weather icon Clear

Silence hurts in war on tolerance

The Fox television network does not approve of the way Reno does things.

“Once again this holiday season, the right to celebrate Christmas is under attack,” it reads above Fox’s online “War on Christmas” map. “Click the icons on the map to see where the latest challenges to religious freedom are taking place.”

There is an icon in Nevada that leads to a story about how Reno’s city government has named its official holiday tree a “holiday tree” instead of a “Christmas tree.”

Never mind that Christians themselves in this land once outlawed and punished “the right to celebrate Christmas” and that in the United States holiday trees were not accepted by Christians until the 1830s, while other faiths had used them in holiday festivals since ancient times. And never mind that many winter religious commemorations, such as Bodhi, Winter Solstice, Dongzhi, Hanukkah, Soyal, Kwanzaa, Yalda, Mōdraniht, Malkh, Watch Night and Hogmanay take place at this time of year, or that some of them preceded the birth of Jesus.

Fox is the latest in a long line of entities that appointed themselves to speak for Christians.

In December 1953 (the McCarthy era), the red­-baiting CBS fired George S. Kaufmann from the television program “This is Show Business” after Kaufmann remarked on the air, “Let’s make this one program on which no one will sing ‘Silent Night, Holy Night.’ ” CBS seemed to think it was acting for religious people because it received a couple of hundred letters, but clergy members set them straight.

United Church Rev. Truman Douglas said, “The real sacrilege is the merciless repetition of ‘Silent Night’ and similar Christian hymns. … It would seem to me that before CBS accepted these self-­appointed minority defenders of sanctity, some attempt might have been made to obtain the opinion of responsible members of religious bodies, before firing a distinguished playwright who was undoubtedly expressing the sentiment of many persons of religious sensitivity.”

In 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government may not use its hold over students in U.S. schools to impose religious practices — specifically, a clearly sectarian prayer composed by the New York Board of Regents. Politicians decided to lead ministers and priests in attacking the ruling, and when they looked behind themselves, they found that many religious leaders had walked off in a different direction.

“I don’t think the court had any other alternative,” said Baptist leader Harold Wells. (The first Catholic president said, “We have in this case a very easy remedy, and that is to pray ourselves.”)

In 1966, John Lennon told an interviewer, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and I’ll be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first — rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

Lennon was roundly denounced, with fascists (the Ku Klux Klan and the governments of Spain and South Africa among them) particularly harsh on him. Radio stations and evangelical pastors encouraged teens to hold record-album burnings.

As it happened, Lennon was giving voice to sentiments that were already being debated in the Christian community — whether the faith, in the postwar period, was losing its relevance. The Jesuit magazine America editorialized, “Lennon was simply stating what many a Christian educator would readily admit.”

Is Fox any fitter to speak for Christianity than CBS or Lennon’s critics were? Is there a single Christian view?

When I was growing up, the term “Happy Holidays” had no particular meaning. It was used happily by Christians, Jews and everyone else, mainly because it was alliterative. Then, in more recent decades, those who thrive on pitting us against each other gave it a sinister meaning.

Part of the problem is that middle-­of-­the-­road Christian leaders, weary of the battle with evangelicals that has resulted from the Republican alliance with that group, will not speak up against the demonization of tolerance. But with Fox folks living in terror that the people of this nation might be living together in mutual tolerance, silence is a mistake.

In the meantime, it would be well if Fox changed its name. William Fox’s biographer Upton Sinclair reported that Fox battled Henry Ford’s virulent anti-­Semitism. The television network is acting in the exclusionary Ford tradition and does not deserve to use Fox’s name.

Dennis Myers is a veteran and Nevada journalist.