In a recent article radio commentator and activist Jim Hightower contends that shock-jocks like Bill O’Reilly have cooked up a phony War on Christmas, while at the same time, they are the very ones who have recently launched the real war on Jesus by labeling the new pope a Marxist.
Shrill voices like O’Reilly’s are hard to take seriously; they often seem more to resemble a carnival sideshow than to reflect the true face of conservative American evangelicalism. Yet perhaps we could say that they are a true caricature of us. A caricature is a distorted, exaggerated image, but at the same time it reflects real blemishes, a something out of balance in the original.
As the prophet of privileged white victimhood, O’Reilly perfectly demonstrates how political forces have become adept at distracting American evangelicals from the real issues that plague our society. As Billy Graham warned in a 1981 interview, “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” The War on Christmas is a good example, as it seeks to misdirect evangelical frustrations and energy.
Instead of helping the church to focus on the yawning chasm between rich and poor in this country, or the arrogance of greed run amok, this war has us demonizing non-Christians and punching store employees who dare to wish us “Happy Holidays,” as though they were the Red Menace. Here again Christianity seems to be reduced to a cartoon of itself, anathematizing bewildered and underpaid store clerks, instead of calling to account the very economic forces and political system that have brought us a banking crisis, a Great Recession, growing inequalities, and a return to the economic conditions, legislated greed, and racism of the Gilded Age.
Let’s face it. To economic elites, Jesus’ real teaching on poverty and riches is a meddlesome interference. That is why Greed loves to wear a religious mask, using the language of piety while denying its true power and message. Such campaigns as the War on Christmas are extremely cost-effective, a very cheap way of distracting Christians from a truly New Testament agenda. They do cost the church dearly in looking ridiculous and petty, but cost us nothing in terms of our having to look at ourselves, our selfish lifestyles, and the corrupt systems we support.
Yet perhaps Hightower goes too far in calling this war a “hoax.” For such skirmishes are certainly part of a larger cultural shift in this country: not simply away from Christmas, but away from white Protestant Christianity. For the first time in American history, Protestants now find themselves in the minority, and soon, within the next decade, whites will find themselves in the same boat. Such kvetching as O’Reilly’s is part of a swan song. America is rapidly diversifying. We are already the most religiously diverse nation in the world, and the white-dominated society most of us grew up in, too, is almost a memory. Yet many refuse to adapt, preferring to go down kicking and screaming. Ironically, however, it is not Christianity that is most threatened, but Christendom—the geopolitical power that dominated the world from the Middle Ages through the last century, or in this country specifically, the dominant white power structure that identifies itself as Christian.
Not content with leading the crusade against diversity, however, O’Reilly tips his hand too much by attacking the pronouncements of Pope Francis, teachings that are in keeping not only with Catholic social doctrine over the past 120 years, but also with the New Testament itself. Francis’ recent encyclical, in which he castigates predatory capitalism and chides the church for taking its eyes off the poor, is hardly new, but merely one in a long line of papal declarations, going back to Leo XIII.
In his encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891) Pope Leo responded to the growing desperation of the working classes as they groaned under the various social maladies engendered by the Industrial Revolution. Yet, while taking unrestrained capitalism to task for its exploitation of workers and its savage indifference to the cries of the poor, he also rejects communism and upholds the individual’s right to property. Instead, he calls both labor and capital to mutual responsibilities, while also recognizing that God is unmistakably on the side of the poor. He also calls governments to work with the church in ameliorating the inequities and sufferings of poverty, for it is the primary duty of the State to promote both justice and the general welfare. The document did much to offer both a rational and theological argument for the formation of labor unions, social safety nets, the right to collective bargaining and a living wage, as well as the role of the church as a voice for social justice in a rapidly changing modern world. Far from being Marxist, by addressing such inequities and injustices, Leo was trying to avoid the very kind of cataclysmic crisis that would soon take hold in Russia, an upheaval that would bring its own kind of injustice and repression. (Leo’s encyclical is definitely worth a read: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Rerum_Novarum)
If Leo’s or Francis’ words seem “Marxist” to us, its goes to show how far we have drifted from the norms of New Testament teaching and of reason itself, as well as from the excruciating lessons of modern history.