Merry Christmas…can we say that?
Both religious and secular news sources have repeatedly reported on the perceived “war on Christmas,” in which organizations (primarily retailers) have chosen to say (or not say) Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, or some other variation on the theme. For retailers, it is a business decision, whether good or bad, in which they attempt to appease one group of consumers or another. What they do probably has an impact on their sales figures, but influences little else.
Another question revolves around what is permissible for government officials. Lawsuits and controversy have erupted over Christmas (or “holiday”) displays (like in Wisconsin). Even President Bush has been taken to task for the White House Christmas Cards that don’t mention Christmas, but do contain Old Testament Bible verses that reference the Messianic prophecy. Military Christians, then, have a confusing cornucopia of examples to look at when trying to decide what is appropriate during the Christmas season.
Is there a right answer? What can military Christians do or say?
There are no explicit rules on the recognition of religious holidays in the military. As always, officers should use discretion, wisdom, and sensitivity in what they do and say. That said, military Christians are free to wish a Merry Christmas to their fellow officers, superiors, and subordinates. They may also display Christmas cards or decorations on their desk, in accordance with local rules regarding all memorabilia. These statements are in line with public policies and regulations.
With regard to commanders and the decision to have Christmas displays in a unit, it is best to seek the advice of the local Chaplain. This is not due to prohibitions but political sensitivity. Legally, there is no reason for a unit not to have a Christmas party or a Christmas tree in the lobby (or a Hannukah celebration and a Menorah in the lobby). More often than not, however, military units have opted for “holiday” parties to avoid negative public perceptions. Wisdom says that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
Saying Merry Christmas is unlikely to offend most honest Americans. For one thing, while Christmas began as a uniquely Christian celebration, its place in the American culture trancends religious boundaries. When non-Christians hear (and say) Merry Christmas, they may think of Santa Claus and “peace on earth, good will toward men,” but few are offended by its religious connotation. There are still some, however, who argue not that such a greeting is offensive, but that a government representative who says it or otherwise supports the celebration is violating the Constitution.
Acknowledging a religious observance, whether Christian or not, does not “establish” religion nor show favoritism for it. Rather, it demonstrates a sensitivity to the deeply held values of our co-workers, subordinates, and fellow citizens. That is why the President and the military leadership have gone out of their way to acknowledge Islamic religious celebrations; they have attempted to demonstrate sensitivity for all faiths. President Bush’s “Ramadan Mubarak” in his Ramadan message no more established or showed favoritism for Islam than a military Christian’s “Merry Christmas” does Christianity. The President’s participation in an Islamic meal ending Ramadan does not favor Islam, nor does his (or a military Christian’s) attendance of a Christmas meal. Thus, acknowledging and participating in religious celebrations is Constitutionally permitted, even for Christians in the military.
The final issue is fairly unique to the military and the source of most recent controversies: the potential undue influence of a superior on a subordinate with regard to religion. The previous examples (“Merry Christmas,” Christmas trees, etc.) are generic enough that they would not present the appearance of religious coercion. Some might argue, however, that a superior that takes a more direct role (say, proactively inviting a subordinate to a Christmas service) might have the potential to be perceived as coercive. In cases such as that, it would again be best to work with the Chaplains to ensure that everyone was aware of their opportunities for religious worship over the Christmas timeframe. (The same logic does not necessarily apply if a subordinate proactively asks about Christmas services. Each situation varies, and the Chaplain is the best source for advice. For more on the professional relationship between superiors and subordinates, see the evangelism section of this article.)
Christians should feel free, too, to wish their Jewish friends and co-workers a Happy Hannukah. (For those that want to be even more multi-cultural, Ramadan is over, and Kwanzaa is a ‘cultural celebration,’ not a religious holiday.) Religious celebrations are often an opportunity to learn more about the cultures that make up the military and America, and the discussions they spawn (which were explicitly permitted by the Air Force religious guidelines) can be both an educational and evangelistic opportunity.
As in everything, Christians should demonstrate both their professional bearing and the love of Christ in their words and actions. An almost adversarial defense of Christmas traditions may detract from the Christmas message rather than uphold it. Military Christians should not fear expressing their faith and their celebration of Christ’s birth, but they should do so with love and wisdom.
Merry Christmas, then, to everyone, especially those deployed in defense of our country.