Scrooge rejected "Merry Christmas" as humbug—nonsense, of the sort that encouraged the weak-minded to waste time on religion and revelry. We could teach Scrooge a thing or two about despising holidays. Only in latter-day America could a benevolent "Merry Christmas" be twisted into a politically incorrect affront to polite norms, a sinister and unconstitutional threat to establish religion, or both.
As a question of etiquette, the issue invites thought. To wish someone the joy of the holiday is not automatically to presume that he shares it. For example, it's not impolite to say "Happy St. Patrick's Day" to someone who isn't Irish. By the same token, one can wish a Frenchman "Happy Bastille Day" without being a Frenchman, or even approving of the French Revolution. The important thing is that, in saying it, you wish him well; imagining yourself in his shoes is a gracious part of such friendliness.
But today's controversies have little to do with such delicate questions. They turn not on individual character and circumstances, nor on the mutual respect and civility possible between great religions, but on identity rights and a growing hostility to religion as such.
This season's dustup over "Happy Holidays" is thus a mild case of a more serious disorder. The cutting edge of aggressive secularism reveals itself in efforts to banish Biblical religion altogether from public life: to remove "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance, to abrade the Ten Commandments from public buildings, to discourage schoolchildren from filling their moments of silence with a joyful noise unto the Lord. In effect, the secularists demand that the tone of public life must be made to conform to atheistic standards. Everyone must be taught to behave as "practical atheists," in John Paul II's wonderful phrase. Even believers—especially believers—must learn to speak and act, outside the sanctuary of their churches and synagogues, as though God doesn't exist. Anything else would amount to persecution of non-believers.
In all these efforts, the Supreme Court by its egregious misinterpretations of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause has either fervently promoted religion's expulsion from the public square, or at best preserved its place temporarily by minimizing religion's seriousness. The Court's present course was set in 1947, when it ruled, for the first time, that government may not "support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion." Before that, an "establishment of religion" had been understood narrowly, as the legislative designation of an official state church (or churches), with tax money dedicated to the support of its ministers, property, or both. The older understanding allowed for many kinds of government support of religion short of establishing it, and for a public square enriched by religion's free exercise.
There were disagreements over where to draw the lines. But then, unlike now, the disputes were over how, and to what extent, to accommodate religion and public life—not over whether to do so. From the beginning, the president and Congress called for national days of prayer and thanksgiving. The House issued its first such call on the same day that it passed the First Amendment. Congress authorized chaplains for itself (God knows they needed them) and for the armed forces. When Thomas Jefferson was president, the largest church services in the United States took place in the Capitol building, and he attended regularly.
Why did the founders by and large support religion's prominent but mostly informal public role? In the first place, the free exercise of religion (or the rights of conscience) was a vital part of man's natural rights. With its roots in the Bible, religion had also an integral connection with morality. Self-government presumed a self-controlled or moral people, and religion helped to shape those mores. Moreover, religion and religious freedom helped to shape politics by supporting limited government. There was something divine in man, and an authority in heaven superior to human will, which put permanent limits on government's power.
Finally, religion dignified civil society by making it the home of man's highest purpose, to know and worship God. Yet civil society was also the site of man's lower but urgent purpose, economic exchange and moneymaking. The two were connected, so G. K. Chesterton observed, by such merry occasions as holy days. "Rationally," he wrote, "there appears no reason why we should not sing and give each other presents in honour of anything—the birth of Michael Angelo or the opening of Euston Station. But it does not work. As a fact, men only become greedily and gloriously material about something spiritualistic." In other words, if you want to keep complaining about the commercialization of Christmas, don't turn it into a mere happy holiday.