The fine folk over at Volokh Conspiracy have authored a fascinating and insightful series of posts on the various holiday salutations we use to greet each other during this time of year, which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in the subject.
Judging by the content and tone of all of those articles, I’m struck with the sense that none of the authors betrays the experience of having lived in the Bible Belt after the onset of hostilities in the annual War On Christmas. They evidently have no sense of what it is like to live in a culture in which Christianity is so pervasive as to be taken for granted, in which people will routinely ask, by way of introduction, “What church do you attend?” and proceed to take offense if one refuses to discuss your personal religious beliefs. The idea that “Merry Christmas” might be an attempt to subtly assert superior insider status over non-Christians doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind over at Volokh, which is particularly odd given that the authors are presumably familiar with Justice O’Connor’s reconceptualization of the constitutional disestablishment principle, “Endorsement sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.” Of course, she was writing about endorsement by government officials, but the underlying social principle is surely no different in interpersonal relations than it is with official decrees. In social situations, signals of outsider/insider status are surely more prevalent and vital than in official messages sent out scattershot by bureaucrats to no one in particular.
No doubt social conservatives are not following me by this point, and so I’ll try to paint you guys a thought picture which may help. You’re in D.C. for a conference next month (what horrible timing) and some revelers on the street cheerfully wish you a “Happy Inauguration Day!” When you pause non-responsively, they stop to carefully eye your reaction. You try not to scowl, but as you feel your facial muscles relax, you realize that you’ve already given away your displeasure with the nation’s most recent choice of chief executive. The revelers give you a knowing, “Ah, not one of us, what a shame for you!” look as they gambol off to make more merriment, leaving you standing in the cold, wondering why they have to be so annoyingly evangelical in their glee. Why total accost strangers with it, presumptively assuming that their own joy is shared by one and all?
I’m not saying that “every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart” as Scrooge would have it, but I would like for people to consider it a sign of respectful deference to refuse to assume that everyone one meets on the streets is a coreligionist, celebrating the unique incarnation of the One True God. If you’d bristle at being taken for a member of another faith, then you ought perhaps think twice before encouraging total strangers to rejoice in your own. Christians, of all people, ought do unto others as they themselves would be done by.