Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

America’s Increasingly Christ-less Christmas

It's not so much a sign of secular liberal grinches as it is of widespread de-Christianization

It’s not a war on Christmas; Christmas as a yearly event seems robust. But the de-Christianization of Christmas is a real thing. From the Pew Research Center:

Not only are some of the more religious aspects of Christmas less prominent in the public sphere, but there are signs that they are on the wane in Americans’ private lives and personal beliefs as well. For instance, there has been a noticeable decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who say they believe that biblical elements of the Christmas story – that Jesus was born to a virgin, for example – reflect historical events that actually occurred. And although most Americans still say they mark the occasion as a religious holiday, there has been a slight drop in recent years in the share who say they do this.

Currently, 55% of U.S. adults say they celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, including 46% who see it as more of a religious holiday than a cultural holiday and 9% who celebrate Christmas as both a religious and a cultural occasion. In 2013, 59% of Americans said they celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday, including 51% who saw it as more religious than cultural and 7% who marked the day as both a religious and a cultural holiday.

To be sure, while the public’s commemoration of Christmas may have less of a religious component now than in the past, the share of Americans who say they celebrate Christmas in some way has hardly budged at all. Nine-in-ten U.S. adults say they celebrate the holiday, which is nearly identical to the share who said this in 2013. About eight-in-ten will gather with family and friends. And half say they plan to attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, little changed since 2013, the last time Pew Research Center asked the question.

Got that? People still observe Christmas; it’s just that fewer people believe in the reason for the season. More:

The religiously unaffiliated – those who identify religiously as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular,” and who are sometimes also referred to as religious “nones” – are much less likely than Christians to express belief in the biblical Christmas story. And, in recent years, “nones” have become even less likely to believe in it, contributing to the public’s overall decline in belief in the biblical depiction of Jesus’ birth. (Religious “nones” also have been growing as a share of the U.S. population, although the religiously unaffiliated share of respondents in the December 2017 survey is similar in size to the unaffiliated share of the December 2014 sample.)

At the same time, the new study finds a small but significant decline in the share of Christians who believe in the Christmas narrative contained in the Bible. To be sure, large majorities of Christians still believe in key elements of the nativity story as described in the Bible. But the shares of Christians who believe in the virgin birth, the visit of the Magi, the announcement of Jesus’ birth by an angel and the baby Jesus lying in the manger all have ticked downward in recent years. Overall, the share of Christians who believe in all four of these elements of the Christmas story has dipped from 81% in 2014 to 76% today. This decline has been particularly pronounced among white mainline Protestants.

Read the entire report here.

It’s possible, and even likely, that some conservatives are ginned up about the “war on Christmas” because they correctly sense that the religious sense of Christmas is slipping away in American life. It is also likely that those who believe that President Trump has brought Christmas “back” are the sort of Christians still under the delusion that one can vote in the Kingdom of God.

No politician can bring Christmas “back,” whatever that means, because no politician can bring the basis of Christmas — the Christian religion — back. That’s on us Christians. What this Christmas data show us is the steady de-Christianization of the United States.

It’s vitally important for Christians to understand this connection. I’m as irritated as anybody with grinchy secularists pushing crèches and suchlike out of the public square, but they aren’t the real problem. They aren’t the ones failing to pass the faith on to the young, or to strengthen the faith of those of all ages who remain. The problem is in part with the kind of nominal Christians who only go to church on Christmas and Easter.

Don’t take this sobering news as a reason to rend your garments and wail. Use it as reason to make your family’s celebration of Advent and Christmas more religious. Don’t wait for your pastor to do it for you.

In this spirit, Mary Eberstadt has a good essay in First Things, in which she talks about “the zealous faith of secularism,” characterizing it as a rising and uncompromising religion, displacing Christianity. Hers is an important analysis, but it ends hopefully:

In this ongoing catastrophe over the fundamental question of who we are,there is great opportunity. It is shocking but true: The overbearing secularist culture is itself sowing the seeds of a religious revival.

The wide range of fresh cultural and religious analysis mentioned earlier is one measure of a counterculture that’s thriving in this hour of paganization. Even the dominance of the secularist church in familiar venues looks to be less monolithic than is usually understood. Witness again how the conflagration that started with Harvey Weinstein has gone on to illuminate wrongdoing elsewhere, on the part of others who have acted on the premise that women are available for recreational sex anywhere and anytime. Meanwhile, new Catholic and other Christian associations proliferate on campuses and elsewhere, despite fierce secularist pushback. If the rise in “nones” is one emblematic story of our time, so too is the birth of countercultural campus communities like the Thomistic Institute, the Love and Fidelity Network, and FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students); the sharp rise in high schools grounded in classical education; the Leonine Forum for young professionals in Washington, D.C., now expanding into other cities; related ongoing intellectual projects like the Tertio Millennio Seminar in Poland, the Free Society Seminar in Slovakia, and more; and many other organic responses, both protective and proactive, to competition from the rival church of secularism.

These and other platoons like them will transform the American landscape. They encourage the search for transcendence in a world where neo-paganism insists there is none; they help those damaged collaterally by the sexual revolution to find answers to the question “Who am I?” The rival church of secularism shortchanges humanity, and humanity, plodding and delinquent though it may be, still shows signs of wanting more than the church of the new secularism can deliver.

Two such witnesses to that reality appeared in Washington, D. C., a few months ago, in the middle of a heat wave. They had gotten in touch with me to discuss a documentary they were creating to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae Vitae. Their studio in D.C. turned out to be their hotel room. The entourage for the shoot included their three very young children, with whom they took turns throughout the interview. They had made many sacrifices and traveled hundreds of miles because, they said, they were on a mission to tell the truth.

The young woman had grown up without knowing who her father was. Her mother, a radical feminist, raised her to fear and hate men. The young man came from Scandinavia, growing up as secular as Scandinavians can be. Both, if encountered earlier in their lives, would have been categorized as “nones.”

In their own estimations, they had escaped from behind enemy lines of the sexual revolution. Somehow, they found each other. Somehow, falling in love led them to question what had happened in their pasts. Somehow, they encountered a priest. Somehow, they read some books by faithful authors. And what with one improbable development and another, both ended up converting to Catholicism. Now they want to share with others the truths they discovered the hard way. That’s how the Church of the future will be rebuilt: stone by stone, picked up from the rubble, by witnesses to the initial blast.

Preach it, Mary! The Benedict Option is all about building this Church of the future (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox) being built in the ruins of what was once Christendom. I was so pleased and honored to learn today that Mary Eberstadt chose The Benedict Option as one of her books of the year. 




Want to join the conversation?

Subscribe for as little as $5/mo to start commenting on Rod’s blog.

Join Now