I got a MN drivers license – and voted – without any proof of living here

But Voter ID is a bad fix to a legitimate problem.

Shortly after moving to Minnesota last August, I got a drivers license and registered to vote without ever showing any proof of residency. I didn't have to present a utility bill sent to my address in my name. I didn't have to show a signed lease or mortgage agreement. Nothing of the sort. I had all that paperwork and more with me at the Driver and Vehicle Services office, but I didn't need it. I filled out a form, wrote a check, took a computer test, got my photo taken … and voila, in a few weeks my drivers license appeared in the mail at my house. And with my drivers license I also registered to vote, and in November I voted at my local polling station.

I got my government-issued drivers license – and registration to vote – without ever once demonstrating that I actually live in Minnesota. Sure, I had to list a home address to which the license would be sent, but I never had to offer any proof that I resided there. That address could have been my cousin's house. Or a friend's house. Or a random house where I could gain access to the mailbox.

That seems strange. In fact, after moving between five addresses in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Virginia over the past ten years, this is the first time that I can recall not needing some proof of residency – a utility bill or lease agreement, for example – when applying for a drivers license or when registering to vote. Either my experience was a fluke, or Minnesota does not require any proof of residence in order to receive a drivers license. I'm not sure which.

In a day and age where a drivers license is used for much more than simply demonstrating that someone is legally licensed to drive – it is used to track purchases of pseudoephedrine at pharmacies, and is used to verify identity before boarding airplanes, neither of which have anything to do with being licensed to drive – I am surprised that I was able to get a license in Minnesota without showing where I live. (I did show my Virginia drivers license, through which they punched a hole, but clearly my Virginia license did not show my new Minnesota address.) Minnesota should require some proof of residency before handing out a drivers license and registering someone to vote.

That being said, I wholeheartedly oppose the proposed Voter ID constitutional amendment passed by the Minnesota State House last evening. This proposed state constitutional amendment would require voters to present photo identification at the polling station each time they desire to vote. Rather than require voters to carry and present identification at the polling station, Minnesota should require that residents demonostrate proof of residency before they receive a government-issued identification and register to vote in the first place. But, once a person's residency is substantiated by some sort of proof – a utility bill sent in the mail, a lease or mortgage agreement, etc. – requiring a government-issued identification card at the polling station is an excessive requirement that would disproportionately harm those who don't have or regularly use government-issued identification. Again, if legitimate proof of residence is used to demonstrate residency in the voter registration process (and thus get one's name on the poll book), there is no need to require a voter to present a government-issued identification each time they wish to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to vote. Too many legally-registered voters simply don't have government-issued identification cards, particularly the elderly and the young.

There is no proof that voter fraud is a significant – or even a minor – problem in our state. It is a non-issue. This proposed constitutional amendment doesn't succeed in eliminating (non-existent) voter fraud. Instead, it only succeeds in establishing a barrier for voters to clear before entering the voting booth.

Voter ID doesn't address the problem I discovered, but instead it creates other problems.
If the legislature would like to protect or enhance the integrity of the voting process, perhaps they can look at the process of gaining a government-issued identification and registering to vote in the first place. In my own experience – which might be unique, or might be widely shared – there is a legitimate problem to fix in voter registration and the issuing of drivers licenses, but not in voting itself. The state can fix a problem by requiring some proof of residency in the voter registration process, but it only creates problems by requiring identification cards at the polling station.

this post is about running … and life

I ran a marathon back in March, and I felt pretty darn good about it. But since then the running has fallen off a cliff. In two months since the marathon I've run less than 100 miles … in the last month I've run less than 10 miles. Pathetic.

Just over a year ago I got back into running for the first time in 17 years. Getting back into running was a great experience, and signing up to run the Army Ten Miler, then the Richmond Half Marathon, and then the National Marathon was great motivation to keep training. By the end of it all, I went from "Couch to Marathon" in one year. It felt great. I felt great.

Yet in this whole process running never quite became an essential part of my life. Sure, it was something I did five days/week, and to an extent I became obsessed with running during this stretch. But once I achieved the goal of completing a marathon the motivation died down.

A lot.

The desire to wake up at 5am and run 14 miles diminished. Unlike other runners, my days didn't feel incomplete if I didn't go for a run. As much as I enjoyed the experience of a good run, I also enjoy many other things. Such as sleep. And time with my family. And a bedroom that didn't smell like a locker room.

