I don’t watch Bill O’Reilly’s Fox show very often, but I know one of his pet themes is the War on Christmas. He finds some story about a councilman in the City of East Whatever (pop. 23,000) who doesn’t want the town putting decorations on the city’s street lamps and uses it to prove that the secularization of America is destroying our culture and turning Christians into an oppressed minority.
He also harps on retail chains putting signs up in their stores that say “Seasons Greetings” or other such nondenominational postings instead of “Merry Christmas” or “Celebrate the Birth of Jesus.” This is also part of a conspiracy in his eyes. For a guy that loves the free market, you’d think he’d recognize the market at work. America’s major retailers certainly like to sell to Christians. But they are equally happy to sell to Jews, Muslims, Atheists, and Wiccans.
Putting a “Merry Christmas” sign in a shop window isn’t the same as putting up a sign that says “Only Christians need shop here.” But when a company spends millions of dollars on stores to make them both obviously and subtly welcoming and comfortable places that encourage good feeling and the laying down of cash and credit cards, why would they possibly want to put up a sign that identifies them with a cultural heritage of which a portion of their potential customers are not a part?
Flip it around: Imagine if Sam Walton had instead been Abdul Salaam and founded SalaamMart. Think it would be the largest retailer in the United States?
To me, a lover of Christmas, the real war is not being fought over the use of public resources, whether they be taxpayer dollars spent on carving scripture into courthouse walls, or the lawn in front of a city hall where a crèche used to be placed. Nor is it being fought in the aisles of your local megastore. The real battle is being fought in how we treat people.
That is what Dicken’s “A Christmas Carol” is about—how the best-heeled Ebenezer Scrooges treat the Bob Cratchits of the world. Or, for that matter, how the Scrooges treat other Scrooges, and the Cratchits treat other Cratchits.
If there’s a current manifestation of this in public debate, it’s what’s been happening in Congress for the past few days. Starting January 1, unemployment benefits are scheduled to be severely curtailed, and the payroll tax bite on workers will jump up. If these were ordinary times, one might think of these as reasonable, responsible actions as we try to balance the competing demands on public resources.
But these aren’t ordinary times. These are hard times. There are underpaid Bob Cratchits and sickly Tiny Tims all over the country right now. Conditions may not be those of Victorian London, but times are tough.
The Senate Democrats and the Senate Republicans negotiated a deal in good faith to at least delay these things from happening for a couple months. Everyone preferred a full-year deal, but the negotiations were tough. With Christmas fast approaching, it seemed like time to forestall things and take a break. Both parties to these talks appeared to believe that, while not at the table, the Senate Republicans were representing their House colleagues as well, and everyone would go along with the agreed-on deal.
But the House, as is well within their constitutional prerogative, chose not to go along. Instead, unemployed Americans and everyone that works is now wondering what January 1 will bring. Not the best way to enjoy the holidays.
Even worse, House Republicans are now using Christmas as their latest wedge in making demands for re-opening negotiations so they can lard up the legislation with various elements of their extremist agenda. I don’t begrudge them using the power to get what they want, but, really, can’t we put this off for two months and get on with Christmas? Shouldn’t they all be out of Washington, at home with their families, decorating trees, shopping at the mall instead of standing in the Capitol Rotunda in front of cameras taking pot shots at those they disagree with and undermining the economic security of most Americans?
I say let’s call a truce in this war on Christmas and have our fight in January or February. It’s the right thing to do and would certainly do more to honor the holiday than putting up all the “Merry Christmas” signs one can imagine in our nation’s shopping malls. Let’s get into the Christmas spirit. And, as Tiny Tim famously said: “God bless us, everyone.”
Michael Ettlinger is Vice President for Economic Policy at the Center for American Progress
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Vice President, Economic Policy