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War on Christmas? More Americans say holiday displays should be kept off government property

POSTED: December 14, 2017 6:19 a.m.
Kelsey Dallas/

Pew Research Center

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If the war on Christmas is real, those who support public Nativity displays need to strengthen their defenses.

A declining number of Americans say Christian symbols like depictions of baby Jesus in a manger belong on government property, according to a new Pew Research Center survey on Christmas and faith. Sixty-six percent of U.S. adults support these displays today, compared to 72 percent in 2014.

"The decline is really concentrated among those who say they think Christian symbols like Nativity scenes should be allowed on their own," said Greg Smith, Pew's associate director of research. Around 3 in 10 Americans continue to support interfaith displays, which pair Christian displays with menorahs and other non-Christian symbols of the season.

Pew's new report analyzes responses from 1,503 U.S. adults and has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points for the total sample. The survey was conducted by telephone from Nov. 29 to Dec. 4, 2017.

Smith couldn't say definitively what drives people's views on holiday displays, but he did point to stark partisan and religious divides.

"I'm not sure it's possible to disentangle (these findings) and say that one factor matters more than others," he said. "Partisanship and religion are so often bound up together."

Nearly 8 in 10 of adults who identify as or lean Republican (79 percent) support Christian displays on government property, compared to 60 percent of those who identify as Democratic or lean in that direction, Pew reported.

There's an even bigger gap between the two parties when it comes to support for stand-alone Christian scenes. Fifty-four percent of conservatives say Nativity scenes and other Christian symbols should be allowed on government property even without representations of other faiths, compared to 27 percent of liberals, a difference of 27 percentage points.

Unsurprisingly, religiously unaffiliated Americans are less supportive of Christian symbols on government property than Christians. Half of religious "nones" are OK with these displays, compared to 73 percent of Christians, Pew reported.

The bigger story from this year's data is a six percentage point drop in Christian support from 2014, researchers noted.

"The change is most pronounced among white evangelical Protestants, who are less likely, by 10 percentage points, to favor displaying Christian symbols on government property today (80 percent) than in 2014 (90 percent)," Pew reported.

Public Nativity scenes are often in the news this time of year, whether in reference to a lawsuit, a theft or an animal-cruelty charge. Recent headlines have captured how shifting views on traditional Christian symbols can result in new, more creative displays.

This year, Saint Susanna Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts, tweaked its traditional Nativity scene to address gun violence, America Magazine reported. Above the regular crowd of manger visitors, they hung a call for peace and a list of cities affected by mass shootings.

In the town of Castenaso, Italy, Mary and baby Jesus are seated on a raft instead of in a barn, linking the scene to the international refugee crisis.

When asked about reimagined Nativity scenes, the Rev. Stephen Josoma, pastor of Saint Susanna, told the magazine that it's natural for people of faith to bring religious teachings to bear on modern political issues. "There's nothing more political than the Gospel," he said.

Religiously unaffiliated Americans are more likely to support Christian symbols on government property if they're accompanied by the symbols of other faiths, Pew reported. Twenty-seven percent of nones approve of interfaith displays, compared to 24 percent who are OK with Christian symbols by themselves.

On Sunday, Dec. 17, the Yale Humanist Community, an organization of people committed to living ethical and fulfilling lives for philosophical, rather than religious, reasons, will dedicate its "Lighthouse" sculpture in downtown New Haven, Connecticut. The group wanted to further diversify their city's presentation of Christian, Jewish and other religious symbols during the holiday season.

"There was an opportunity for there to be something more universal that represented shared human values," Chris Stedman, executive director of the organization, told the New Haven Register last year.

Declining support for public Nativity scenes isn't the only way Americans' views on Christmas are changing, according to the new research. The survey also showed decreased interest in Christmas-specific greetings.

"Today, fully half of the U.S. public (52 percent) says that a business' choice of holiday greeting does not matter to them," compared to 45 percent in 2005, Pew reported. Only one-third of Americans today (32 percent) say they prefer to be met with "Merry Christmas" when they come and go from stores.

These findings may disappoint President Donald Trump, who has spoken repeatedly about his desire to protect people's right to reference the Christian holiday in their December greetings.

"Remember I said we're bringing Christmas back? Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before. We're bringing Christmas back," Trump said during his remarks at the Utah State Capitol on Dec. 4.

It's unclear what the president meant, since first families have long focused on Christian traditions when decorating the White House for the holidays. There's been a Nativity scene on display there each year since 1967, according to The Washington Post.
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