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How ‘the war on Christmas’ became a political rallying cry

President Trump wrote on Twitter Monday that he was proud to have led the charge against the "assault" on the phrase "Merry Christmas." Why do some feel that there is a "war on Christmas"? William Brangham discusses how Christmas, politics and American culture intersect with Amy Sullivan, author of "The Party Faithful," and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As millions of Americans in the United States and around the world celebrate today as the birth of Jesus, President Trump is taking credit for the return of the phrase "Merry Christmas."

    He tweeted, "People are proud to be saying merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. Merry Christmas."

    William Brangham takes a closer look at what's behind the so-called war on Christmas.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    From the campaign trail…

  • Donald Trump:

    By the way, we're also going to be saying merry Christmas again.

  • William Brangham:

    … to the White House.

  • Donald Trump:

    We are saying merry Christmas again.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump has taken a vocal stand on saying merry Christmas.

  • Donald Trump:

    We can say Merry Christmas again. People are saying merry Christmas again.

  • William Brangham:

    But his critics say, Christmas never really went away.

  • Barack Obama:

    I want to wish every American a merry Christmas.

  • George W. Bush:

    Merry Christmas to you. Happy holidays.

  • Bill Clinton:

    Merry Christmas, and God bless you all.

  • Donald Trump:

    Three, two, one.

    (CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

  • William Brangham:

    But as President Trump marks his first Christmas in the White House, he is taking the reins on a decades-long culture war that first went mainstream when George W. Bush was president.

    This so-called war on Christmas became a national issue thanks largely to the conservative pundits at FOX News.

  • Bill O’Reilly:

    As the original war on Christmas five-star general.

  • Laura Ingraham:

    The war on Christmas heads to Sin City.

  • Man:

    Boca Raton, Florida, has become the ground zero for the war on Christmas this year.

  • William Brangham:

    Candidate Trump's pro-Christmas message seemed to help rally Christians to his side, which many thought a hard sell for a thrice-married man who rarely spoke of any religious belief.

    One in four Americans are evangelical Christians, and they overwhelmingly supported him, by a margin of five to one, over Hillary Clinton. Despite the president's push to say merry Christmas again, America's attitude towards the holiday seems to be shifting.

    A recent Pew Research survey found that, for the first time, less than half of Americans are celebrating Christmas purely as a religious holiday. One-third say it is a cultural holiday.

    And when shoppers headed to the stores this December, spending an average on $983 on gifts, how they wanted to be greeted changed as well. Just one-third of Americans wanted stores to say merry Christmas. More than half said it doesn't matter. That didn't stop a pro-Trump organization from spending $1 million on TV ads starting today to say thank you.

  • Actress:

    Thank you, President Trump, for letting us say merry Christmas again.

  • William Brangham:

    To talk about how politics and Christmas intersect and how Christians mark the birth of Jesus, I'm joined by two evangelical thinkers and leaders.

    Tony Perkins is president of the Family Research Council, and Amy Sullivan is author of "The Party Faithful" and co-host of the podcast "Impolite Company."

    Welcome to you both.

    Tony, I would love to start with you.

    We saw just before President Trump relishing how he gets to say merry Christmas, and says that that's the way the country is all going to be joining him. How important is that to you and fellow evangelicals?

  • Tony Perkins:

    Well, I think it's important, but it's from a standpoint of, it's emblematic of a bigger debate that's been really raging in this country.

    And that is the ability to express one's faith openly, without concern. And I think the president, when he made that a campaign issue, tapped into something that a lot of people just didn't understand, that there were a large number of evangelicals, Christians, in this country that felt increasingly uncomfortable about expressing their faith, especially at Christmastime, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, to whom, to Christians, that is our lord and savior.

    And it is a very, very important and special time of the year.

  • William Brangham:

    Amy, what is your take on this?

  • Amy Sullivan:

    I would think that Jesus wouldn't really care if we said merry Christmas, but I think there are things Jesus cares about.

    I think that the overfocus on consumption around Christmastime, even the fact that it's become, as we have talked about, more of a secular holiday for people to spend with family and to focus on exchanging gifts, rather than actually being in church, that can be a concern to those of us who see it as a celebration of the birth of our savior.

    And yet there are a whole lot of churches who today aren't having services, even though it's Christmas Day.

  • William Brangham:

    Tony Perkins, what about that issue, that how much difference does it really make what someone says to me when I walk into a Wal-Mart?