But it wasn't just these various comforts that led me astray from the straight and narrow running path. Running – particularly marathon training – is an emotionally and physically draining experience. I learned in this process that I have room in my life for one additional, intense activity beyond my family and my work.

For a time that one intense activity was my marathon training. Since the marathon, however, my emotional energy has been focused on our family's move from Arlington, VA to St Paul, MN later this summer, and my transition from my current church to my new congregation. Though I am terribly excited about what lies ahead, I am also sad to say goodbye to many good people and places here in Arlington and on the East Coast. The transition is emotionally exhausting.

Nonetheless, I need to run. For my health (I've regained weight since my marathon), for my sanity (the time alone in my thoughts and non-thoughts is great therapy), for the challenge (I did enjoy watching my progress from week to week, race to race), running was and still can be such a powerful and meaningful part of my life … and an activity that keeps me grounded during a hectic time of transition (thanks, Christine, for helping me realize my need for some grounding). Perhaps not as intensely as I did in my marathon training, but I need to get back out there and make running an important part of my life again.

So the challenge for me is this: to turn running from an activity that is purely goal-oriented (run my first ever marathon) into a life-giving activity that becomes part of my day-to-day routine.

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More of my posts on running, including some that describe my "Couch to Marathon" journey, available here.

A Prayer for Memorial Day

I noticed that in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, the worship book of my church, there are no specific prayers for Memorial Day or the occasion of remembering those who died in service to our country. There are prayers for the armed forces and for our nation's leaders and other related topics, but nothing that quited seemed to me to fit for Memorial Day. So, I crafted a prayer for Memorial Day. Feel free to use, adapt, edit, or ignore. 

Almighty God, you are our strength and our shield. We give you thanks for the men and women of our armed forces, past and present, and especially for those who have died while serving. May their sacrifices serve the cause of peace, and may our nation be ever grateful for their service. With your wisdom and strength guide our military's leaders, and give to all people a desire for justice and peace. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen

A good and safe Memorial Day weekend to you all!

Celebrating our Enemy’s Defeat

Maybe I just need a few more jingoistic friends.

On Facebook and Twitter I'm surrounded by many friends who, almost immediately upon hearing the news of Osama bin Laden's death, seemed conflicted by the celebrations erupting around the country and online. Bible verses about desiring not the death but conversion of the wicked were shared (including Ezekiel 33:11), and a quote wrongly attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. made the rounds. Links, from personal blogs and from Huffington Post, chided Americans for celebrating Osama bin Laden's death.

I don't believe that most Americans were celebrating bin Laden's death. I believe that most of us were celebrating his defeat. As one guest on Monday's broadcast of The Diane Rehm Show commented, the crowds gathering at the White House and Ground Zero were not calling for blood and macabrely reveling in death. They were celebrating the defeat of an enemy, and a victory for our military. They were celebrating our country's resolve to bring the head of Al Queda to justice, and its successful efforts to do so.

Bring bin Laden in alive and I think the celebrations are no less enthusiastic. The head of a once-powerful organization that brought terror and death to countless communities across the globe is no longer able to direct or fund campaigns of terror. Al Queda, already weakened, lost its figurehead and most inspirational leader.

Are the wars over? Does this make ammends for the many missteps taken by our nation's leaders over the past ten years? Is Al Queda forever defeated and our mission accomplished? No, no, no. But this is a great symbolic victory that we should not be begruded to celebrate.

Our Church’s Life, Death, and Resurrection

As I prepare to attend next week's synod assembly, I find myself thinking about the church and how it is organized for its God-given mission of proclaiming the Gospel.

The church has been around for nearly 2000 years. The church has taken on a variety of forms and said a variety of prayers, engaged in a variety of efforts for war and for peace, and has adapted itself to a variety of cultures. This should give us great comfort and great hope.

In 20th century North America, the church became an increasingly professional institution. Accredited seminaries provided professional three year degrees to candidates for the ministry. Congregations lining major corridors along rapidly sprawling suburbs built vast education wings complete with school bells and libraries, miniature religious versions of the public schools being built across the country at the time. These growing congregations welcomed the post-war generation with religious education for all ages, Luther Leagues for the youth, women's and men's groups, fellowship opportunities and dignified worship services. Their bells rang throughout the community, and a growing number of citizens heeded their call.

