Boycotts Bloom as Religious Conservatives Wage Battle Over Christmas

By Nathaniel Popper

Published December 16, 2005, issue of December 16, 2005.

Religious conservatives are waging a war against “the war against Christmas” — and depending on which critics you ask, the weapons of choice are unfair boycotts or coded anti-Jewish messages.

The campaign seems to be driven mainly by Fox News commentators Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson, although Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson and others have joined the fight. They have won support from several Jewish conservatives, including Rabbi Daniel Lapin, commentator Don Feder and comic Jackie Mason.

Those singled out prominently for attack include some of the conservative movement’s favorite targets: businessmen George Soros and Peter Lewis, comedian Jon Stewart, historian Neal Gabler, Senator John Kerry, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Democratic Party.

In one of his most inflammatory broadcasts on the issue, on November 28, O’Reilly pointed to “a very secret plan” by the “secular progressive” movement, which he said aims to “diminish Christian philosophy in the USA.” He singled out liberals Soros and Lewis for pouring “money into the ACLU,” and compared liberal activists to Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro. “That’s the first step,” O’Reilly said. “Get the religion out of there so that we can impose our big-government, progressive agenda.”

This holiday season, however, America’s largest retailers have found themselves bearing the brunt of the attack — even from O’Reilly. Political conservatives and Christian activists have accused the stores of consciously removing any mention of Christmas from ad campaigns and store decorations. “All of a sudden, about three or four years ago, ‘Merry Christmas’ began disappearing,” O’Reilly said.

But all the major stores targeted by activists — including Wal-Mart, Sears, Macy’s, Kmart and Lowes — told the Forward that they had not changed their policy on using the word “Christmas” in advertising campaigns or store decorations in the last five years.

With boycott threats hanging over them, many of the targeted stores are left asking how they became targets this year and why.

At Macy’s department store, for example, a spokesman said the complaints they received caught the store “off guard.” The store had not, in recent memory, made any changes in the frequency with which it uses the word “Christmas” in advertising or store decorations, according to the spokesman. In order to stave off a proposed boycott — by a small California outfit called the Committee to Save Merry Christmas — a Macy’s executive wrote a letter pointing out each of the places where the store already used the word “Christmas.”

Even one of the leading Christian activists involved in the battles, William Donohue, expressed surprise at the momentum the campaign gathered this year.

“I don’t think the problem is any worse than it’s been in recent years,” said Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “What’s changed is that there’s a heightened sensitivity on the part of Christians.”

“I have to give the Fox News network credit for this,” Donohue said, pointing to O’Reilly and to Gibson. The latter recently published a book called “The War on Christmas.”

Some critics say that what O’Reilly and other conservatives are drumming up is hostility aimed at prominent Jews. “It all sounds like a joke…. But it is not funny at all,” M.J. Rosenberg wrote in a widely circulated article for the Israel Policy Forum. “It is, instead, downright scary. The fact that the Christmas warriors are talking in code should not fool anybody.”

This year’s Christmas campaign comes just weeks after a few Jewish communal leaders gave speeches claiming that evangelical groups were engaging in a campaign to “Christianize America,” in the words of Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman. The president of the Union for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, has offered a similar, less sweeping, critique of religious conservatives.

Another Reform movement official, Mark Pelavin, said that the Christmas campaigns were triggered by the renewed aggressiveness of the religious right.

“One of the characteristics of this political moment is a new assertiveness in some quarters of the religious right,” said Pelavin, associate director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center.

The American Family Association launched a boycott of Target stores. The Alliance Defense Fund brought together 850 attorneys from across the nation to “help defend traditional Christmas.”

Randy Sharp, the American Family Association’s director of special projects, said, “This is the first year in which it seemed like all the major retailers completely eliminated any reference to Christmas.”

Sharp’s organization did a survey of post-Thanksgiving newspaper advertisements and found that out of 280 pages of circulars, the word “Christmas” was mentioned only twice. Sharp had not done any research into how these numbers had changed over time, nor did any of the other activist organizations contacted by the Forward.

“In the back of my mind, I see all these yuppie PR people having a convention and saying, ‘This year, let’s eliminate Christmas totally,’” Sharp said.

One of the first battles this season involved the city of Boston. The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a renowned Baptist preacher, criticized the city for referring on a Web site to a “holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino assured journalists that he would be lighting a Christmas tree, and Falwell declared a victory. But a spokesman for Menino, Seth Gitell, said the affair was strange because the city had not changed its holiday scripts in years. Gitell said that since Menino took office in 1993, he always had referred to the tree as a Christmas tree and the parks department always had referred to a series of “holiday lightings,” in reference to the menorah lighting that Menino also attends.

Charles Haynes, an attorney who deals with public religious issues at the broadly nonpartisan First Amendment Center, said that the public approach to the holidays had changed, moving toward use of the more inclusive phrase “Happy Holidays.” But Haynes said that the changes came in the 1960s, when the Supreme Court issued rulings against some Christian practices in public spaces.

“These guys are out of date,” Haynes said.

The feuding has drawn some Jewish figures to the side of Christian activists. Donohue, of the Catholic League, planned an event for December 15 involving Jackie Mason. The plan was for Donohue and the Jewish comedian to drive down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue in Mason’s Hummer and use a loudspeaker to proclaim the importance of speaking about Christmas.

But while the feuding has created some strange bedfellows, it has also opened up rifts within the evangelical Christian community. Some evangelical leaders have said that the current campaigns only increase the commercialization of Christmas, a trend that many Christian leaders have sermonized against for years.

“The greatest threat is not whether a few retailers decide to call this a happy holiday,” said Richard Cizik, vice president of governmental affairs at the National Association of Evangelicals. “What I think is a far more serious issue is the consumerization of Christmas by faithful Christians. Maybe instead of pointing fingers at others we might do well to examine ourselves.”



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