    Does that really impact my ability to celebrate Christmas? I know plenty of Jews and Muslims who don't feel that their faith is impinged at all because the waiter at Denny's doesn't mention Hanukkah or Ramadan.

    What difference does it really make?

  • Tony Perkins:

    Saying merry Christmas has become kind of like a buzzword, a codeword that the president tapped into recognizing people that want to be free to express their faith.

    And is it a huge deal that if you go to a store and you're buying something for Christmas that someone says merry Christmas? No, not in and of itself, but in the context of the bigger issue of what we have seen happening in our culture and our country.

    And I'm 100 percent in agreement with Amy. I would much rather see people in their churches worshiping our lord and savior.

  • William Brangham:

    Let's talk a little bit, Amy, about this Pew study that I mentioned before.

    It seems like the country is already moving toward this being a somewhat more secular, less religious holiday already.

  • Amy Sullivan:

    Well, it's been a less religious holiday for a long, long time.

    Anybody who has a small child who is obsessed with Santa Claus or, more recently, Elf on the Shelf knows how hard it is…

  • William Brangham:

    Definitely non-biblical interventions in Christmas.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Amy Sullivan:

    Exactly.

    It's really hard to fight against those influences. And yet, for a lot of people, that's kind of the sum total of what Christmas is.

    But I would push back a little bit against the idea that most Christians are really concerned about kind of the broader issues behind what Christmas stands for.

    I mean, the way that we have seen it portrayed in popular culture, and particularly on news networks like FOX News, Bill O'Reilly and the American Family Association have really honed in on who are the corporations who are, you know, full of Christmas spirit, which department stores are hanging happy holidays banners.

    I think the mistake has been in the larger debate to focus on these secular arenas, instead of focusing on bringing people back to the church.

  • William Brangham:

    Tony Perkins, what about the idea?

    As Amy is indicating, there are very, very strong economic forces, not political forces, that are making Christmas the way we think of it, with trees and gifts and consumption.

  • Tony Perkins:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    Isn't that a much larger force you would like to push back against?

  • Tony Perkins:

    Well, I don't disagree with that.

    I think, when you look at — retailers determine whether or not they're going to be successful with their Black Friday sales leading into Christmas and the whole Christmas season determining whether or not they're successful, it does become about the dollar. And that's not what Christmas is about.

    I want to go back to your Pew Research poll, because, actually, there were some interesting things in that, that 90 percent of Americans do actually celebrate Christmas. And two-thirds of Christians — or Americans, rather — believe in the biblical account or elements of the biblical account of the birth of Christ.

    So there is still a lot of commonality when we talk about Christmas and what it means.

  • William Brangham:

    Amy, Do you think that that is why, when President Trump picked up this call, it took on such a force and it seemed to align Christian voters, who many people thought wouldn't be in Trump's camp, and put them on his side?

  • Amy Sullivan:

    Well, I think it's a good applause line that appeals to the idea that Christians are being persecuted.

    And it fits right in with President Trump's kind of division of the country between us and them. In my house, I'm an evangelical Christmas, and we celebrate Christmas. But my husband is Jewish. We also celebrate Hanukkah.

    And the idea that our celebration of Hanukkah makes my belief in Jesus Christ as my savior and my celebration of Christmas less special or less recognized is just not one that I can subscribe to. I think that the table and the public square is big enough for all of us.

  • William Brangham:

    Tony Perkins, what about Amy's point there that her husband's celebration of Hanukkah doesn't really impact your celebration of Christmas or my celebration in any real way?

  • Tony Perkins:

    Well, I don't disagree that the table is big enough for everybody.

    But the issue has been that there have been some — and you look at the policies of the previous administration — that wanted people to keep their faith hidden or within the four walls of their church or their synagogue, when you look at policies like the HHS mandate that penalizes the Little Sisters of the Poor with mandatory contraception and their health care plans.

    Look, we should be free to exercise our faith publicly. And Christmas is probably the most profound display of faith that we have in our culture today. And that's what the president was tapping into.

    It wasn't about what happens in those 31 days of December or from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day. It is more about public expression and the freedom to live out one's faith without intimidation by government or the broader cultural forces.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Tony Perkins, Amy Sullivan, thank you both very much for being here today.

  • Amy Sullivan:

    Merry Christmas.

  • Tony Perkins:

    Thank you, and merry Christmas.

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