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'Celebrating Merry Christmas again': Trump opens new front in the culture wars

The president's blunt rhetorical appeals to his evangelical supporters run against the practices of his predecessors in the White House, critics say.

President Trump and first lady Melania Trump kick off the 95th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting with Dean Cain (left) and Kathie Lee Gifford on the Ellipse in Washington on Thursday.
President Trump and first lady Melania Trump kick off the 95th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting with Dean Cain (left) and Kathie Lee Gifford on the Ellipse in Washington on Thursday.Read moreKatherine Frey / Washington Post

WASHINGTON – In a St. Louis suburb this week to sell the Republican tax bill, President Trump appeared on stage with twin symbols of his vision of the country's heritage – a pair of American flags and a row of Christmas trees, adorned with red, white and blue ornaments.

"I told you that we would be saying 'Merry Christmas' again," Trump said, eliciting roars of approval from hundreds of supporters at the St. Charles Convention Center.

The theme had little to do with the president's push on taxes, aside from a reference early in his 46-minute speech that tax cuts would serve as a"big, beautiful Christmas present" to the economy. But the backdrop made clear that a president who has repeatedly used the flag to win leverage in a debate over the meaning of NFL players' protests during the national anthem was prepared to weaponize the trees in another front in the culture wars.

Trump was signaling to his base that he was following through on a campaign promise to shelve what he and his supporters view as political correctness aimed at marginalizing the nation's Christian majority in the name of diversity.

"Remember, I was the one when I was here the last time, I said, 'We're going to have Christmas again,' " Trump said. "I was the one that said, you go to the department stores and you see 'Happy New Year' and you see red and you see snow and you see all these things. You don't see 'Merry Christmas' anymore. With Trump as your president, we are going to be celebrating 'Merry Christmas' again."

More than a year before he was elected, Trump had begun working into his stump speech references to the proverbial "war on Christmas," a familiar refrain among some on the religious right and on Fox News during former president Barack Obama's eight years in office. Trump even held a Christmas rally in Grand Rapids, Mich., in Dec. 2015, with giant wreaths and the words "Merry Christmas" written in script on campaign posters.

Trump's embrace of that rhetorical flourish helped a New York business mogul who has not been a regular churchoer win crucial evangelical support during the Republican primary campaign and the general election. Now, entering his first December in office, Trump is embracing a similar tactic to help shore up his base supporters amid record-low approval ratings.

Cal Thomas, a syndicated, conservative columnist, said the notion of a "war on Christmas" is nonsense. But he acknowledged that Trump tapped into the anger among some on the religious right that their values have been disregarded in a nation that has grown increasingly diverse.

"It's pushback," Thomas said. "There are a lot of churchgoing, flag-waving, tax-playing, committed-in-marriage individuals who see all their values and faith and what they believe in trashed regularly. They are told to take a back seat to everything they regard as unholy and unwise, and they are tired of it."

Trump has made other rhetorical and symbolic changes. The White House's traditional holiday party for the media, which will be held Friday, has been rebranded under Trump as a Christmas party – prompting Politico to send a survey to reporters asking if they objected to the change.

Inside the White House's living quarters, first lady Melania Trump, who oversaw this year's seasonal decor, chose to feature a red, green and gold color scheme. The Trumps' Christmas cards read "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year," replacing the more generalized "Season's Greetings" favored by the Obamas.

But critics, including some Christian scholars, said Trump's approach is antithetical in a nation founded on the principle that the government should tolerate diversity of religious faiths and refrain from playing favorites.

"It was bad in the campaign, but worse in government," said Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister and author of "Presidential Campaign Rhetoric in an Age of Confessional Politics."

"As president of the United States, Trump is president of all the people, not just those who celebrate Christmas," Kaylor said. "That suggests that some are not full citizens if they don't practice a particular religious tradition. And it's not just non-Christians. There are some Christian groups that don't celebrate Christmas."

Kaylor noted that the nation's earliest presidents spoke carefully about religion, employing terms such as "providence" and "divinity" but refraining from more specific references to Christian holy days.

"If Thomas Jefferson were here today talking the same way," Kaylor said, "there would be a large swath of conservative Christians who denounce him in even stronger terms than they did Obama."

Former Obama aides bristle at the suggestion that the 44th president did not speak openly about Christianity and his own faith. Despite having attended church services more regularly than Trump before taking office, Obama faced constant criticism from the religious right that he had neglected to defend Christians in a rush to embrace tolerance of Muslims and those of other religious views.

In late 2011, then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a candidate for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination, released a video asserting that "there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in schools."

"As president, I'll end Obama's war on religion," Perry said.

Trump, too, got into the act, tweeting in December 2011 that Obama "issued a statement for Kwanza [sic] but failed to issue one for Christmas." Trump included a link to a story on the issue from the conservative Gateway Pundit blog.

Such attacks were wildly off base. Obama mentioned Christmas, along with other religious holidays, in videos and social media, and he was the first president to host an annual Easter prayer breakfast in the White House, said Joshua Dubois, head of the White House's Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships in Obama's first term.

"President Obama always sought to create an environment where everybody felt welcome for the holidays," Dubois said. "There was a small percentage of Americans who believed false things about Obama, but we did not focus on that."

Trump's critics said his personal conduct has betrayed his attempts to claim ownership of the Christmas spirit. On the same day he spoke near St. Louis, for example, Trump retweeted to his 44 million followers anti-Muslim videos posted by Jayda Fransen, of Britain First, a far-right, ultranationalist group. The president's endorsement of that material prompted a rebuke from British Prime Minister Theresa May.

"The irony here is that when you compare Obama and Trump, Obama in all aspects of traditional Christian character is clearly much more devout, he lives a lifestyle much closer to traditional Christian teaching," Kaylor said.

"I come from this as a believer," the pastor added. "One thing that has frustrated me is too often the Christian community finds themselves getting really excited about a little rhetorical garnish: 'Merry Christmas.' So he says that? That's really not that important."