Christmas and the Myth of the Neutral State

December 21, 2021 Updated: December 22, 2021


Can Christians celebrate Christmas publicly, in traditional ways—exchanges of official, personal, and business greetings, specially decorated trees, carols, school plays, Nativity scenes, and public broadcasts such as the Queen’s Speech in the UK and Commonwealth—without offending unbelievers?

The question comes up every year as the scope of acceptable public recognition of Christmas narrows and some activists become more insistent on banning Christianity from the public square.

This year, the European Union, through its Commissioner for Equality, issued a since-withdrawn internal document proposing that the ever-more-integrated economic and political union of 27 states, all with deep Christian roots, should as much as possible ignore Christmas to avoid offending people who aren’t Christian.

Itxu Díaz notes in National Review that the EU’s Commissioner for Equality, Maltese socialist Helena Dalli, who officially warns against specifically Christian greetings, “has not missed a single occasion in recent years to express her good wishes to Muslims on each and every major Islamic holiday, mentioning each one of them by name, in affectionate tweets.”

Dalli gives voice to the tendency of “woke” elites in Europe, as in North America, to support every faith and every culture and religious tradition but their own. We see this in the way mainstream media celebrities and public figures make light of vandalism and blasphemy when aimed at Christians, their churches and sacred sculptures, that would be denounced if any other religion had been the target.

The torching of a Christmas tree outside the Fox News building in New York became a target of jokes rather than outrage. As Matt Purple puts it in the Spectator World, “had the target not been a Fox News Christmas tree, had it instead been, say, an MSNBC trans-solstice BIPOC sculpture garden, everyone knows our comedians wouldn’t see the humor, only a hate crime.”

Reason and Faith, Worldviews, and Policy Decisions

The question of how believers and unbelievers can live peaceably together remains unresolved.

In one view, the state should have no basic underlying assumptions about life, its meaning, value, or direction, and simply needs procedures that those with different worldviews can agree on for making policy decisions. Believers and unbelievers agree on the decision procedures of a constitutional democratic republic and abide by them, whatever they are.

One problem with this idea of a neutral decision-making process that all can agree on, and the results of which all will accept, is that it won’t work. Neither side will accept merely procedural resolution of fundamental public policy differences that don’t ensure substantive victory for their side. In these cases—such as the right to kill babies (as in abortion) or own other people (as in slavery)—fundamental and nonnegotiable issues of justice are at stake.

A second problem with the neutral state approach is that it isn’t neutral. In the West, it’s anti-Christian and imposes a default position of atheism on the public sphere. In public education, for example, the default position is to assume that the core religion of the culture is untrue. The Bible may perhaps be taught as literature, but not as involving any truth claims about God, the human person, our duty, or destiny.

Pope Francis condemned the EU’s attempt to “cancel Christmas” as taking the path of “ideological colonization.” He compared it to the efforts of previous dictatorships—those of Napoleon, the communists, and the Nazis. The extent of such colonization of Christian cultures through state control is already far advanced in some member countries not usually thought of as dictatorships. In Sweden, for example, the state has in effect banned the teaching of religion even in private schools and has outlawed homeschooling.

A third problem with the idea of the state as ideologically neutral is simply that, even where there’s no legally established religion, the state tends to adopt and enforce its own religious orthodoxy. The state orthodoxy may have the trappings of the religions it supplants—its own liturgical practices, belief system, sacraments, and the like. Religion, we know, can take pathological forms, but so can secularist ideologies through which enlightened elites seek to replace them.

Some, like Joshua Mitchell, have seen woke ideology as a form of religion, a debased kind of Calvinism without forgiveness, or Manichaean contest between good and evil, a rival salvation narrative. John McWhorter sees “Woke Racism” as a kind of religion and so, in his view, bad as all religion is bad. In any case, the state’s and the ruling class’s adoption of this new religion throughout the institutions they control isn’t an expression of state neutrality but of imposition of a rigid orthodoxy and suppression of dissent.

A Different Approach

Can we find a way in a predominantly Christian society that allows for public exercise and teaching of Christianity—of prayer and teaching the Bible in schools—that carves out a space for those of other religions or none? Is there no alternative to stripping a people, as EU leaders seem intent on doing, of their culture and the religion at its core? Must all religion be suppressed, and a default practical atheism be imposed as the price of avoiding offense to those who reject the culture or the religion?

A growing number of Western intellectuals such as Jordan Peterson, Charles Murray, and Douglas Murray don’t adhere to any religion but see its importance for the flourishing of society. They have rejected the militant triumphalist atheism of anti-Christians such as Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins, even if they have not for now embraced Christianity. Libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, for example, though personally agnostic, holds that the “American republic is unlikely to survive without another Great Awakening—or, at the very least, a revival of the religious values that the Founders depended on to undergird their experiment.”

They see the fragility of civilization, the rarity in human societies of values such as the sanctity of human life. Our fundamental equality as beings created in the image of God is a Judeo-Christian concept. That tradition provided people with an understanding of morality and an intrinsic motivation to behave morally. It was a brake on the overweening power of the state, a bulwark against totalitarianism.

Scottish historian Niall Ferguson sees totalitarianism growing “not only in China but in subtle ways in our own society.” He argues that “ultimately, we need the inherited ideas of a civilization.” In the famous words of American Founder John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.”

Yoram Hazony, acknowledging the importance of Christianity—specifically the Protestant settlement—to American values, argued at this year’s National Conservatism conference that Jews need a carve-out to send their children to their own schools, to practice and teach their faith. But they don’t need to expunge all trace of Christianity, including Nativity scenes, for example, from public life.

In the same way, it isn’t necessary to (and it’s necessary not to) clear the public space of Christianity in order to accommodate reasonable concerns of those with different and conflicting beliefs about sexual morality. Laws and norms against bullying or violence against those who identify as LGBTQ don’t require the teaching of explicit sexual content to young children in school curricula, much less redefining sex.

Even less do recent secularist developments in marriage law or gender ideology warrant the banning of traditional public norms of sexual morality or condemning the Bible as hate speech. But in Finland, Rev. Juhana Pohjola, bishop-elect of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Diocese of Finland, and Dr. Päivi Räsänen, member of the Finnish Parliament and a former minister of the interior, have been charged by Finland’s prosecutor general with incitement against a group of people for setting out biblical teaching on sex and marriage. Their court date is Jan. 24, 2022. At stake in the case is the right of Christians to publicly teach historic Christian doctrine, even when the state takes a different view.

At stake, we may add, is not only the right of Christians but also their duty to share their millennia-old wisdom with society “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2), when its teachings are popular and when they are not. Douglas Murray, who describes himself as a “disappointed non-adherent,” is disturbed by the Church’s giving up its teaching and fleeing from its inheritance in exchange for progressive pieties.

“My fear is constantly the Church is not doing what so many of us on the outside would like it to do, which is to be preaching its gospel, asserting its truths and its claims. And so when one sees it falling into all of the latest tropes, one just thinks, well, that’s another thing gone; it’s just like absolutely everything else in the era.”

Merry Christmas!

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Paul Adams
Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawai‘i, and was professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of "Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is," and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.