‘Tis the season to complain about a war on Christmas, or to deny that any such war has been declared.

Advocacy groups upset by corporations that do not “properly” celebrate Christmas seem to think that the companies are motivated by anti-religious bias. These advocacy groups often encourage their members to avoid such institutions.

I suspect most businesses emphasize or deemphasize holidays simply to maximize revenue, which is certainly their right. And Americans upset by their decisions have the right to shop where they wish.

As someone who believes that Christ is central to Christmas, I think these controversies are silly. My decision to go to a locally owned coffee shop has everything to do with the quality of its brew and nothing to do with the extent to which their competitor, Starbucks, adequately recognizes the holiday season on their Christmas/Holiday/Winter cups.

Corporations have every right to attempt to maximize profits (within legal and moral limits), and individuals have every right to be silly. Governments should have nothing to do with these controversies.

Governments and the War on Christmas

But what happens when governments, or government employees, wish to celebrate Christmas or other religious holidays? For instance, should a nurse’s aide in a public school be able to display a poster quoting Linus Van Pelt’s famous explanation of the meaning of Christmas from “A Charlie Brown Christmas Special?” (Note that Linus quotes from the Gospel of Luke.)

Since the mid-twentieth century, groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Protestants and Others United for Separation of Church and State have contended that such speech is prohibited because the First Amendment requires a “wall of separation” between church and state. In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Supreme Court Justices embraced a version of this argument that goes as follows:

  1. The First Amendment must be interpreted in light of the Founders’ views.
  2. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison represent America’s Founders.
  3. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison desired to build a wall of separation between church and state.
  4. Therefore, the Establishment clause requires a wall of separation between church and state.[1]

This opinion has been referenced, directly or indirectly, to oppose everything from Christmas trees in public buildings to school vouchers. As a matter of history, Everson is simply nonsense. In no way did America’s Founders — especially those men who drafted and ratified the First Amendment — desire to build a wall of separation between church and state.

The First Amendment Does Not Require a Wall of Separation

This point may be illustrated in a variety of ways, but a particularly useful exercise is to look at the first Congress, the body that crafted the First Amendment.[2] One of Congress’s first acts was to agree to appoint and pay congressional chaplains. Shortly after doing so, it reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which held that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

More significantly for understanding the First Amendment, on the day after the House approved the final wording of the Bill of Rights, Elias Boudinot proposed that the president recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer. In response to objections that such a practice mimicked European customs or should be done by the states, Roger Sherman

justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point. This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.

The House agreed, as did the Senate, as did the president. The result was George Washington’s famous 1789 Thanksgiving Day Proclamation. The text of his proclamation states in part,

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.…

I do recommend…the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.…

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the People.

America’s Founders clearly prohibited the establishment of a national church, but there is no evidence that they desired to build a wall of separation between church and state that would prohibit government employees — from presidents to nurse’s aides — from engaging in religious speech.

Civility, Prudence, and the Holiday Season

Of course America is far more pluralistic today than it was in the late eighteenth century, so there are very good reasons for government officials not to favor (or appear to favor) one religion or denomination over another. But these are questions of civility and prudence that should be addressed by local and state officials, not by advocacy groups pushing a historically inaccurate understanding of the First Amendment

[1] For further discussion see Mark David Hall, “Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Liberty, and the Creation of the First Amendment.” American Political Thought. 3 (Spring 2014): 32-63.

[2] The following paragraphs are adopted from the last half of this essay: http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/2011/06/did-america-have-a-christian-founding.