Waging the War for Christmas in Texas

Photo by John Jordan

Complaints about the War on Christmas have become just as much a part of the 21st century holiday season in the United States as nativity scenes and TV Christmas specials.

The notion that the public status of Christmas as a Christian holiday is under attack from secular multiculturalists has become a regular trope of media coverage, especially — though by no means exclusively — on the Fox News Network. The signs of this war stretch from the substitution of the more neutral term "holiday" for "Christmas" in everything from polite conversation to retail signage.

The War on Christmas becomes a more legally consequential issue when framed in terms of government support for overtly religious public displays like nativity scenes. Texas politicians have been in the front line of this war in recent weeks, and one doesn't have to question the sincerity of their beliefs to notice that the political context of taking the side of the aggrieved in this war is also a form of preaching to the choir.

While one might think that an increasingly secular and multi-denominational population might inherently produce more secular and relatively benign practices like the use of "happy holidays," mutually reinforcing patterns in partisanship and religious attitudes highlight the political context fostering the mobilization for this particular war. The central premise of those promoting the existence of a war on Christmas is that the public celebration of the birth of Christ needs defense against those who would remove the sacred element from the public rituals of the holiday season, or require some degree of parity with other beliefs.

We shouldn't be surprised that this discussion is shot through with politics, given that differences in religiosity, and more specifically in the embrace of fundamentalist Christian views, reinforce differences in partisan allegiances. Results from the University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll follow national results in showing that Republicans are much more likely to report frequent church attendance than Democrats and are much more likely to agree that the Bible should be taken literally.

A more specific set of results from a battery of questions about group discrimination asked in the June 2015 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll suggests that there is an audience ready to accept the premise that the public expression of the Christian significance of Christmas has come under siege. Texans were asked in this survey to assess how much discrimination different major groups in society experienced. Christians were included on a list of major groups that also included other religious faiths (e.g., Muslims) as well as other ethnic and social groups.

The most receptive audience for the notion of a war on Christmas is highlighted by the fact that Republicans most commonly cited Christians as experiencing discrimination: 67 percent of Republicans said Christians experienced "some" or "a lot" of discrimination. (The percentages for the groups that were perceived as experiencing less discrimination than Christians can be found in a graph at the Texas Politics Project website.) Democrats, comparatively secular lot that they tend to be, don't perceive the discrimination against Christians that conservatives in such large numbers see: only 30 percent judged Christians subject to discrimination.

These public attitudes, in concert with political hegemony of Republican elected officials and public figures in Texas, help explain why the inherently defensive War on Christmas looks a lot more like a more proactive War for Christmas in Texas this year. Lt. Governor Dan Patrick established "a new tradition" by erecting what the Houston Chronicle called a "20-something foot Virginia pine" in Senate chamber this season and inviting senators and staff to the equivalent of a legislative tree trimming party. The installation was, of course, accompanied by a news release and a short video featuring Patrick wishing the public a happy holiday season and a merry Christmas (twice).

While some might take Patrick's holiday cheer at face value and even applaud it, as others roll their eyes at the largeness and PR overtones of the gesture, perhaps the more notable fact of the tree installation is that it should be taken as fulfilling a campaign promise: Patrick's campaign website still contains a page entreating its visitors, "Some people are trying to keep their fellow Texans from saying "Merry Christmas" in certain public places. I need your help! Sign up and stand with me as we continue to stand for Christmas!" Even if the page primarily seems designed to capture supporter data, that tree in the Senate counts as delivering a big blow in the war, even as it illustrates that said war is political enough to make it into the campaign.

The lieutenant governor is not alone in Texas in going on the offense. Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has publicly promised to fight the good fight, too. A San Antonio Express News reporter found Sid Miller posting a Facebook threat directed at those offering a politically incorrect Christmas greeting: "If one more person says Happy Holidays to me I just might slap them. Either tell me Merry Christmas or just don't say anything." No reports yet as to whether the Commissioner has found it necessary to strike such a blow in defense of Christmas.

In a world where Christmas takes over the weeks from late November to the end of December in a blizzard of decorations, public celebrations and holiday entertainment — and in which there seems no shortage of recognition of the holiday's origins — the preponderance of signs make it hard to conceive of the holiday as somehow threatened. But with primary season right around the corner, voters who are open to the ideas that the War on Christmas is real and that it's part of a larger pattern of anti-Christian discrimination can rest assured that there are elected officials ready to launch a vigorous counteroffensive, even if it just starts with a slap. Given patterns of public opinion in Texas, even the secular can at least understand it as democracy in action.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin