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The War on Christmas, or How to Build Mass Support for Right-Wing Ideology

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Complaints about Starbucks cups this October ushered us into the annual conservative panic about the “war on Christmas.” Fox News serves as a perennial megaphone blaming “secular progressives” for undermining Christian values as part of a grander scheme to lead the United States down the path of sin and collectivism. Liberal pundits respond to Fox’s “Christmas Under Siege” segments by mocking conservatives and getting cheap laughs at the general silliness of it all. Few however, have addressed or taken seriously the broader politics of which this phenomenon is a part. The war on Christmas is more than a tinfoil hat conspiracy theory, it is a gateway into a conservative politics that exalts capitalism, racism, and nativism while attacking the Left.

Antisemitic Origins of the War on Christmas

The first reference to a war on Christmas appeared in an article in Henry Ford’s The International Jew: The World’s Foremost Problem—a collection of antisemitic articles published in Ford’s personal newspaper The Dearborn Independent in the early 1920s. Ford’s editorial staff warned that “The Jew considers any public expression of Christian character as being derogatory to his religion.” They reported—in a story that might seem familiar to today’s Fox News audience—that “Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth.” Going on to warn, “People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 children.”

Ford’s conspiratorial rants were more than crude antisemitism, they were part of a broader politics that he actively tried to inculcate in his workers who were given copies of The Dearborn Independent as a condition of employment. Latching on to current trends in racism Ford turned Jews into a boogeyman designed to garner greater compliance among his workforce. In Ford’s editorials workers who sought a better life through union organizing or who dared to dream of alternatives to capitalism were merely the dupes of diabolical Jews “who sought to destroy the world” by controlling the labor movement and promoting communism. A pro-capitalist/anti-labor Protestant Christianity served as a bulwark against the Jewish-Bolshevik plot to “destroy America” and create a one world government. Thus Ford warned of Jewish efforts to “secularize” public schools in order to “prepare the soil” for the teaching of “Jewish revolutionary ideas” by “red professors” at the college level.

The worldview that Ford created was entirely self-serving, framing the unions that he struggled against in order to maximize his personal profit as part of a shadowy Jewish conspiracy. When workers at his Rouge River plant in 1939 threatened to unionize he had signs posted reading “Jews Teach Communism, Jews Teach Atheism, Jews Destroy Christianity, Jews Control the Press, Jews Produce Filthy Movies, Jews Control Money.”

As the Great Depression escalated the conflict between capital and labor others followed Ford’s lead melding pro-business politics with racist conspiracy theories. Most importantly several influential religious leaders took up Ford’s call to turn American Christianity into a bulwark against labor. Baptist Reverend Gerald Winrod traveled the country warning of Jewish conspiracies from the pulpit. When a lawsuit in 1927 forced Ford to stop reprinting antisemitic editorials in his paper, Winrod used his own press to begin reprinting sections of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion alongside editorials hewing close to the Ford mold. As Nazism violently expanded its influence in Europe Father Charles Coughlin brought American Catholics into the racist conspiricist fold declaring the need for a “Christian Front which will not fear to be called ‘anti-Semitic’” in order to oppose the Jewish-Bolshevik menace.

Still the presence of a strong Left led by radical political parties like the Communist Party USA and the Socialist Party and bolstered by radical trade unions engaging in the largest strike wave in American history held the rightist politics of Ford, Winrod, and Coughlin at bay. The social base was still far too radical for conspiracy theories like the war on Christmas to gain mass appeal.

The Cold War Years

The unprecedented labor activism that brought about the New Deal terrified the business community. In 1947 National Association of Manufacturers president H.W. Prentis warned of the “ominous rise of class consciousness, engendered by legalized labor union activity.” Luckily for business the Cold War with its anticommunist fervor and red baiting brought the full power of the state to bear on the American Left.

With this new realignment of class forces right wing ideology again became ascendant. Church leaders fought to put Christian identity at the forefront of the struggle against communism. Reverend Billy Graham warned that “Communism is… masterminded by Satan.” The Christian Freedom Foundation was created in 1950—with generous covert funding from Sun Oil—to halt “creeping socialism, state socialism, government controlled agriculture, government subsidies for schools, price and wage fixing” and all other “steps toward collectivism.” The American Council of Christian Laymen and the Spiritual Mobilization—Protestant organizations secretly funded by the business community—red baited clergy that supported the New Deal with publications like How Red is the Federal Council of Churches?

