It’s December. Are we ready for the War Over Saying Merry Christmas?
I don’t mean to be flip. After all, when you step back and look at the issues that are currently pitting Americans against one another, virtually all of them are rooted in a profound disagreement about what I call “The American Idea”–a disagreement that animates the Christmas wars.
On the one hand, we have the Christian Nationalists, whose vision of America has much in common with the “blood and soil” beliefs that roiled Europe for centuries. America, to them, is a White Man’s country, with various “others” here essentially as guests. So long as we “others” mind our manners and recognize the rightfulness of their ownership–so long as we “know our place”– we can be permitted to stay and participate in the workforce and (to an extent) political life.
Most of us see the American Idea rather differently. As I read the country’s history and philosophy, an American is someone who believes in the governing philosophy advanced in the Declaration, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Unlike citizenries that depend upon some element of identity–ethnic, religious, etc.– for their cohesion, one becomes an American via acceptance of those overarching ideas. As G.K. Chesterton argued, America aspired to create “a home out of vagabonds and a nation out of exiles” united by voluntary assent to commonly held political beliefs.
As America has diversified, White Nationalists have found themselves faced with a new and unpleasant reality: rather than inviting “guests” to “their” national table, they are facing claims to shared ownership.
In a very real way, how we manage difference is a fundamental challenge of humanity, and it is a challenge we can no longer evade, thanks to the communication and transportation technologies that increasingly shrink the distances between people. It has become more and more difficult to isolate like-minded and otherwise similar folks into the kinds of self-contained communities that used to dot the American landscape.
I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that this clash between world-views goes a long way toward explaining our current political dysfunctions. It also helps–but doesn’t completely explain– the differences between Red and Blue states. I recently came across a chart ranking the states by various measures and types of diversity, and I was unsurprised to find that my own state of Indiana was ranked 40th overall. Indiana clearly has a long way to go when it comes to recognizing, let alone accommodating, diversity–thus far, our legislature is firmly in the grip of lawmakers who think they still live in the “Father Knows Best” 1950s.
The study on which the graphs were based broke “diversity” into a number of different kinds of difference: racial, religious, political, income and other categories, providing sociologists with intriguing data that can be mined to determine what sorts of differences are most or less politically relevant.(Different states, of course, come to these challenges with very different political cultures–and taking very different approaches to their changing populations. The top two states on the diversity list were California and Texas, states with governments that have responded to their growing population differences in dramatically different ways.)
White Nationalists are not responding well to the country’s changing demographics, to put it mildly. In his book “The End of White Christian America,” Robert P. Jones offered some trenchant observations about Americans’ very different approaches to the American Idea, and the degree to which those different world-views have influenced the identities of today’s Republicans and Democrats. He especially highlighted contrasting responses to the country’s changing demographics and culture as the country has ceased to be a majority White Christian nation — going from 54 percent in 2008 to 43 percent today.
As Jones has written,
Democrats — only 29 percent of whom are white and Christian — are embracing these changes as central to their vision of an evolving American identity that is strengthened and renewed by diversity. By contrast, Republicans — nearly three-quarters of whom identify as white and Christian — see these changes eroding a core white Christian American identity and perceive themselves to be under siege as the country changes around them.
America’s first motto was e pluribus unum–out of the many, one. Our “Christian soldiers” prefer to substitute “One nation under God.” Those competing slogans tell the tale of Americans’ contending approaches to nationhood. We either celebrate our differences within the overarching philosophy embedded in our constituent documents, or we revert into a “blood and soil” society based upon acceptance of White Christian male dominance.
It’s a war, and not just about Christmas.