Happy holidays? Not if the Christian right has its way

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The Independent US

Across America, the tinsel and reindeer are already festooned across mall entrances and pedestrian shopping streets. Nativity scenes are going up in front yards and carol singers will soon be going door to door to offer harmonic cheer.

And yet, to believe a growing band of Christian conservatives, Christmas is far from alive and well in the US. In fact, they say, it is in grave peril. Secular liberals, in the view of this noisy minority, have declared a "war on Christmas" and won't stop until the baby Jesus has been eliminated from the holiday season altogether.

Even the Bush White House, which has sent out its annual Christmas card wishing a happy "holiday season", has not been spared the slings and arrows of conservatives. Laura Bush, the first lady, was heard saying "Happy Holidays" the other day.

President George Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative WorldNetDaily.com, told The Washington Post. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."

So far, 600,000 people have signed a boycott petition, sponsored by the American Family Association, against the Target chain, because the discount department store writes "Happy Holidays" in its advertising copy.

Similar boycotts have been started against other well-known stores - even Wal-Mart, the retailer founded by Christian conservatives in Arkansas, because a search for "Christmas" at the Wal-Mart website redirects users to a "Holiday" page.

Talk-radio hosts and a couple of particularly loud-mouthed television anchors are talking up the controversy. John Gibson of Fox News has a book out on the subject - The War On Christmas: How The Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought.

One might be forgiven for seeing a touch of paranoia here. American government officials, schools and retail outlets have been using non-specific terms for the season for years, the rationale not being to offend anyone's religious sensibilities, but rather, in a country where almost one-quarter of the citizens are non-Christians, the precise opposite.

Until very recently, nobody objected to this. The Bush Christmas card has traditionally included best wishes for a holiday season, rather than Christmas wishes, "because they are sent to people of all faiths," said a spokeswoman for Laura Bush.

But the right-wing fringe has become expert at whipping up outrage over phony cultural controversies and scapegoating the "liberal elite" which supposedly runs the country. (Even though Republicans are in charge of almost everything.)

The liberals accuse the campaigns of waging their own war - against multiculturalism, and against the separation of church and state enshrined in the constitution. The left-wing author Marc Cooper said the controversy was "one of the most bogus ... cynical, manufactured, crybaby campaigns that recent history has seen".

All is not lost, however. Last week Dennis Hastert, the Republican speaker of the House, insisted a tree outside Congress should be called the Capitol Christmas Tree, not a holiday spruce.