President Trump spoke about religious freedom at the Celebrate Freedom Concert in Washington D.C. on July 1. (The Washington Post)

The war on Christmas came early this year.

That is, according to President Trump, who devoted a large portion of his speech at a Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center on Saturday to railing against those who might try to shy away from overt references to Christianity in American discourse.

“Our religious liberty is enshrined in the very first amendment in the Bill of Rights. The American founders invoked our Creator four times in the Declaration of Independence,” Trump said. “Benjamin Franklin reminded his colleague at the Constitutional Convention to begin by bowing their heads in prayer. I remind you that we’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

Though the rally was meant to honor military veterans, Trump opened his speech by attacking the media and boasting of his election win.

“The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House,” he said, “but I’m president and they’re not.”

He then declared that he would fight any “bureaucrats” who “think they can run over your lives, overrule your values, meddle in your faith and tell you how to live, what to say and where to pray.” The mostly evangelical Christian crowd at the event — which was sponsored by the First Baptist Dallas megachurch and Salem Media Group — responded to Trump’s remarks with resounding applause.


President Trump at a Celebrate Freedom event at the Kennedy Center on Saturday. (Olivier Douliery/Bloomberg News)

“Politicians have tried — oh, have they tried — to centralize authority among the hands of a small few in our nation’s capital,” Trump said. “I see them all the time … But we know that parents, not bureaucrats, know best how to raise their children and create a thriving society. And we know that families and churches, not government officials, know best how to create a strong and loving community.”

After a pause, he added: “And, above all else, we know this: In America, we don’t worship government. We worship God.”

As cheers broke out after that line, Trump nodded his head and mouthed: “Thank you.” He then pumped his right fist as the crowd began chanting: “U-S-A! U-S-A!”

As The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey reported last year, one of Trump’s campaign promises was the assurance that Americans would see “Merry Christmas” being used more. It was a strategy that paid off come November:

Many of Trump’s promises, including his emphasis on “Merry Christmas,” included direct appeals to religious voters, especially to evangelical voters who came out and voted overwhelmingly in favor of him. His spiritual cabinet during the campaign was made up of conservative Christian leaders, many of whom identify with the prosperity gospel movement that links faith with wealth.

“When was the last time you saw ‘Merry Christmas’? You don’t see it anymore,” then-candidate Trump said in a campaign speech at Liberty University in January 2016. “They want to be politically correct. If I’m president, you will see ‘Merry Christmas’ in department stores, believe me, believe me.”

Though there has not been a Christmas yet since Trump took office, references to religious freedom during his presidency have centered on Christianity. For the first time in nearly two decades, the White House did not recognize Ramadan with an iftar dinner or an Eid al-Fitr celebration this year, which some viewed as a slight against Muslim American communities.

Trump’s campaign rhetoric — and speeches since becoming president — have extended a long argument between ideologues over holiday greetings. During his tenure, President Barack Obama was frequently accused by the right of being too politically correct in his annual holiday cards, even though he and Michelle Obama wished the nation “Merry Christmas” every year while in office in spoken and other addresses.

For years, retailers and politicians have found themselves at the center of the politicized debate over the use of the neutral greeting “Happy Holidays” — which has the potential to be even more offensive to some groups than “Merry Christmas,” according to a recent survey from Public Policy Polling.

The Post’s Christopher Ingraham parsed the survey results last year and surmised that those who were most offended by references to “Happy Holidays” included strong conservatives, Gary Johnson voters, Trump supporters and men.

“These are the same groups of people that tend to say there is too much political correctness in society, yielding a paradox,” Ingraham reported. “The folks who complain the most about political correctness are the ones who are the most offended by what they see as ‘incorrect’ speech.”

When it comes to holiday greetings, Donald Trump has one clear preference. (Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Read more:

America never stopped saying ‘Merry Christmas’

Should stores say ‘merry Christmas’? Trump says yes. But just ask the shop owners.

President Trump just ended a long tradition of celebrating Ramadan at the White House