Reflecting on Christmas in America

With the holidays well behind us now, we can stand back and take a look at how religion and Christmas are being approached by Americans without the annual culture wars that often attend such conversations.

The Pew Research Center has provided an excellent set of data about this topic in its December 2017 study on American views of Christmas. The study covers the extent to which Americans celebrate Christmas culturally and/or religiously, whether Americans prefer store employees to say “Merry Christmas” or a variant of “Happy Holidays” during the Christmas season, whether Nativity scenes should be allowed on government land, and to what extent Americans believe the biblical account of the birth of Christ.

I will only be dealing with two of these items here. The first is in reference to belief in the biblical account of the Nativity. To measure this, Pew researchers specifically asked people if they believe in four common aspects of the biblical account:

  1. That Jesus was born of a virgin.
  2. That the baby Jesus was laid in a manger.
  3. That wise men, guided by a star, brought gifts to Jesus.
  4. That an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds.

Striking in the report is that the number of people who claimed to accept all four of these statements dropped by 8% during the the past three years (see chart below). In part, this was fueled by those who are unaffiliated (the so-called “nones”). This is not so surprising. While they are not antagonistic to the Christian faith, those who are unafilliated with any religion have no reason to believe in traditional Christian claims about Jesus, whether in reference to his birth or any other part of his life. This lack of belief may well be more a reflection of their honest lack of engagement with the story than their absolute rejection of it.

…the willingness of so many people who are already Christian to so quickly abandon teachings they once accepted is concerning.

What is more concerning is the number of white mainline Christians who have begun abandoning the four elements of the Nativity story. While Christians may debate whether someone needs to accept all four aspects used by Pew in order to be an orthodox believer in Christ, this substantial drop (13%) in only three years adds to the growing data that shows white mainline Protestant churches are failing to cultivate their adherents in the Christian faith. (I have addressed these concerns in previous posts here and here.)

Recent drop in share of U.S. adults who believe in all four elements of biblical Christmas narrative

While we may well be able to accept that someone can be a fully faithful disciple of Jesus Christ that does not believe every story in the Bible, including whether Magi followed a star or whether angels actually sang before frightened shepherds, the willingness of so many people who are already Christian to so quickly abandon teachings they once accepted is concerning.

This sort of data should re-emphasize the need for white mainline Protestant leaders to consider the extent to which they are forming their members in the Christian faith. And, if they are not, what are they forming them in? In other words, people don’t just exit belief in the Christian faith into nothingness. What are the new beliefs that are taking hold in place of the ones that they are choosing to leave behind?

One hint as to what these new beliefs might be comes out in the answer to whether Americans are comfortable with Nativity scenes being placed on public lands.

Growing minority of Americans oppose religious displays on government property

Across the board, it is clear that fewer people of all Christian stripes as well as the unaffiliated accept the idea of religious scenes on public lands. This is true for evangelicals and mainline. Notably, white mainline Protestant increased on this point more than evangelicals. The number of white mainline Protestants who only would allow a Nativity scene to be placed if accompanied by another religious symbol outpaced slightly the number of white evangelicals who said the same thing.

Given the previous numbers about belief, I would venture a guess that the reasons the white evangelicals and the white mainlines trended in the same direction on this question varied because they are on opposite ends of the pluarlism spectrum. For evangelicals, the idea is to avoid promoting multiple religions by the state. Better to have none present than to have all present.

…the logic of the white mainline Protestants is one that suggests what they are replacing traditional biblical stories with: the classical liberal idea of self-empowerment.

For white mainline Protestants, the reason is the opposite. The goal is to promote pluralism. Either let everyone present their symbols or no one because we live in a pluralistic culture where we should be exposed to all the possibilities or left alone by them to explore each at our leisure.

If I am right about this, the logic of the white mainline Protestants is one that suggests what they are replacing traditional biblical stories with: the classical liberal idea of self-empowerment. We leave behind stories of the supernatural and of God’s engagement in the world to welcome instead the idea that we are empowered in our own nature to live as we see fit, choosing the path that is most meaningful for us. Thus, as arbiters of what we find most meaningful, we can pick and choose among the elements of belief for ourselves, casting aside any internal logic of a particular belief system for why it puts forth particular beliefs.

This is the corrosive logic of modernity taken to the extreme, and it is one that the Christian faith has had to struggle with since the Enlightenment. The problem here is not that the Christian faithful should have to think through their beliefs in light of reason, but that it seems today that an entire segment of the church is abdicating its formation of its members to the Enlightenment.

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