Congregations hired paid staff, not only paid clergy but also professional office, maintenance, and education staff as well. As there were buildings and funds and personnel to manage, structures of congregational governance took on a more significant role. Roberts Rules of Order became one of three books named in the constitutions of Lutheran congregations, alongside the Bible and Book of Concord. Managing the institutional and programmatic affairs of the congregation became a massive undertaking.

Denominations organized their ministries with national structures governing domestic and foreign missions, with boards and regional presidents and untold vast numbers of committees and commissions. Such institutional growth mirrored efforts to organize civil society with national labor unions and service organizations, and global society with the United Nations. Denominational organizations for women's ministry and youth ministry also flourished, with national boards, regional boards, and congregational boards overseeing and organizing their ongoing work and annual or biannual national conventions.

Denominational leaders were featured on the cover of Time magazine, and congregations were a cornerstone of neighborhood life. Clergy gave the invocation at town council meetings, and school systems deferred to the churches for scheduling of extracurricular activities. Prayer kicked off public school football games and high school graduations. 

This is not how the church had always been structured in its 2000 year history. As I wrote above, over its long history the church has taken on a variety of forms and has adapted to a variety of cultures. This description, above, is simply how the mainline church was structured in many parts of mid-20th century North America. The church looked somewhat different a hundred years prior, and it will look different a hundred years hence. 

We cannot keep trying to maintain a mid-20th century model of church in the rapidly-changing 21st century. The early-mid 20th century cultural factors that supported the massive institutionalization of the church are simply not part of our culture and society today. A new model of church has to be formed. 

The Good News is that God's Word will thrive, and the Holy Spirit will continue to gather the gather the church when and where it pleases, just as it has for 2000 years. Let us give thanks for what the church did in the last century, for the ways that God worked through the church and its institutions. And let us look forward in faith to how the Spirit will move through the church, empowering it to carry out a mission of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ in Word and Sacrament in this next century. 

I think that as people of faith who also love our church, our challenge is to believe the Easter message that out of death comes life, and that everything – even the church we love – dies and rises to new life with Christ.

And more, I think that many of us in the church find ourselves in a Holy Saturday posture of not being sure of whether resurrection will really happen. Or, perhaps we find ourselves in an Easter Sunday posture, bewildered and not sure of what to make of the resurrection that's staring us in the face.

More thoughts to come. Later. 

“Joining God in the Neighborhood”

I was very excited to see Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood by Alan J. Roxburgh arrive from Amazon. Please know that I didn't order the book and wasn't anticipating its arrival. My wife, a seminary professor, ordered it. However, upon reading the second paragraph on the back of the book, I knew I had to read it:

Missional calls you to reenter your neighborhood and community to discover what the Spirit is doing there – to start with God's mission – and join in, shaping your local church around that mission. With inspiring true stories and a solid biblical base, this is a book that will change lives and communities as its message is lived out.

It was a few years ago, when I worked for Augsburg Fortress Publishers, that I first began to think of God having a mission in the world. Up until that point, I had always associated mission with the church – that the church is on a mission. I had never really thought of God having a mission. But Kelly Fryer wrote an excellent Bible study series called No Experience Necessary – which I, as an Augsburg Fortress sales representative, was charged with selling. One of the themes of No Experience Necessary was, "God is on a mission to love and save the world." I asked myself, "What does it mean for God to be on a mission in the world … and what does it mean for us to join in that mission?"

Then a few years later, while planning for a mission trip to El Salvador, a North American missionary with extensive work in Central America described the work that God was doing through the church in El Salvador. Our job as North American mission partners, he said, was to join in the mission that God was already accomplishing through the Salvadoran church. Too many North American church groups travel to Latin America to "do mission" in Latin America, assuming that there isn't any mission going on unless they bring it. But the truth is that God has been at work in Latin America, through the local churches, long before we even thought about traveling there for our "mission trip." Thus, our calling is to recognize and participate in what God is already doing, to accompany the Latin American church on its mission.

This idea that God is already at work in the world has been an ongoing theme in my preaching, too. I'm convinced that God is at work within the church walls, yes, but also beyond the church walls. God-things are happening at the altar and font, but also at the corner store, the barber shop, the shelter, the county government offices, the public schools, social service organizations, ten mile runs, and more. The church's mission is to carry out its God-given call to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed, to baptize and to teach, yes. But its mission must also include seeing where God is at work in the world and to joining in that blessed work.

