Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Pat Buchanan and the War on Christmas....

Given the number of years Pat Buchanan has been rehearsing and repeating his argument that there's a War on Christmas, you would think that he could by now build a more compelling case. When I received a card from a Jewish friend wishing me "Happy Holidays", for example, that was neither evidence of a war on Christmas or Hanukkah, nor was it evidence of an effort to inject secularity into the holiday or to deny the existence of a Christian majority. It was a demonstration of goodwill and inclusiveness toward people of other religions.

Still, some people aren't happy unless they're imagining themselves at the epicenter of a culture war. Take Pat Buchanan please, for example. Complaining "Whose Country Is It, Anyway", Buchanan whines that the numbers of "Christmas-haters... have grown since the days when it was only the village atheist or the ACLU pest who sought to kill Christmas." To support this claim, he resorts to a Washington Times article1, which (par for the course) relies on "Reader's Digest Reasoning",
Although more formally known as the "Hasty Generalization", I think of that type of fallacious logic as "Readers Digest reasoning" because, with no offense intended to that publication, that is where I first encountered this particular rhetorical tool, and it is one that publication has historically used with significant frequency. The proponent of a position collects a set of sensational anecdotes, and strings them together to advance a political position. If you look past the surface such an argument usually falls apart pretty quickly - the "examples" are found to be completely unrelated and isolated, and the "trend" ostensibly shown by stringing them together simply doesn't exist.
Buchanan's parade of horrors seems pretty pedestrian - a couple of childish pranks, an ill-behaved protester, a couple of examples of people exercising their right to present their own religious views when the government chooses to allow private displays of religious belief in a public space. Buchanan quotes from the Times editorial, "In the Wisconsin statehouse, a sign informs visitors, 'Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.'" A bit of digging reveals that it's... pretty insignificant, as signs go.

Buchanan complains,
The First Amendment does protect what they are doing. But what they are doing is engaging in hate speech and anti-Christian bigotry. For what is the purpose of what they are about, if not to wound, offend, insult and mock fellow Americans celebrating the happiest day of their calendar year?
Buchanan's hyperbole having been duly noted, his conclusion is nonsense. The First Amendment does not create a freedom from being offended, nor would some form of blasphemy law be consistent with the First Amendment. Further, although presumably Buchanan would impose a blasphemy law exclusively to the benefit of Christianity, it is fair to observe that public expressions and affirmations of Christianity can potentially offend people of other faiths. Even if we pretend that it's impossible for the typical American to avoid encountering one of the four isolated, trivial examples Buchanan provides of the "War on Christmas", it would not be consistent with the Constitution to limit the First Amendment's protections only to Christian sensitivities.

Buchanan continues, "Even if a man disbelieves this, why would he interfere with or deny his fellow countrymen, three in four of whom still profess to be Christians, their right to celebrate in public this joyous occasion?" First, virtually nobody would be aware of the four, trivial incidents Buchanan cites if not for the effort that people like Buchanan make to magnify and publicize them. Second, sorry, if you allow your holiday to be ruined by learning that an atheist argues that the world needs kindness and not religion, the message of the Wisconsin sign, or that an insignificant number of people respond in an immature manner to the use of pubic spaces to advance a religion they don't share, you have bigger problems than a "War on Christmas".

Buchanan can't keep himself from attacking the President as part of this "war" on Christmas and Christianity.
Not long ago, the Supreme Court (1892) and three U.S. presidents — Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter — all declared America to be a "Christian nation."

They did not mean that any particular denomination had been declared America’s national religion — indeed, that was ruled out in the Constitution — but that we were predominantly a Christian people.
I'm left wondering, where are Buchanan's heroes - Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George Bush, on that list? Where's any Republican President? The issue, of course, is not that Republican Presidents have not made expressions of faith, but that they have not used Buchanan's preferred magic words. Reagan's statement that we're a nation "Under God" is inclusive - the sort of quote that undermines the very notion of (or makes Reagan a part of) the supposed war on Christianity and Christmas.

Having told us that a President should feel free to affirm our nation's Christianity, not through a literal expression that "" but through an acknowledgment that "", what does Buchanan do next? He lies.2
Was it a manifestation of tolerance and maturity, or pusillanimity, that Christians allowed themselves to be robbed of their inheritance to a point where Barack Obama could assert without contradiction that we Americans "do not consider ourselves to be a Christian nation"?
If you're like me, your first reaction to that claim would be skepticism - Buchanan provides no source, no date, no context, and the meaning Buchanan attributes to the statement is inconsistent with the President's beliefs and philosophies. Fortunately the President's statements are all easily accessible through whitehouse.gov, and the comment is found within a statement made in April, 2009, during President Obama's trip to Turkey:
I think that where -- where there's the most promise of building stronger U.S.-Turkish relations is in the recognition that Turkey and the United States can build a model partnership in which a predominantly Christian nation and a predominantly Muslim nation, a Western nation and a nation that straddles two continents -- that we can create a modern international community that is respectful, that is secure, that is prosperous; that there are not tensions, inevitable tensions, between cultures, which I think is extraordinarily important.

That's something that's very important to me. And I've said before that one of the great strengths of the United States is -- although as I mentioned, we have a very large Christian population, we do not consider ourselves a Christian nation or a Jewish nation or a Muslim nation; we consider ourselves a nation of citizens who are bound by ideals and a set of values.
Buchanan has told us that a President's statement that we're a "Christian nation" means "that we [a]re predominantly a Christian people" - you know, exactly what the President said. And when he acknowledges that the Presidents who have described the U.S. as a Christian nation "did not mean that any particular denomination had been declared America’s national religion", that's also exactly what the President said.

Buchanan's criticism thus becomes, "Rather than saying that we're a 'Christian nation', by which he would mean that we're predominantly a Christian people living in a land with no national religion, the President said that we're predominantly a Christian people living in a land with no national religion - and I'm horrified." That takes us back to the earlier issue - rather than imagining a war on Christmas or misrepresenting the President's statements to manufacture outrage, perhaps Buchanan should spend some of the Christmas season actually thinking about and reflecting upon the meaning of the religion and holiday he purports to be defending.
1. The Washington Times, of course, has an overt political agenda. Buchanan may appreciate the Unification Church's defense of his old boss, Richard Nixon, "back in the day", but it's interesting to me that he will accept without question the religious proclamations of a paper that is controlled by a family that is decidedly non-Christian and would just as soon the nation converted to their own faith.

2. A defender of Buchanan might attempt to argue that we should infer that Buchanan was speaking in ignorance of the facts, and that his flagrant misrepresentation of the President's statement should thus not be viewed as a lie because lying is an intentional act. If Buchanan wants to admit to that level of sloppiness with his facts and reasoning, I'll retract "He lies" and substitute, "He reveals himself as an ignorant buffoon".

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