Richard Doerflinger

It is an annual tradition: If it’s Christmas, there must be a Grinch trying to steal it.

Vying for the Grinch award this year is Michael Weinstein, Air Force veteran and head of a group called the Military Religious Freedom Foundation.

He has attacked the nonprofit organization Wreaths Across America for placing Christmas wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers at national cemeteries. He compares this to “carpet-bombing” the graves with a “Christian gang sign.”

Mr. Weinstein says placing the wreaths on graves marked with a Star of David is “unconstitutional, an atrocity and a disgrace.”

But Wreaths Across America says its policy is to pause and pay respects at these graves, but refrain from placing a wreath out of respect for Jewish beliefs. Spokespeople for the cemeteries say they do likewise, and comply with any family’s objection to the wreath.

But the underlying reason for this dispute is worth some reflection. Mr. Weinstein says the wreath is “circular and made of evergreen to symbolize everlasting life through Jesus Christ.” And the practice of leaving Jewish gravestones without a wreath seems to acknowledge this as a possible interpretation.

But then, what to make of the wreaths decorating lampposts and storefronts all over the U.S.? Are the White House Christmas tree, and the dozens of trees and wreaths adorning that house, an unconstitutional establishment of religion? Should my parish church take down its sign asking people to “Keep Christ in Christmas” and declare victory?

That seems unlikely. As noted Dec. 19 by Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor, one recent survey reports that 93% of Americans celebrate Christmas — and another reports that 65% of Americans consider themselves Christians (one could add that far fewer attend church services).

Yet it’s hard to avoid those first six letters of the word “Christmas” (though some try to do so with “Xmas”). Secular historians may replace “B.C.” (before Christ) and “A.D.” (anno Domini, year of the Lord) with “B.C.E.” (before the Common Era) and “C.E.” (Common Era), but the dividing line between the two is still Christ’s birth — placing this event, then ignored by the powers that be, at the center of human history.

Frankly, we cannot imagine what our society would be like without the influence of Christianity. To cite one example, pagan Rome gave the “paterfamilias,” the father of the family, almost absolute authority over wife and children — to the extent that he could order a child to be killed before or after birth. Christians insisted that children (born and unborn), women, slaves and other marginalized persons are equally created in the image and likeness of God.

American efforts against slavery and racism were driven by Christian preaching. And a landmark manifesto on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights” of all members of the human family was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights approved by the new United Nations in 1948.

Canadian attorney John Humphrey, deeply involved in its drafting, said the U.N. had produced “something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot.”

Efforts to keep Christian respect for every human being without the “tommyrot” — the Incarnation, the miracles and Christ’s triumph over death — have been pursued for centuries. They have worn very thin, as philosophers redefine “dignity” to mean self-serving freedom, and politics seems like a game of warring factions.

Our secular neighbors may be more Christ-haunted than Christian, but they long for the peace and the universal goodwill included in the meaning of Christmas. Christians may find opportunities to say: “Aren’t these wonderful things to hope for? Guess where they’re from.”

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Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.