By Benjamin Marcus
If you want to “put the Christ back in Christmas,” then you should be alarmed when public officials instrumentalize what many Christians consider a miracle of the Holy Spirit to encourage a patriotic American spirit.
On Dec. 2, a Twitter account run by the Office of First Lady Melania Trump tweeted: “‘The Spirit of America’ is shining in the @WhiteHouse! I am delighted to share this beautiful exhibit of patriotism for all to see, and excited for everyone to experience the beauty of the #Christmas season!”
The message included a roughly one minute video highlighting Christmas decorations in the White House, including Christmas trees festooned with golden baubles, pinecones, messages to “Be Best” and American flag ornaments.
The tweet does not represent the Christmas I know and love.
Some Americans might celebrate the text and video as signs of this administration’s commitment to recognizing the reason for the season. After all, President Trump repeatedly promised during his 2016 campaign that “we are going to be saying Merry Christmas again” — despite the fact that President Obama publicly offered wishes for a “Merry Christmas” each of the eight years he was in office.
But the tweet does not remind Americans that Christmas is a holy day that celebrates the incarnation of God. The ornaments do not inspire a mood of sacred contemplation of the mystery of faith. Instead, the decorations in the video — which include a display of miniature government buildings and initiatives that are meant to reflect the “spirit of America” — are characterized as an “exhibit of patriotism.”
By using the birth of Jesus Christ to propagate a nationalist message, the tweet profanes the sacred.
Nevertheless, the White House should not replace the tweet with one that says “Glory to the newborn King.” This or any administration should not make official government statements promoting or denigrating specific religious traditions and they should not offer official interpretations of the theological meaning of holidays.
Nor should the White House ignore all holidays. Presidents from both parties have long marked various holidays celebrated by different Americans in the People’s House. President Jefferson hosted the first iftar dinner at the White House during the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, a tradition later continued by Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush. President Obama hosted the first Passover Seder at the White House and the first reception to commemorate the anniversary of the birth of Guru Nanak Dev Ji, the first guru in Sikhism.
And of course every president and first lady since John and Abigail Adams have decked the White House halls for Christmas. When presidents invite members of various religious communities to the White House to recognize their most important holidays, they send a clear message that those communities have a home in this country. Presidents and first ladies have a duty to make people of all religions and none feel welcome here.
But the excessive entanglement of religious and political rhetoric damages religious communities. When public officials use religious rhetoric or symbolism to promote themselves, their policies or patriotism, religion functions as a tool of nationalism rather than an expression of community unconfined by the borders of nation states.
When I attended Sunday school at St. Alphonsus Liguori outside Chicago, I learned that the birth of Jesus heralded the coming of the kingdom of God, not the establishment of the United States of America — or any other country.
And when religious communities encourage governments to incorporate religious rhetoric or symbolism into their work — and especially when the government favors the rhetoric or symbolism of one religion over others — religious leaders and institutions jeopardize their ability to critique legitimately the government for its shortcomings. Independence from government is a protection for religious communities, not a liability.
If anything, Christmas is a time to contemplate a power greater than the government, a sacred devotion more worthy than patriotism. When I listen to my favorite Christmas song, “Mary, Did You Know?,” I am reminded that the holiday is about the birth of one who cares for and privileges the disabled and the outcast over the powerful, one who is “Lord of all creation” and who “would one day rule the nations.”
That’s what Christmas means to me. And that’s why I don’t want the government confusing Christ and country.
Benjamin P. Marcus is religious literacy specialist at the Religious Freedom Center of the Freedom Forum Institute. His email address is: [email protected].