Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's The Daily Telegraph. He is the author of "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan."
(CNN) -- No Christmas is complete without a war on Christmas, and this year it's being fought on several fronts. NPR reported the White House attacking Republican intransigence over the debt talks in a report with a section titled "The Holiday Season is No Time to Threaten Middle-Class Pocketbooks." That prompted the Daily Caller to respond with the headline, "Disagreeing with Obama can ruin Christmas, says White House report." In the eyes of some liberals, the Republicans have become the party of the Grinch.
This must be news to conservatives who have always insisted that it's the Democrats who want to steal Christmas. To them, the war is being waged by liberal secularists against patriotic American Christians who want to celebrate the holiday loudly and publicly in the way Baby Jesus intended. Pat Robertson has hit out at those "miserable" atheists and Fox News has gone after Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for deciding not to host a Christmas tree lighting ceremony.
In other words, although the war on Christmas phenomenon might have something to do with rising unbelief among Americans, more likely it reflects growing partisanship among politicians. In an age when nothing is so sacred it can't be used to hurt a political opponent, Christmas is one more weapon that statesmen and stateswomen can use against each other.
But the meaning of the war on Christmas is actually bigger than partisan tomfoolery and isn't limited to right-wing fantasy, either. Some of it exposes genuine tensions within American politics and society.
Take the decision of the Santa Monica City Council to end the tradition of erecting nativity scenes or other displays in Palisades Park. The right to display a scene was hitherto decided by lottery, and the previous winter season atheists won 11 out of 14 spaces, which they used to erect enormous critiques of Christianity.
In response, locals lobbied the council to establish stricter guidelines about who could take part. The council decided that would be discriminatory, but it also didn't want to leave the system open to abuse by more offensive groups like neo-Nazis. So it decided the displays would have to stop altogether. That decision was upheld in November by a federal judge.
The local secularists were thrilled. "The free thinkers ... played the game of the religionists and they outsmarted them," Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Huffington Post. "They showed the Christian people of the city what it feels like to have a public park promoting views that offend your personal conscience. These views were on public property that were supposed to be owned equally by everyone."
This story is a classic example of the failure to reconcile different interests within a democratic society. Nobody involved was technically wrong. The secularist campaigners were right to say that the nativity displays should be open to everyone because they were on public land. Their Christian opponents were right to insist that anything erected to celebrate Christmas ought to give some priority to celebrating Christmas. And the council was right that, in the absence of consensus, it was better to allow no displays at all. The tragedy being that Gaylor's campaign ended up destroying a perfectly wonderful tradition in the name of fairness. And that hardly seems fair.
Unfortunately, Gaylor gets around almost as much as Santa Claus; now she's involved in an effort to take down a Jesus-shaped war memorial near a popular ski resort in Montana. There's a thin line between this sort of secularist activism and the politics of personal taste. In Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a jewelry shop manager called the cops on Salvation Army bell ringers because the noise was "raising her blood pressure and making her hate Christmas." In Colorado Springs, the Salvation Army was stopped from bell ringing because of a new ban on panhandling.
What's really happening isn't just a targeted, political war on Christmas but a more general battle for control of what goes on in the public sphere, especially around the holidays. Undoubtedly, some of this is motivated by anti-religious secularism. But it's also the product of living in a crowded multicultural environment where everyone risks getting on each other's nerves -- and we have to find better ways of getting along.
One of the reasons why "Happy Holidays" has risen in use as an alternative seasonal greeting to "Merry Christmas" is simply that it helps avoid occasions of offense and confrontation. Religious conservatives complain that it's a surrender to militant atheism. But if that's the case then the surrender is widespread. George W. Bush's White House cards wished everyone a happy "holiday season" and even Fox News has its own Holiday Wish List.
If there is a solution to this controversy then perhaps it's to try to treat it with a dash of humor and disdain. The Rev. Jonathan Morris was recently invited on "Fox and Friends" to unleash hell on the war on Christmas. Instead, he did the opposite. After pointing out that Christians have throughout the centuries taken much worse persecution (and, I might add, dished out a bit, too) he concluded, "If our Christmas is going to be all about getting upset at people trying to take away Christmas, isn't that silly, too?" Amen, Father.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley.