Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Happy Holidays: Creating Common Ground in the "War on Christmas"

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

Happy Holidays: Creating Common Ground in the "War on Christmas"

Article excerpt

"Where the state is either ignored or broken down into a mosaic of localized and partial entities, politics too winds up obliterated. Symbols and images become far more important than concrete struggles involving rival claims to power, economic interests, and visions of a better society"

(Carl Boggs 1997, 768).

[1] "Hi, how are you?" is a question often asked in social settings, but rarely answered with an authentic reply. Social conventions dictate that one reply with a response such as "Fine, how are you?" Primarily, people us such functional communication to facilitate social interaction, not to advance a position or invite serious reflection. "How are you doing?", on the other hand, is a syntactically similar utterance that is typically a call to offer a more authentic and detailed response. The communicator is required to think more seriously about whether to engage this question honestly and begin a dialogue about positions, perceptions and ideas. To which of the above groups does the speech act "Merry Christmas!" belong? Is it the winter quarter equivalent of "Hi, how are you?" or is it a seasonal greeting that invites significant reflection on and disclosure of one's spiritual orientation?

[2] The "War on Christmas" does not help us answer this question directly, but is fueled, in part, by the unclear status of the salutation. Jurgen Habermas, a German sociologist known for his efforts to understand how language and power work to shape society, provides a useful foundation from which to look at the controversy and then offer some potential approaches to "winning the peace" in this civil(ity) war by applying the work by Littlejohn and Pearce in the area of moral conflict. In this article, we argue that the ambiguous status of the greeting combined with unclear distinctions between the various contexts within which the phrase "Merry Christmas" is expressed are key factors in the longevity and intensity of the "War on Christmas." Those desiring to be agents of peace and reconciliation in this "war" can do so by recognizing the role these factors play and thoughtfully applying the principles for resolving moral conflict to this case. However, before we offer our analysis it is important to briefly disclose some assumptions we have as authors.

Some Basic Assumptions

[3] The most basic assumption we make is that speech matters. While some casual critics of this "war" may be inclined to dismiss it as trivial because it is "just an expression" we cannot do so. The opening quotation by Boggs illuminates the negative trends that can contribute to an overemphasis on the symbolic. However, there are many neutral and positive reasons for legitimate focus on issues of language and symbol. Researchers have studied the power of language to shape our perceptions and by implication, our individual and communal action. The scholarship on the power of language ranges from the conservative ideals of Richard Weaver (1948) who lamented the slippage of stable meanings that had once held society together, to the more radical insights of Jacques Derrida (1976) who believed that the fluidity of language that Weaver distrusted was an intrinsic characteristic of language that makes it open to exploitation by the powerful through such strategies as euphemism and connotative meaning. His goal was to make such power moves clear by a process he called deconstruction. Our position aligns more with Weaver and Berger and Luckmann (1966), who admit that the role communication plays in shaping perceptions and actions and to power issues being exercised through language.

[4] This perspective on language informs our analysis in two ways. First, we take seriously the idea that the presence or absence of an expression makes it easier or harder to invoke particular ideas, values, etc. In this sense we can agree with FOX News icon Bill O'Reilly that the presence or absence of "Merry Christmas" or other language associated with Judeo-Christian heritage can potentially have social and civic consequences. …

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