If this book, Missional: Joining God in the Neighborhood, examines and extends these themes, I'm sure it will be a worthy read.

Bustin’ Unions, or Bustin’ Faith? Why Diana Butler Bass is wrong about Scott Walker

I'm a bit shocked that Diana Butler Bass makes an unfair and unwarranted attack on Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, assulting the supposed role of his faith in his confrontation with state Senate Democrats and the government employee unions. If she wants to write a piece critiquing his policies and politics, that's fine … but his faith? 

Read: God in Wisconsin: Scott Walker's "Obedience"

Dr. Bass, who earned her Ph.D. from Duke University and has taught at the college and seminary level, makes some terribly inaccurate conclusions, ones that would earn any undergraduate student points off of a term paper.

First, she cites the many religious groups – Roman Catholic and main line Protestant – who have been speaking out on behalf of the unions and their collective bargaining rights. Then, noting that Governor Walker is a member of an independent, evangelical congregation, she claims that

Scott Walker does not give a rip about pronouncements by the Roman Catholic Church, any Lutheran, Episcopal, or Methodist bishop, or the Protestant social justice pastors. These religious authorities, steeped in centuries of theology and Christian ethics mean absolutely nothing in Scott Walker's world.

Really? It is terribly tenuous to suggest that, simply because of his church membership, Governor Walker "does not give a rip" about what Roman Catholic or Mainline Protestant church leaders say. Just because someone belongs to one group or adheres to one creed does not mean that they do not "give a rip" about other creeds or perspectives. He need not agree with them, but to suggest that he does not "give a rip" goes too far in recklessly slandering a man who hasn't actually said anything akin to "I don't give a rip about what Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal or Methodist leaders say." Dr. Bass assumes that Governor Walker has little respect for the Catholic or Mainline churches and their leaders, simply because of where he chooses to worship on Sunday morning.

(In fact, in a speech that Scott Walker gave to a group of Christian businessmen in 2009 – a speech which Dr. Bass critiques later in her piece – Walker speaks graciously about the different adolescent rites of passage within Christian churches, notably the believer's baptism of his church, and the first communion practices of other churches. That doesn't sound like someone who doesn't "give a rip" about other beliefs.)

Furthermore, by dredging up his congregation's statement of faith (which she dismisses as "boilerplate") and assigning to him the beliefs outlined therein, Dr. Bass once again makes a false assumption. Should we assume that everyone who attends a particular church adheres, completely, to that church's statement of faith? The Lutherans accept the Athanasian Creed as a "true declaration of the faith of this church" (ELCA Constitution, 2.04). Will Dr. Bass next start assigning to all Lutherans an unwavering belief in the eternal damnation of those who have done evil, or a belief that only those who believe this creed "firmly and faithfully" will be saved? Of course she won't, but that's exactly the leap she makes with Governor Walker – assigning the stated beliefs of his congregation to him, without nuance.

After attacking the governor because of what his church website states, Dr. Bass goes after his own words of faith. Governor Walker shared a testimony before a group of Christian businessmen in which he said that he sought to trust and obey Christ in his life. From his stated desire to trust and obey Christ, Dr. Bass infers that Governor Walker has an overly confident evangelical spirituality in which doubt is not allowed and confidence in God's leading is absolute.

She then claims that Governor Walker shares this dangerous spirituality with George W. Bush, the favorite boogeyman of the left. This spirituality, Dr. Bass suggests, led the former president to wage wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Then, critiquing this spirituality (which she assumes guides Governor Walker's every decision), Dr. Bass claims that "in this theological universe, hard-headedness is a virtue, compromise is the work of the Devil, and anything that works to accompish God's plan is considered ethically justifiable." Suddenly, the man who gave a faithful testimoney to a small group of businessmen is now part of a divine plan to invade countries and plow ahead with a politically conservative holy mission dictated by God on high. This is the kind of exaggeration, guilty by faux association, and horrendous leaping to conclusions that the left routinely critiques when performed by Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and other right wing luminaries.