In this heightened atmosphere the John Birch Society, an activist organization which sought to move the Republican Party to the Right, stepped in. Picking up on many of the themes espoused by Ford the John Birch Society argued that the United States was being moved toward socialism as part of a plot to create a one world government. In 1959 they issued the pamphlet There Goes Chrismas?!, a warning about the “Reds’” efforts to “weaken the pillar of religion in our country” by driving “to take Christ out of Christmas—to denude the event of its religious meaning.” The Birchers war on Christmas followed the same pattern as Ford’s with one significant change, in the post-Holocaust world antisemitism became a poison pill inviting comparison with the recently defeated Nazi regime. Birchers replaced conspiratorial Jewish bankers with the United Nations, a move that invoked nativist sentiment while quietly invoking racist themes in the mind of the reader. Essentially they created a “dog whistle,” by wording this idea in way that invoked racist themes while maintaining plausible deniability on the part of the author.

In the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement rejuvenated the American Left. On college campuses students fought red baiting by openly handing out Mao’s little red book, an unthinkable act in the 1950s. Organizers against the war in Vietnam called out American imperialism by name and sided with Third World struggles to break from capitalism. Such actions rejuvenated the labor movement as members began to push back against the conservative leadership forced upon them in the previous decade.

The Neoliberal Turn

The re-emergence of the Left blunted the influence of the crypto-fascist John Birch Society on the general population, but there was one critical area where the Birchers maintained an outsized influence. The growing Christian nationalist movement became increasingly entangled with the John Birch Society and their pro-business ideology. Intellectual architect of the modern Christian Right Rousas Rushdoony was a Birch member along with the influential director of Summit Ministries David Noebel. Billy Graham’s father-in-law Dr. Nelson Bell headed up the John Birch chapter in Chicago while Graham himself contributed articles to William Huie’s The American Mercury—a magazine that reproduced Bircher conspiracy theories while leaving in the antisemitism of the pre-war years.

Christian nationalism formed the popular base on which the right wing reaction that began in the 1970s and still dominates the country today was built. Evangelicals mustered popular support in the South by resisting racial integration in public schools. Elsewhere they promoted “family values” in contraposition to the “tangle of pathology” that was the black family according to the Moynihan Report or the challenge to heterosexual dominance posed by women’s and gay liberation. The new Christian it was understood was to be white, male, heterosexual, and most importantly pro-business.

During the Reagan (counter)Revolution megachurches started to sprout up in America’s suburbs. Their ministers began promoting the “prosperity gospel” which equated the accumulation of personal wealth with spiritual righteousness and poverty with sin. San Antonio megachurch leader John Hagee is typical when he warns that “America has rewarded laziness and we’ve called it welfare” while admonishing the poor to get “their nasty self off the couch and go get a job.” New Christian libertarian think tanks like the Acton Institute began preaching that capitalism is a Christian creation while others sought out pro-capitalist statements in the Bible.

Taking on a particularly Christian identity American capitalism was again ready for the war on Christmas. While working as a writer for Fortune Magazine in the 1990s Peter Brimelow began to resurrect the idea of the war on Christmas arguing that it served to weaken America’s white Christian ethnic core. Brimelow would later create the openly racist website VDare.com which made the war on Christmas an annual event with headlines like “Yes, Virginia, There IS a War on Christmas—And on America.” But the real victory for the Right came with the rise of Fox News. Fox News brought right wing conspiracies from the margins and imbued them with legitimacy (Glenn Beck’s tendency to borrow liberally from libertarian radio nut Alex Jones for example).

Bill O’Reilly and his show The O’Reilly Factor quickly became the official mouthpiece for the war on Christmas. O’Reilly summarized the modern version of the story in a 2004 episode of his show:

Secular progressives realize that America as it is now will never approve of gay marriage, partial birth abortion, euthanasia, legalized drugs, income redistribution through taxation and many other progressive visions because of religious opposition. But if secularists can destroy religion in the public arena, the brave new progressive world is a possibility.

