Vail Daily column: Will saying ‘Merry Christmas’ make our nation great again?
Donald Trump whips up a verbal recipe that at least 78 percent of evangelical Christians devour, according to a recent Pew Research poll. One of his first presidential ingredients will reintroduce “Merry Christmas” into street conversation.
Last June, that’s what he promised 500 evangelical leaders in Manhattan and they bit on Trump’s recipe. These evangelicals savored his pledge of again having department store employees greet shoppers with an unapologetic “Merry Christmas!” That was their custom in the 1950s, the last decade America showed “greatness,” says Trump.
Now “Happy Holidays” has replaced this traditional greeting. It’s a sign of Christianity’s cultural slide toward becoming “weaker, weaker, weaker,” declares the Donald.
Evangelicals believe that, in the 1950s under Presbyterian church-going President Dwight D. Eisenhower, less-educated whites enjoyed high cultural status. Then white Protestant Christianity flourished.
Trump’s evangelicals are correct that “Merry Christmas” caused little, if any, offense when I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the 1950s. I played with my Jewish neighbor Howard, whose family practiced Judaism on our block where middle-class Dutch Protestants resided. Howard’s family fit into our neighborhood. When we wished them “Merry Christmas” around Hanukah, they didn’t get offended.
A popular downtown Grand Rapids department store had a Jewish name. Its Christmas windows showcased the Holy Family around a manger, making shoppers feel Christmas-y. Christmas bells, Christmas trees and Christmas greetings filled this store’s aisles.
When Trump promises voters to reintroduce “Merry Christmas” to make America great again, he appeals to evangelical Christians who hear him turn back the clock to the 1950s when their white Protestant empire ruled America. That’s why almost 80 percent of white evangelicals will vote for Trump because “the nation has changed for the worst since the 1950s.” Trump’s campaign erects the last line of defense for the white Christian America of the 1950s from disappearing as a pervasive cultural force.
Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” describes how effectively Trump appeals to discontented white voters who hope for a revival of their diminished cultural clout. “For white evangelical Protestants, Mr. Trump’s general vow to ‘make America great again’ means something specific. Mr. Trump stepped into the spotlight just as the curtain was coming down on an era of white Protestant dominance.
“Mr. Trump’s ascendancy has turned the 2016 election into a referendum on the death of white Christian America, with the candidate appealing strongly to those who are grieving this loss. Mr. Trump instinctively understood this from the beginning of his campaign. Take his speech at an evangelical college before the Iowa caucuses in January: ‘I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president, we’re going to say Merry Christmas again.’”
A blustery Trump predicted the revival of the white Christian nation under his regime “because if I’m there, (the Oval Office) you’re going to have plenty of power — you don’t need anybody else.”
The Wall Street Journal’s editors believe Trump’s “Merry Christmas” campaign is doomed because national demographics have significantly changed since the 1950s. “The party (GOP) is becoming older and whiter in a nation that is becoming more diverse. The GOP leadership recognized this with its post-2012 analysis that called for more outreach to minority voters and more emphasis on economic upward mobility. That analysis was rejected by the Cruz-Trump faction that has stressed polarizing cultural issues and turning out white voters. This election will test that strategy.”
Trump can’t deliver on his promise to make “Merry Christmas” the universal greeting in America. Mitt Romney garnered 59 percent of the white vote and lost. Ronald Reagan scored the highest white vote total of 66 percent in 1984 but that was in an era when the president didn’t acknowledge AIDS, that the Supreme Court would OK same-sex marriage was unheard of and Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority received President Reagan’s blessing with the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the High Court in 1986.
When Trump delivered his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, estimates were that he was heard by only 18 African-Americans scattered among 2,472 delegates. Christian white America still exchanges hearty “Merry Christmas” greetings and dominated the convention. The rest of the country, however, allows for a diverse mix of Americans who wish “Happy Holidays.”
After Jesus’ crucifixion, followers retreated into familiar Hebrew enclaves that vied for power. Some wanted to keep all Jewish customs. Others rallied around charismatic leaders. Still more smugly suggested they practiced the purist faith honoring Jesus.
The apostle Paul wanted to make Christianity one again. He wrote: “There is neither Jew nor Greek , there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Today, candidates benefit from this appeal to diversity that comprises the U.S. Make America one again, not by turning the clock back to the 1950s, but by appealing to the better instincts of all Americans, no matter what their skin color or religion.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.