Universal Translator

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A Conscientious Objector in the War on Christmas

During The Daily Show’s first segment last night, Jon Stewart went after Fox News for again turning the Holiday Season into a trumped up culture clash that Fox insists on describing as “The War on Christmas.”  Once again, blogger doesn’t seem to be able to embed video from The Daily Show but you can watch it here.  (It really is very funny.)

As always, right-wingers’ complaints about their so-called ‘War on Christmas’ devolve to an assertion that “America is Christian nation” and – when called upon to defend this patently untrue statement – they point to the Pilgrims, who settled in New England seeking ‘religious freedom.’ 

(For the record, Americans may be a Christian people – by and large – but that does not make us a Christian nation.  The First Amendment makes clear that the government is to neither establish a religion nor to interfere with its citizens’ religious observances.  Our governing document, in other words, is religion neutral.  Of course, being ‘neutral toward’ religion is not the same as being ‘hostile toward’ religion.)

But hearing this sort of stuff always sticks in my craw, because it is very, very stupid.  I can never help but think that the people who make this argument betray that they never acquired more than a Fourth Grade education of American history, and that they should by all rights be embarrassed by their own ignorance.  So let me get just a few things off of my chest:

(1)  The Pilgrims Did Not Found the United States – the United States was created in 1789 with the adoption of our governing document, the US Constitution (that document that I just pointed out is religion neutral.)  The Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620.  That means 169 years passed between the Pilgrims’ arrival and the founding of the country, which is the same length of time between the founding of the country and 19 – friggin’ – 58. 

You remember the late 50’s, early 60’s, right?  The Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Brown v. Board of Education decision, Rosa Parks, the Greensboro Sit-Ins, the entire Civil Rights Movement?  Now contrast what was happening in the USA back then with the original Constitution, which declared blacks were three-fifths of a person for purposes of determining federal representation and was ratified by the Founding Fathers, most of whom kept slaves.

One cannot say with a straight face that America in 1958 was “exactly the same” as America in 1789, but we’re talking about the same length of time then as passed between the Pilgrims’ arrival and the founding of the country.  Maybe our elementary schools only teach us “Pilgrims, Revolution, America” but that’s not how American history actually happened.  A lot of stuff went down between Plymouth Rock and the creation of our country.

(2)  The Pilgrims Were Not the First Colonists to Land in the US – one of the wingers’ fall-back positions is to assert that, well, the Pilgrims were the first to arrive in America and they came seeking religious freedom.  This, too, is nonsense.

The first colony established in what would become anglo-America was Sir Walter Raleigh’s doomed effort in Roanoke, North Carolina.  These people were not pilgrims.  The first permanent colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia and the people there were not pilgrims either.  Rather, they came seeking what the Spanish had found in their New World holdings:  gold, silver and Native American slaves. 

These settlers were so poorly equipped for actually founding a colony that most died horribly during that first winter.  Over a number of years, however, they learned to farm – especially to farm tobacco – and, after discovering they did not (at first) have the ability to subjugate the surrounding Native Americans, began importing slaves from Barbados and other British Caribbean colonies.  In fact, the first slaves were imported into the Tidewater region of America before the Mayflower even landed.

So if we’re going back to the settlers of America’s original anglo-American territories to determine what kind of “nation” the US is, one has to argue that we are a nation of feckless, treasure-seeking, slave-owning farmers who came here without any marked interest in “religious freedom” at all.

(3)  The Pilgrims Were Not Seeking Religious Freedom Either – at least, not for anyone other than themselves.  They originally had fled English persecution for the Netherlands, but found the Low Countries much too tolerant for their taste.  Amsterdam, especially, they found anathema because it was filled with Jews.  Accordingly, they traveled to the New World to establish a religious community of their own and were extremely prejudiced against other religions, whom they persecuted with a vengeance.

If one is looking to pre-Revolutionary history to find a settlement devoted to pluralism and religious freedom, one needs to look to the Dutch colony of New York (New Amsterdam, at the time, which also welcomed Jews and even a few Muslims) and to Pennsylvania, established by William Pitt the Younger, an avowed Quaker.

Of course, when the Quakers started their movement they were known for wandering the streets naked and smeared with shit as a sign of their modesty and humbleness before God.  I doubt that come December 25th you’ll see a lot of calls from Fox News for us all to be doing that in the name of our “Founding Fathers.”

(4)  The Pilgrims Hated Christmas – I suppose I can construct a right-winger argument about the Pilgrims and the United States being a ‘Christian nation’ if I bend the truth and squint really hard.  It might go something like this:

Well, the Pilgrims have become the defining narrative of American history, even if they weren’t really all that important to the creation of the country.  As a devoutly religious, Christian people, they have therefore become the story of just what America is, even if that story is not factually true.  Accordingly, when it comes to public displays of religiosity, we should look to the Pilgrims to set our guidelines.

Well, as Jon Stewart points out, the Pilgrims hated Christmas.  They recognized – quite rightly – that most of what today we associate with the holiday (Christmas trees, the Yule Log, gift giving, festivity) were pagan rituals celebrating the Winter Solstice and the return of the sun, and that Christians had simply adopted these rituals from Germanic tribes as the Christian religion spread into northern and central Europe.  The Pilgrims actually made it illegal to celebrate Christmas and imposed fines on anyone they caught doing so.

* * *

I’m sure for most people all of this is old news.  I’m ranting here just to get this out of my system.  I just find it truly maddening when I’m confronted by people who smugly make an argument based on an understanding of history that was made up after-the-fact.  And what is really frustrating is that this Fourth Grade understanding of American history – this understanding for children – does for all intents and purposes represent the only thing many Americans have every heard about how the United States came to be:  “Pilgrims, Revolution, America.”

And so now – at least once a year and, usually, even more often than that – I have to hear utter morons tell me that America is a Christian nation, and that we were founded by the Pilgrims, and that we have “always celebrated Christmas.”


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