Friday, November 20, 2009

E Pluribus Unum?

Back when I was a young child (which, contrary to the belief of my children, was during the 1960’s rather than the early Paleolithic Era) around this time of year you would generally hear the phrase “Merry Christmas” in stores, among friends, or generally wherever you would go. As the years went by, people became more sensitive to diversity and recognized that an ever increasing number of Americans celebrated other holidays at this time of year. As a result, it became more common to hear the phrase “Happy Holidays”. To me, that wasn’t in any way “anti-Christmas”, but was merely a way to include and recognize our fellow Americans who celebrated other traditions and beliefs.

A few years ago, however, some conservative commentators such as Bill O’Reilley twisted this into an imagined “war on Christmas”. Even leaving aside the historical fact that many of the trappings of “Christmas” were actually stolen… uh… “borrowed” from pagan celebrations such as Saturnalia, Solstice and Yule, the claim that saying “Happy Holidays” is somehow a reflection of anti-Christian bias would be laughable if so many gullible boneheads (see my previous post on the subject) didn’t take it seriously.

And so, under this pressure from the Christian right, many retailers backed off from “Happy Holidays” and reverted to “Merry Christmas” in order to avoid threatened boycotts of those that failed to buckle under the demands of the conservatives.

Throughout this, I had always suspected the outcry over the supposed “war on Christmas” was less a matter of the Christians wanting “Christmas” restored to what they felt was its rightful place, but that they actually wanted Christmas to be the ONLY year-end holiday to be given any recognition, and those who celebrated anything else be damned.

And now there is evidence to back up this contention. The clothing store The Gap has produced a commercial for the holiday season which mentions Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and… by golly… even Solstice! When my wife and I saw it, we were surprised and happy it was so inclusive. And since it mentions Christmas specifically, there’s nothing for the religious right to be offended by, right?


The American Family Association is ticked-off by this inclusive marketing campaign and has called for a boycott of The Gap. Apparently, it wasn’t enough for the AFA that The Gap commercial mentioned Christmas. They seem to be peeved by the fact that Christmas had to share the stage with those other yucky… non-Christian holidays!

In short, the whole “war on Christmas” hubbub has never really been about the mere recognition of Christmas, it was about squelching the mention of any other holidays, regardless of the fact that increasing numbers of Americans either celebrate other traditions or that many of those who DO celebrate some form of “Christmas” do so in an entirely secular fashion. (A friend of mine, in fact, has suggested we recognize the obvious and just call it “Giftmas”.)
I think what is happening here is reflected in the story of our national motto. The Founding Fathers, whom the Christian Conservatives are always so quick to invoke when it suits them, gave us a wonderful national slogan: “E Pluribus Unum”. “Out of many, one.” What a wonderful motto! It says we’re a grouping of individuals, all with different backgrounds and beliefs coming together for a common purpose. Our diversity is our strength. It proclaims we don’t have to be the same to be good Americans.

But what happened? In 1956, during the depths of McCarthy’s war on “atheistic Communism”, the national motto was changed. “E Pluribus Unum” was tossed into the dustbin and replaced by “In God We Trust”. Instead of the all-inclusive message of the original motto, the new motto implied that “we” trusted in God and that, by logical extension, those who DIDN’T trust in God weren’t one of “us”… and thus weren’t real Americans.

In much the same way the Christians hijacked Solstice and Saturnalia and turned them into Christmas while falsely claiming it was ALWAYS a celebration of Christ’s birth, they hijacked our nation’s motto and transformed it from a wonderfully inclusive phrase into a narrow statement of faith that excludes all those who don’t believe in a deity. And now they have the nerve to question the patriotism of American non-believers when, in fact, it was the Christians who rejected and altered the nation’s original motto!

As for my own views on the subject, I think Thomas Jefferson said it best:

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

In other words, my neighbor doesn’t need to agree with me to be a good American. He or she simply has to... you know… BE a good American.

America is at its best when many cultures and ideas come together and people are free to explore them all and choose the ones they believe work best.

And when these many traditions come together, the result is a stronger America.

Or, as that sentiment would be expressed in Latin: E Pluribus Unum.

1 comment:

  1. Your post reminds me of this column laying out a pretty strong argument that the Pledge of Allegiance is un-American.

    I think you should email it to your sister.