Voices: Baptists and the ‘War on Christmas’

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In 2015, a minor Internet uproar occurred when Starbucks altered the design of their holiday cups. The multinational corporation made this decision to be more inclusive of non-Christian faiths during observance of the holiday season. Some American Christians were deeply offended and aired their grievances on social media, perceiving Starbucks’ marketing strategy to be one more attack in a longstanding “War on Christmas.”

The ‘War on Christmas’

The decline of Christianity in the modern West, including the United States, is no secret. As the number of self-identified Christians drops, so does the cultural dominance of the Christian faith. Other religions and the irreligious are obtaining greater and greater prominence in American society.

It is understandable why this loss of power distresses many Christians in the United States. Even though our country is not—and never has been—an officially Christian nation, our faith long has been privileged in America. That is changing, however, and this sort of cultural shift naturally causes anxiety.

This anxiety manifests quite fiercely around the holidays. Federal, state and local governments are de-emphasizing Christmas—since it is technically a Christian holiday—to recognize the holidays in a more religiously inclusive manner. The same goes for many private corporations like Starbucks. Some American Christians consider this an attack on Christmas and on Christianity.

The ‘persecution’ of American Christians

I can only imagine what Christians in North Korea or Afghanistan would have to say about American Christians’ anxiety regarding Christmas. It is true that Christians in the United States are losing their privileged status, and a growing number of people in the nation dislike Christians. But that is not persecution, not by a long shot.

The only Christians who face real persecution in the U.S. are Christians of color, female Christians and LGBTQ+ Christians. They face this persecution not because of their faith, but for other reasons. And some of this persecution comes from other Christians.

There are genuinely persecuted religious minorities in the United States, however. Muslims and Jews are some of the most well-known, but Sikhs and other non-Christian faiths also face abuse and injustice. And this persecution is not only being perpetrated by individuals on the fringe of society; it is pervasive and getting worse.

Baptist history and religious liberty

Baptists started as radical proponents of religious liberty and did so in an age when such advocacy carried harsh legal penalties. In 1612, Thomas Helwys, one of the first Baptists, sent a manifesto on religious liberty to King James of England. This message earned him imprisonment and eventual death.

Helwys wrote: “For men’s religion to God is between God and themselves. The king shall not answer for it. Neither may the king be judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks [Muslims], Jews or whatsoever it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure. This is made evident by our lord the king by the scriptures.”

This historic Baptist principle is completely incompatible with the kind of discrimination and prejudice we see being directed against religious minorities in the United States today. Baptists should be leading the charge to protect the rights of Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians.

Being Baptist during the holidays

What does this have to do with the so-called “War on Christmas?”

First, all Christians in the United States should recognize that most people who say, “Happy holidays,” or remove nativity scenes from county courthouses are not part of a malicious conspiracy against Christianity. Starbucks is not attacking Christians when the company changes its holiday cup design. Most people are simply trying to treat non-Christian religions with respect and equality during a season when many faiths have important holy days.

Baptists, in particular, should be sensitive to people of other faiths at this time of year. Our branch of the Christian tradition started as a response against religious persecution. Respect, kindness and fair treatment of non-Christians ought to flow in our blood. We should care more about seeking justice for our non-Christian neighbors than we do about whether someone says, “Happy holidays,” or “Merry Christmas.”

Yes, we should celebrate Christmas in all its distinctiveness and with all our might. We should sing praises of how our incarnate Lord was born in a stable and laid in a manger. That is what Christmas is all about; that is why this season is so important to us.

But Baptists should also take this time to reach out to our non-Christian neighbors. We should seek meaningful, personal connection with them. We should appreciate the rich diversity of culture and faith that abounds at this time of year. We should seek to understand the religions of the non-Christians around us, and we should seek to love them the way Christ loved the world: by setting aside his power and privilege, humbling himself and taking on the form of an infant.

Joshua Sharp is a Master of Divinity student and graduate assistant in the Office of Ministry Connections at Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas.

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