Mike Huckabee's surprisingly strong showing in Iowa and elsewhere may have more to do with his unabashed embrace of Christmas than anything else.
Last month, the former Republican governor of Arkansas aired a campaign commercial in which he said, "At this time of year... what really matters is the celebration and birth of Christ, and being with our family and our friends... God Bless and Merry Christmas."
This sent liberals and leftists into an apocalyptic tizzy. Huckabee sends an "exclusionary message to non-Christian Americans," editorialized the Washington Post.
"The birth of Christ is not what really matters if you're an American Muslim, an American Hindu, an American Jew, an American Sikh, an American Pagan, or any member of another non-Christian American religion," decreed one indignant You Tuber.
As a statement of personal preference, this may well be true. But as a matter of historical record, it is completely false. All Americans are heirs to a rich Judeo-Christian heritage in which the birth of Christ is a seminal historical event.
Indeed, Judeo-Christian principles undergird our law and our political system, and have done so ever since the first colonists arrived at Jamestown in 1607.
"There never has been a period in which the Common Law did not recognize Christianity as lying at its foundations," explained Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story in 1829.
AND YET, IT'S BECOME culturally uncouth to say publicly "Merry Christmas." The preferred term nowadays is "Happy Holidays."
I first noticed this last month when the commanding officer of my Navy Reserve unit wrote in his monthly memo that because of reconstructive knee surgery, he would be "unable to usher in the holidays" with us during our next (pre-Christmas) drill. However, he added that he wished us all a "safe and joy-filled holiday season."
Then there was the "holiday party" sponsored by the Pentagon office where I currently work as a civilian consultant -- no mention of Christmas there.
The final email notices that many of my colleagues sent out the Friday before Christmas -- this to mark the end of the year and a week or two of vacation -- also mostly substituted "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas."
Ditto when I went out to eat in Alexandria, Virginia two days before Christmas. The young and hospitable waitress twice wished my date and me a happy holiday, but said nothing of Christmas.
I shopped for a Christmas wreath that says "Merry Christmas." After trekking to four stores, I found lots of wreaths, but none -- absolutely none -- inscribed with those two apparently proscribed words.
The music in the outside shopping mall on Christmas Eve? You'd think this would be the time, finally, to play Christmas music, right? If not traditional Christmas carols, then at least secular pop Christmas music.
Nah! A bland muzak, or elevator music, instead filled the air -- just as it had all month.
Am I alone? That's the question I asked my sister, Patricia, a mother of three children who lives in northern New Jersey.
"No, you're definitely not imagining it," she said. "It's something I've noticed, too. Whereas we once felt free to say Merry Christmas, I feel we can't say it anymore -- and I'm not sure why."
Trish explained: "I'll find myself saying Merry... Holidays! Because if I say Christmas -- I don't know. People are just embarrassed and self-conscious to say that nowadays."
THIS SURELY RANKLES many Americans, who rightly sense that something is amiss when simply saying "Merry Christmas" is thought to be in poor taste and a violation of social etiquette. Credit Mike Huckabee for tapping into this latent sense of loss with a brilliant, positive -- and, yes, inclusive -- campaign commercial.
Substituting "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" ostensibly is done to accommodate the sensibilities of those Americans who are not Christian -- Jews, Muslims, atheists, and agnostics, et. al. But Americans of good will do not begrudge the Christian -- and non-Christian -- celebration of Christmas.
In fact, most Americans rather like our national celebration of Christmas, because it infuses our civic relations and our civic discourse with a greater sense of charity and commitment to our neighbors and to our fellow man.
That's why, in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into a law legislation declaring Christmas a national holiday. (This law, incidentally, was upheld by the liberal Supreme Court seven years ago.)
Grant was the commanding Union General during the Civil War. He accepted the Confederate surrender at Appomattox in 1865 with what can only be called Christian grace, generosity, and compassion.
Indeed, Grant paroled all Confederate officers and enlisted men, allowed the Confederates to keep their livestock (horses and mules), and arranged for 25,000 rations to be sent to hungry and starving soldiers of the Confederate States Army of Northern Virginia.
General Grant eschewed vengeance because he wanted to heal the wounds of the Civil War, reconcile the North and the South, and restore the United States of America. That same desire for national reconciliation and national unity was uppermost in Grant's mind when, as President five years later, he acted to make Christmas a national holiday.
Grant understood that Christmas, far from being a divisive event, is instead one of the great cultural underpinnings of our republic.
Of course, the religiously devout seldom have a problem with public displays of other faiths, provided there is a free and open public square. Certainly, this is true in America today, where a common, shared morality tends to bind together religiously observant folk, be they Christian, Jew, or Muslim.
I even saw this as a Marine in Iraq, in 2003. I traveled throughout much of the country relatively unencumbered and met hundreds of Iraqis, some of whom I got to know fairly well. They sometimes asked of my religious faith.
The Iraqis' awareness that I was a practicing Roman Catholic who carried the Cross, Rosary Beads, and a prayer book seemed to instill in them a greater sense of confidence that I was a man of my word who could be trusted. (Not that I would, either then or now, hold myself up as any paragon of Christian faith and observance; to the contrary. But as the old adage has it, there are no atheists on the frontlines.)
IN REALITY, THE cultural putsch to ban any public saying of Merry Christmas in America stems not from other religious groups, but from militant secularists and God-haters. (Think Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and the ACLU.)
These people and organizations are essentially anti-religious -- and especially anti-Christian. They seek to enforce a cultural orthodoxy in which America is effectively devoid of any and all public displays of religious faith.
That they are succeeding in enforcing this orthodoxy -- even on unsuspecting Americans of religious faith and good will -- is cause for concern. For as President Washington once wisely observed, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." (Like Grant, Washington of course also served as the nation's top commanding General at a time of war.)
Added President John Quincy Adams, "The Law given from Sinai was a civil and municipal, as well as a moral and religious, code."
By making public recognition and public celebration of our rich Judeo-Christian heritage forbidden and taboo, we risk losing, or at least seriously undermining, one of the key foundational elements that has sustained our Republic for more than 200 years.
More than a few Americans -- in Iowa and elsewhere, and not just members of the so-called religious right -- understand this. So, too, does Mike Huckabee.
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