I've listened to the entire speech that Scott Walker gave before that group of businessmen in November 2009, and I have a hard time coming to her same conclusions. In it he talks not about politics but about his childhood, his faith, running for office in college and later in state politics, how he met his wife, and his involvement in church. The theme of "trust and obey" weaves through his wandering comments, which are authentic and honest, and reflective of an evangelical piety. Is his belief that Christians are called to trust and obey God worthy of her vicious political attack? No.

Main line liberal Christians might not use the word "obey" much any longer in our piety, but we certainly use the word "trust," and the call to live a Godly life – no matter what words we use – is prevalent in our beliefs, practices, and rites. In the rite for Holy Baptism, we acknowledge that "living with Christ an in the communion of saints, we grow in faith, love, and obedience to the will of God" (Holy Baptism, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, pg. 227). And more: "Called by the Holy Spirit, trusting in the grace and love fo God, do you desire to have your children baptized into Christ?" (Holy Baptism, ELW, 228). Obedience and trust and the call to live holy lives are all part of the main line Protestant tradition. Yet, dressed up with different words, Dr. Bass trashes this same commitment when coming out of the mouth of an evangelical Christian Republican.

This essay is sloppy work by Dr. Bass, and exemplifies – from the left! – the worst of mixing religion and politics. If Governor Walker were to state, "God has called me to bust the unions," or "All that I do in politics is led by God," then her worry would be justified. If she could cite more direct proof of Governor Walker's co-mingling of faith and partisan politics, perhaps her essay would be stronger. But absent such a direct link of his faith and politics and the current political standoff, her essay is simply irresponsible rubbish that serves only to fan political flames and unnecessarily introduce religion into what is already an ugly political situation.

Is Jesus a liberal Democrat? Really?

"Jesus is a liberal Democrat."

So says Steven Colbert, the wise-cracking comedian who gives a regular dose of God to a generation that is largely absent from the pews, mostly by revealing the hypocrisy of Christian conservatives.  In last evening's show, he takes aim at his favorite target, Bill O'Reilly.

The Colbert Report Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Jesus Is a Liberal Democrat
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Of course, Bill O'Reilly is low-hanging fruit.  Picking apart O'Reilly's theology is about as easy as getting a cold by walking through a childcare center in January.  The two lines that Colbert highlights from O'Reilly's piece – about Jesus not advocating any kind of service to the poor that is self-destructive, and the "God helps those who help themselves" quote – could be identified as theologically fraudulent by any Christian who has even a basic grasp of their catechism and Bible.   So I'm not sure that Colbert's rant here is very significant, except perhaps for the rather public smackdown of Bill O'Reilly's odd theology that it represents.

But there is something else that bothers me.  Yes, Colbert rightly highlights that many of those who would claim this country to be Christian seem to give little credence to the social dimensions and demands of the Gospel.  But those who champion Colbert as some sort of political genious and social prophet for our times seem to miss a very important dynamic in this whole equation – what can the government realistically do, and what should it do?  Just because Jesus fed the five thousand and told his followers to give their cloak and go the extra mile, should we expect such actions always to be taken by our government?  I'm not sure that the words of scripture necessary relate in a 1:1 correlation to the mission and tasks of government … do they? 

Jesus is not a liberal Democrat.  But neither is he a conservative Republican.  Any attempts to squeeze him into one of our 21st century political boxes is pure idolotry.

I'm a pastor, and in my line of work the words of scripture do apply in much more of a 1:1 correlation than they do in government.  Yet, in my congregation, how often do we send the poor away, to the government, to find assistance, because we don't think we have the means to help?  We who are committed to the words of scripture and the Way of Christ often feel that we cannot do what our Lord commands us to do, because of limited resources or priorities that might place paying the electric bill or the pastor's salary, or buying the youth group's foosball table, above feeding the hungry or giving money to the poor.  So if our churches, with crosses on our steeples and Gospel words on our lips, cannot do what they are commanded to do in relationship to the poor, why do we expect any more from the government?

Not everything that is good and holy and just can be accomplished by the government, just as the church cannot do everything that it is called to do by God.  So while it is fun to point out the speck of holy hypocrisy in our neighbor's eye, have we figured out what to do with the log that is in ours?  When we're done scratching at – or scratching out – our eyes, perhaps then we can figure out, however imperfectly, how to work together to do to the things our Lord calls us to do.

