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Pandering to Christians at Christmastime

The word pander comes from Chaucer’s poem Troilus and Criseyde, in which a character named Pandarus is the go-between who schemes to obtain the consent of his niece Criseyde for a relationship with Troilus, on whose part the attraction is solely physical. The name passed into English as the legal definition for pimping. But its more common usage, and the one we see demonstrated frequently in politics and journalism, has to do with employing arguments of minimal pith and moment, but that appeal to people’s least good, least thoughtful motives. (It is relatively easy to do: remember H. L. Mencken’s assertion that no one has ever gone broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.)

Exhibit one, popping up each Christmas for the past several years, is the so-called war on Christmas. Several chowderheads stirred this up, but it made its move into the mainstream in 2006 when Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, already well-known as a professional journalistic panderer, interviewed John Gibson, author of a book called the War on Christmas. The argument seems to be that using the greeting “Happy Holidays” is caving in to non-Christians whose sensibilities the rest of us, even merchants who are trying to sell to them, ought to ignore. This is a Christian country, they say, and we should boldly shove everyone’s faces in that, even while they’re shopping.

Never mind that Bill himself has no credibility as any kind of model Christian: the argument took off among conservative Christians because it panders to the set who scold about immigrants, and wonder aloud what all those brown-skinned, funny-dressed, foreign-language-speaking people are doing in our country. So this year, James Dobson inaugurated “Happy Tossmas”: toss every holiday catalog that says “Happy Holidays,” and Utah Republican state senator Chris Buttars sponsored a resolution demanding that stores greet shoppers with “Merry Christmas.”

It is hard for me even to express how condescending I find this whole argument. It has been”a masterstroke of pandering. They’ve managed, says Austin Cline, to reframe America’s tolerance for minorities as intolerance for the majority, as if the majority needs its beliefs to be endorsed by the state in order to feel validated.

In an attempt to fatten up the argument, O’Reilly carries it to its illogical conclusion: “It’s all part of the secular progressive agenda,” he’s fumed. “If you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs, like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage.”

All that just because we send out inclusive greeting cards!

Especially fascinating is Max Blumenthal’s research tracing the genesis of this issue to, a racist, Christian dominionist organization that the Southern Poverty Law center classifies as a hate group. (Among other things, they publish a book trashing Barack Obama titled America’s Half-Blood Prince.) Writes Blumenthal: “VDare became the staging ground for the War on the War on Christmas. Unlike their more respectable counterparts, [VDare] dared to name the true anti-Christian Grinch: Jews.” Jews—long the bugbear of the nutcase extreme—Right, but don’t forget Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, atheists. They’re all grain for the prejudice mill when you declare that America is Christian at the core and anyone else is an interloper.

It ought to be clear to Seventh-day Adventists that this is a foolish fight, and one we should be on the opposite side of. We Adventists have occasionally experienced religious discrimination, and we expend a lot of spiritual energy anticipating it happening again, which is why we long have championed full religious tolerance. Imagine being in a Moslem country, and ask yourself if you would like it better were the greetings, personal and commercial, biased toward the prevailing religion and therefore constantly reminding you that you occupy a space in that society too narrow to plant your feet; or would you prefer your religious convictions respected even if they’re not normative for the culture? I suspect we Christians would be the biggest crybabies were Ramadan constantly shoved into our faces, even when we were out shopping. We’d all be whining about persecution (which we have a tendency to do even when we’re in the majority.)

I wish my Jewish neighbors Happy Hanukkah this time of year—not because I subscribe to that holiday, but because I respect them as good, sincere human beings, whom I respect for their faith choices even though I’m not in agreement with them, and who will respect me more for my acknowledgement of their holiday. (And they, to their credit, wish us Merry Christmas.)

Jesus even said some radical thing along those lines: something about treating others with the respect and consideration that you wish they’d treat you. Might be worth a try.

Loren Seibold is senior pastor of the Worthington, Ohio, Seventh-day Adventist Church. He also edits a newsletter for North American Division pastors called Best Practices for Adventist Ministry.

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