December 23, 2004

December 23, 2004 | Commentary on

Christianity in retreat?

Many of us long for simpler times, the days when you could wish your friends and family a "Merry Christmas" without a disclaimer of a hint of irony. Days of glowing lights, nativity scenes, full-throated caroling, collections for the poor, sermons about the infant Jesus bringing hope, joy and light to a world of darkness. Back then, actually not that long ago, Christmas seemed so uncontroversial. Fortunately, the above Christmas spirit has not disappeared entirely from view. It still exists in many communities across this nation.

But political correctness and intolerance have done its work over the past several decades. The problem is not that other religions are claiming a growing share of the public square. In my view, if observed with respect for others, they are most welcome to share the space. But the context of Christmas today is a secular culture often hostile to the religious observance, especially of Christians. Church leaders sound positively apologetic when they defend the 2,000- year-old message that has resonated with worshipers throughout the ages and brought them comfort and peace.

Anyone who picks up a newspaper or turns on the television will recognize the sustained assault in the United States and Europe on Christmas and Christianity. In New York, religious floats have been banned from the "holiday parade." And last week brought the news that the pope himself had been greatly startled to find the Nativity scene in an elementary school of the town of Treviso replaced by a display featuring Little Red Riding Hood.

But this is about more than Christmas, whose real meaning can certainly get lost in the orgy of gift giving and parties. It is Judeo-Christian culture itself that is under attack as the religious foundation of the Western World, be the example du jour legal challenges to the Ten Commandments on a wall in a courtroom in Alabama, protests against the Pledge of Allegiance with its reference to "one nation under God," or the banning of religious groups meeting in public schools. The issue of gay marriage became a symbol of these trends in the November presidential election.

In Europe, framers of the new EU constitution, after much debate, agreed to remove Christianity from the preamble. Amazingly, the Archbishop of York this month told the BBC, "I'd be a bit hard pushed to say we were a Christian country." (Opinion polls actually indicate that 60 percent of the British consider themselves Christians.) A new study, "Muslims and the Future of Europe," by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, writes that Islam is the fastest growing religion in Europe. "The centrality of Islam in the lives of so many European Muslims is hard for increasingly secular Scandinavians, Germans and Frenchmen to understand."

Yet, Christianity has persisted as the world's most powerful religion for two millennia. It is often under stress that Christianity has proven its enduring value and the power of its message, which speaks directly to the heart of the individual. The Poles flocked to the Catholic Church in the 1980s, when it became a symbol of rebellion against Communist repression. And just as the first Christians persecuted by Rome persisted and grew in their faith, so Christians in China today are growing in numbers, despite brutal persecution. Christianity is growing in Africa and throughout Asia.

In the United States, religious communities continue to flourish. Some 40 percent of Americans attend either church or synagogue at least once a week. As the pressures from secular culture become more intense, so does the determination of people for whom faith is the cornerstone of their lives.

There is clearly a backlash building against the loosening of this country's religious and cultural moorings, which for the liberal media is hard to fathom. They were astounded by how many of those who voted for George Bush cited "moral values" as their primary concern. These moral values, however imprecisely defined, clearly have religious foundations.

So, Merry Christmas to all readers of good will, and no apologies. In a world that respected the great powers of religion not just Christianity for good, we would all be better off.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail:
helle.dale@heritage.org .

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times