And yes, as if you couldn't tell from this post, I'm still trying to figure out a satisfying political philosophy …

The Longstanding American Ambivalence about Christ at Christmas

Originally titled “My ‘War on Christmas’ Snark”

Yesterday I posted The War on Christmas, a snarky account of the commercialization of Christmas and sarcastic commentary on the supposed “war on Christmas” that some Christians fear is being waged in America by anti-Christian forces.  My snark was provoked by my experience of being asked about the “war on Christmas” and the “assault on faith” that is happening these days … all while I was being examined for an upper respiratory infection.  When my shirt is half off and the doctor is using a stethoscope to listen for junk in my lungs, I’m not really eager to tell my doctor that I think her concern is misplaced … at least, not until after she has written my prescription.

It is entirely true that our culture has changed.  Fewer and fewer explicitly Christian celebrations and slogans are shared in the public square.  Taxpayer-funded nativity scenes are less likely to be placed on courthouse or county grounds, and the town Christmas festival might now be called a “winter festival.”  Retailers, recognizing that they can appeal to a larger number of shoppers by focusing on”winter” and “holidays” rather than the explicitly religious “Christmas” have adjusted, perhaps only slightly, their marketing campaigns.

The specifics of Christmas in America are complicated.  The early Puritans did not oldchristmas2celebrate Christmas.  The first Congress famously met on Christmas Day in 1789, and Christmas itself was not declared a federal holiday until 1870.  Much of the way we imagine Christmas in this country is based on early 19th century poetry and stories, particularly the writings of Washington Irving and Clement Clarke More, which represented New World adaptations of Old World Saint Nicholas traditions.  As early as 1841 a Philadelphia merchant had a man dress-up in a Kris Kringle costume and climb the chimney of his store in a publicity effort.

And so by the mid-to-late 19th century Christmas was widely celebrated in America, with a growing emphasis on gift-giving and elves, a large man in a red suit and reindeer.  Washington Irving’s popular writings made celebration of the home and hearth central to our understanding of Christmas.  Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, widely read in America by the 1860s, further sentimentalized Christmas as a holiday of kindness and compassion.

This is not all bad, but it ain’t Baby Jesus, either.  The imperative to care for the poor and to share gifts surely has roots in Christian tradition and teachings, and Christians should be glad that the wider culture promotes works of charity at this time of year.  But it is hard to deny that in the 19th century Christmas – the Christ Mass – was branded by a variety of cultural traditions and emphases that had less to do with explicitly religious celebrations of the birth of Christ and more to do with good cheer, generosity, and the comfort of the hearth.

tree-in-town-square-by-steven-dohanosOf course, alongside these widely-held cultural celebrations of Christmas, committed Christians have maintained an emphasis on Christ and the Nativity, even as they have also adopted much of the trappings of the cultural celebration of Christmas.  They have had access to the town square for caroling and religious displays, and have stood by proudly as town fathers read official Christmas proclamations.  For many years explicitly religious commemorations of Christmas received the imprimatur of civic officials, standing alongside the less explicitly religious, cultural celebrations of Christmas.  But it would be a mistake to confuse the proximity of the Baby Jesus to Santa Claus in the town square display as a widespread embrace of the religious nature of the holiday.

Thus cries to “put Christ back into Christmas” ring somewhat hollow, for Christ has had an uncertain relationship with public Christmas celebrations from the very start of our American Christmas traditions.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries Americans began to make less frequent use of the word “Christmas” in the public square, and instead decided to speak of “holidays” and the “season.”  Perhaps this shift in language is simply a long-awaited acknowledgment that many people in our society do not celebrate Christmas, and that many who do celebrate Christmas do so more as a cultural celebration of generosity and gift-giving than an explicitly religious reflection on the birth of Christ.  Even for we who strive to mark Christmas as a religious holy day, the gift-giving and holiday customs often overshadow the nativity scene that rests on our windowsill.

Christians can and will continue to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ, with or without stores wishing us a “Merry Christmas,” with or without the town sponsoring a Christmas festival, with or without the courthouse lawn being adorned with a light-up nativity scene.  We certainly don’t need retailers or government officials to help us celebrate the Holy Day of Christ’s birth.  And from what I can tell, they surely aren’t at war with our religious celebrations, either.  No retailer or government official is coming into my house requiring me to wish my daughter “happy holidays” instead of a “merry Christmas.”  Nobody is getting in the way of our church holding services on Christmas Eve.  We even get a federal holiday and a day or two off from work for Christmas, thanks to the government which is supposedly at war with our holiday.  Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths are not so lucky.  No matter what the broader culture does in regards to Christmas, we can continue to celebrate in our homes and in our churches however we see fit.

