity than faith," said Mike Paul, a reputation management expert and evangelical Christian. "The answer is not to censor one group, but add others."

"Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Muslim holidays -- everybody should get their own aisles (of merchandise). `Happy holidays,' that means nothing."

Andrea Useem
Religion News Service


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