The new conspiracy varied little from the old conspiracy. The war on Christmas was vehicle by which shadowy figures sought to destroy America by challenging racism and sexism while ending income inequality—a nightmare for the country’s business leaders. Who constituted this shadowy cabal? According to Pastor John Hagee it is the United Nations, the “Eastern Establishment,” and “international financiers” all working toward the goal of a one world government. Glenn Beck and Alex Jones further worked to popularize the conspiracy of a looming New World Order propagated by the Illuminati or the Freemasons. In all cases the shadowy conspirator—be it Jews, the UN, or the Illuminati—is a McGuffin used by conservative pundits to cast fear and doubt on any effort to alter the status quo. This is why the villain can change over time but the story—and politics behind it— remains the same.

Liberal writers and pundits mock the new conspiratorial mood among conservatives. John Stewart’s The Daily Show looked forward to the annual low-hanging fruit provided by O’Reilly’s “Christmas Under Siege” segments. He and several others jumped on the opportunity to lampoon Fox’s The Kelly File last year when anchor Megyn Kelly went into meltdown demanding that people admit Santa Claus and Jesus are white. Liberal web magazines like Salon, Slate, and the Huffington Post write think pieces joking about conservatives’ sudden concern for crass materialism, their lack of knowledge of religious history, or their general nuttiness in believing Christianity is under attack in America. Some even dig deep and expose the unseemly origin of the war on Christmas in Henry Ford’s publications. While frequently smug in their rebuttals few if any of these pieces take seriously the political ideology of which the war on Christmas is a part.

Far from a harmless bit of holiday nonsense the war on Christmas is part of a racist, pro-capitalist ideology supported by corporate America and doled out in churches and on Fox News. Its ability to raise racist hackles through dog whistles is even clearer in Kelly’s ‘apology’ for her comments on Jesus and Santa. While insisting her comments in the segment were a joke, Kelly lambasts those “humorless” viewers who have the “knee-jerk instinct by so many to race-bait.” Critics called out her behavior as racist. They discussed the ways her comments showed the continued racial divide, but did not explore the use of this dog-whistle—“humorless” meaning liberal, non-white, critical of capitalism—as a part of a larger project to solidify anti-Left mass sentiment.  Created to combat the challenge the American Left posed in the 1930s and 1960s this ideology is so hostile to any idea believed to threaten the power of corporations and the wealthy that today even the most modest liberal reforms are met with cries of “Socialism!”

Challenging the War on Christmas

In the past radical political parties, labor unions, and radical activist groups resisted efforts by business to shape the social conscious. Today the union movement is a shell of its former self, there are no radical political parties of any influence, and the activist groups fracture their power and focus along identity lines reducing their influence. Succumbing to decades of police attacks from COINTELPRO to the war on drugs, red baiting on issues of economic importance (who can forget the pathetic display of Democratic presidential candidates fumbling to explain their pro-capitalist credentials during the first Democratic debate?), and the constant promotion of “lesser-evilism” that demands support for the Democratic Party the Left has largely lost the influence it formerly had over the American public. In this vacuum corporate America pays good money to provide people with a worldview amenable to their interests. This is the importance of the war on Christmas.

The war on Christmas is more than just an annual parade of nonsense for the purpose of inflating ratings. It represents the victory of pro-business/anti-labor ideology in the public mind. If capitalist ideology is leprosy then the war on Christmas is simply the numbness in your fingers that reminds you that your body is rotting from the inside out. In the past a strong, organized, and vigorous Left has kept this ideology at bay. They were able to do this not simply by critiquing the problems of American capitalism, but by offering viable alternatives for organizing society. From radical labor organizing to the height of the Civil Rights Movements, the winning Left legacy was one that empowered masses to rise up for a new vision of the world. Today we need a Left challenge to the Right’s politics more than ever.

Mary Anne Henderson is an historian and high school teacher in Seattle. Brian Platt is an aerospace machinist who lives in Seattle. They can be reached at hendersonandplatt@gmail.com

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