What is lost somewhat diminished, perhaps, is the widespread use of Christian language (“Christmas”) and expressions (nativity scenes, religous carols) in the public square alongside “Jingle Bells” and inflatable Santas.  But this is not to be mourned.  If the name of Christ is used less frequently in efforts to peddle shoddy merchandise, that’s fine with me.

The War on Christmas

For many years Christians have waged a persistent and spirited war on Christmas.  They have struggled, with significant success, to transform a holy day for people of faith into a secular holiday for all citizens of our nation to observe.  However, there are signs that the Christians are in retreat, recognizing that their efforts to establish Christmas as a universal holiday observed by all Americans have been unsuccessful.

These Christians have willingly presided over the transformation of the sacred celebration of their Lord’s birth into a festival of free-market consumerism.  By joining their faith with consumerist impulses and market forces, they sought to place Christ at the center of the American experience.  It was seen as a victory for the faith that retailers would look forward to Christmas and promote Christmas shopping to make or break their year, making Christmas the most important part of their business cycle – and thus, of the American economy.  No longer would Christmas be just a holy day for the faithful to celebrate in homes and in churches, but now it would be promoted for weeks and months on Main Street and in shopping malls, on the radio and the television, spreading the word about Christmas sales and gift ideas.

Even though the Gospel of Luke reports that Jesus brings good news to the poor and sends the rich away empty, to fully participate in Christmas America-style, an upper-middle class income or higher is really necessary, because Christmas in America is about the gifts.  (Frankincense, gold and myrrh didn’t come cheap, bucko.)  And so Christians established Christmas as a holiday that can truly be shared in its ideal form only by those who are well-off, further thrusting Christ into the center of the American yearning for wealth and material goods.  Associating Christmas with the spending of money was a particular coup d’etat since Christians had already succeeded in the unlikely feat of making millions believe that wealth itself is a sign of God’s blessing on the faithful.

Despite all these historical successes at inserting the Baby Jesus into the center of America’s consumerist culture – and thus at the heart of American life – these days many Christians note with great lament that America’s annual mid-winter gift-giving ritual increasingly has little to do with the Baby Jesus.  Fewer and fewer stores display traditional Christmas scenes in their Main Street windows, angering many Christians that images of their Lord and Savior are no longer used as marketing gimmicks to get people to buy useless junk made with child labor in China.  So too with signs and jingles.  “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings” takes Christ right out of the center of this consumerist blitz, where so many Christians think He belongs.

Christians shouldn’t be too sullen, however.  They can still look at the various successes they have had at establishing Christmas as a centerpiece to American culture:

  • Christmas is a national holiday, which usually involves several pretty good basketball games on TV.
  • There is no junk mail on Christmas, because there is no mail delivery at all on that day!
  • You can park at a parking meter on Christmas and not have to insert a quarter.
  • For six weeks the radio won’t stop playing that [insert expletive] Christmas music.
  • Very few businesses are open on Christmas, making that day particularly stink for non-Christians and Christians alike who really need to get a gallon of milk or some diapers at the store.
  • Most people still call that pagan-derived tradition of killing a tree, putting it up in your house, and decorating it with plastic balls a “Christmas” tree.
  • Christmas shops, selling all kinds of red and green and snow-covered junkola, are a growing segment of the retail market.
  • Schools are closed for a week or more around Christmas, even if they don’t use that word much any longer.

Weary from generations of battle, fewer Christians wage war on Christmas these days, though skirmishes do break out from time to time, most notably around what to call the dead evergreen tree in the town square, or what songs public school kids can sing at a taxpayer-funded concert.  Many are retreating from this war, no longer insisting that Big Box Retailer send Christmas Greetings to shoppers.  Instead, these Christians are increasingly choosing to celebrate the birth of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ at home and in their churches.

Imagine that.

UPDATE: I posted a follow-up, My “War on Christmas” Snark, offering a brief look at the origins of Christmas in America, and highlighting the ambiguity we’ve had about Christ and Christmas over the years.