December 22, 2020 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The GOP won ‘the war on Christmas’
Zero empathy for hundreds of thousands of dead Americans.
I think the point of wishing someone a happy holiday season is rooted in one of the themes of Christmas—peace on earth and good will toward all humanity. In other words, empathy. It’s a simple consideration for people who might not recognize the messiah but who nonetheless enjoy much-deserved downtime during this time of year. Even the most conservative Christian can understand the virtue in “Happy Holidays.”
At the same time, many conservative Christians, but especially white evangelical Protestants (WEPs), are told they inhabit a world that persecutes the faithful for believing God sent to earth his only begotten son to redeem the world of Man. Obviously, no one is martyred anymore. Not obvious is that modernity, or modern life, has become a stand-in for Roman Emperors purging the empire of the Cult of Jesus. The more the United States “progresses,” assuming that it does such a thing, the more WEPs believe a country that’s rightfully theirs to dominate is turning against them.
“The war on Christmas” isn’t silly. It’s part of a broader context in which huge swathes of the population reject not only reality but their obligation to other human beings such that the covid pandemic can kill three thousand Americans a day and people are still arguing over whether it’s a hoax.
So right away there is a tension between feeling the need to be generous of heart toward one’s fellow human beings during a season invoking peace on earth and good will toward all humanity, and the need to see oneself as being persecuted (because the very idea of being persecuted for one’s beliefs has been stitched in one’s identity as a Bible-believing Christian). This tension has always been more or less precariously balanced, but it could no longer be balanced, precariously or otherwise, after Fox News and other right-wing propaganda outlets decided to invent a scandal out of thin air.
I’m talking, of course, about “the war on Christmas.” It is many things, all of them steeped in bad faith, but most of it is this: the more people say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” the more persecuted WEPs feel. The more persecuted WEPs feel, the more they’re justified in doing anything necessary to “take back their country” from “cultural Marxism,” etc. “The war on Christmas” predates Donald Trump by at least a decade. But many WEPs believe God sent the president to save them, according to political scientist Matthew Wilson. “Some evangelicals really do see Trump as an instrument of the Divine Plan,” he said. “It stems in large part from the fact that evangelicals see their ideal of America as a godly commonwealth in existential danger.” The “war on Christmas” is, therefore, part of another war.
On empathy, for one thing. The decades-long radicalization of the Republican Party has created conditions in which Republicans feel “strong social pressure” to reject the outcome of a lawful democratic election, according to political scientist Elizabeth C. Connors. Similarly, the GOP’s radicalization has created conditions in which any gesture of empathy, large or small, is forbidden. They are seen as weakness, betrayal or something equally bad. When God is on your side, He’s not on theirs. To feel empathy, therefore—even just wishing someone a “Happy Holiday”—is to stand against God.
For this reason, no one should take “the war on Christmas” lightly. Everyone who cares about the fate of the nation should see it as a deep-seated expression of native-born fascism, which is to say, an outgrowth of the long and soft civil war against our democratic republic. “The war on Christmas” isn’t silly. It isn’t trivial. It is part of a broader context in which huge swathes of the population reject not only reality but their obligation to other human beings such that the covid pandemic can kill three thousand Americans a day and people are still arguing over whether it’s a hoax.
For some, the way to cultivate empathy is to get people to see what the covid does to the body. Maybe then they’d feel more good will toward humanity. “Patients often grow ashen as their body struggles for nutrients,” wrote the Post’s William Wan and Brittany Shammas. “Their skin becomes mottled with splotches of reddish purple as their heart pumps less and less blood to parts of the body that need it. Often, the room is eerily empty, with nurses and doctors trying to minimize risk of infection. The only constant is the low, steady hum of an oxygen compressor piping air to the patient’s nostrils. Amid the silent void, the patients’ dying breaths become magnified.
“The hardest thing about it is how alone they are in the end,” said Joan Schaum, a nurse with Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster, Pa.
This presumes two things. One, that WEPs and others will derive from empathy the motivation to do more to stop the spread of the covid. However, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, “white evangelical Protestants are the only religious group more likely to say that the outbreak was inevitable (55%) than to say it could have been controlled better (44%).” You can’t stop a plague sent down by God, especially since doing so might feel like a betrayal of the leader whom God sent.
Two, that WEPs and others recognize the commonality between people. Fact is, most of them don’t. More precisely, most of them won’t. To recognize the common purpose between members of a political community such as the United States is to accept that other people have valid and legitimate political interests, which opens the door to thinking God might love people who you believe are persecuting your belief in God. That’s a place they will never go, because it challenges their core religious identity.
Witnessing what the covid does to the body is not going to elicit empathy. Indeed, it might radicalize “God’s chosen people” more than they already are. For this reason, and in light of the death toll that continues to mount, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that it’s over. The Republican Party, and WEPs, have won the “war on Christmas.”
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition open and available to all. Find him @johnastoehr.