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This year, as they do every year, the religious right is engaging in its annual bout of paranoia and conspiracy-mongering over the supposed secular plot to ban Christmas. Fox News, Christian-right groups, and other outlets in the culture war publish TV segments like “Christmas Under Siege“, books like John Gibson’s The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought, and websites such as Defend Christmas.

Judging by their hysteria, one would think Christmas was teetering on the brink of extinction, rather than a looming and omnipresent holiday that dominates the end of the year and seemingly consumes all media beginning, in many cases now, as soon as the day after Halloween. I’d reassure these conservatives that it’s not going away, if I thought that would do any good. But of course, whipping up irrational fear and anger among their followers is their stock in trade, and it’s big business, too. (“Now you too can join the battle to save Christmas from the secular progressives for only $24.99, plus shipping!”)

One of the most memorable salvos in the “War on Christmas” was fired by Bill O’Reilly back in 2005:

See, I think it’s all part of the secular progressive agenda to get Christianity and spirituality and Judaism out of the public square. Because if you look at what happened in Western Europe and Canada, if you can get religion out, then you can pass secular progressive programs like legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, gay marriage, because the objection to those things is religious-based, usually.

You see, Target store clerks saying “Happy Holidays” are just the first step in our insidious plan to silence Christianity so we can institute legalized euthanasia, abortion on demand, and presumably men marrying box turtles. But what O’Reilly may not know is that the War on Christmas is much older than he thinks. Take a guess: who said this?

Instead of looking forward to Christmas, it is a spirit of inquiry as to how far we can go at Christmas. We are asking whether we dare, as Christians in a Christian land, whisper the Name that gives Christmas its meaning. That is, the Christians are doing the Christmas asking early this year. Christian teachers want to know if they will be discharged if they give their classes a bit of Christmas flavor, as all our teachers gave us when we were young. The contrast between the schools which we of the mature generation attended when we were young, and the schools of today whose pupils are carefully screened from the fact that Christmas celebrates Christ, is such a contrast as ought to give mature Americans a pause.

Aside from the fact that it’s more articulate than the usual shouting heads, this bit of paranoia sounds just like the nonsense that Fox commentators and Focus on the Family spokesmen spew out every year. All the same elements are there: Christians being persecuted by a powerful enemy, religious messages screened out of schools and public places, and longing for a return to the Christian heritage of the past.

Give up yet? That piece of doggerel was written by Henry Ford, American industrialist… in his 1920 anti-Semitic screed, The International Jew.

Here’s some more from that publication:

People sometimes ask why 3,000,000 Jews can control the affairs of 100,000,000 Americans. In the same way that ten Jewish students can abolish the mention of Christmas and Easter out of schools containing 3,000 Christian pupils.

When Cleveland and Lakewood arranged for a community Christmas, the Cleveland Jewish press said: “The writer of this has no idea how many Jews there are in Lakewood, but if there is only one, there should be no community Christmas, no community religion of any kind.” That is not a counsel of tolerance, it is a counsel of attack. The Christmas literature of American Judaism is fiercer than the flames of the Inquisition.

—At the request of a rabbi, three principals of Roxbury, Massachusetts, public schools agree to banish the Christmas tree and omit all references to the season in their schools.—Jewish pupils of Plainfield, New Jersey, petition the abolition of the Bible and Christian songs from the schools.—The Council of the University Settlement, at the request of the New York Kehillah and the Federation of Rumanian Jews, adopts this resolution: “That in holiday celebrations held annually by the Kindergarten Association at the University Settlement every feature of any sectarian character, including Christmas trees, Christmas programs and Christmas songs, and so on, shall be eliminated.”

In its recitation of alleged incidents, its complaint that the minority are imposing their will on the majority, and the belief that every message is permitted except the Christian one, Ford’s tract is a dead ringer for the Christian-right rants we still hear today. Replace “Jews” with “secular progressives” or “atheists”, and “New York Kehillah” with “ACLU”, and these words could have come from the mouth of Bill O’Reilly or any of the right’s other modern-day culture warriors.

Appealing to religious prejudice, claiming the Christian majority is being persecuted and threatened by an unpopular minority, is a time-honored tactic used by genuine bigots past and present. By accusing others of doing what they themselves would like to do, they divert attention from their own goals. (It’s not just anti-Semites, either: books like Markos Moulitsas’ Taking on the System point out that almost identical screeds were produced by ultra-rightist groups like the John Birch Society during the McCarthy era, this time fingering Communists rather than Jews as the nefarious enemies of Christmas.) What’s remarkable is how little these messages of hate have changed over the decades, other than to substitute the name of whichever cultural group is currently in disfavor.

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...