Opinion columnist

Christmas is back, and better than ever: Haven't you heard? "People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again," President Trump declared on Twitter on Christmas Eve, with an unmistakable note of triumph.

As has been widely pointed out, this whole enterprise is a farce. But it's a particular kind of farce: One we might call a "Trumpish victory." If a Pyrrhic victory is one that secures a minor win at the cost of a larger defeat, a Trumpish victory is a nominal success that illuminates an overall loss: In this case, interpreting a greeting-card salutation as a win for Christianity when it's really another episode in a war of resentment that shares little with the Christian faith.

"I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!!!" Trump's tweet continued. "Trump just hasn't put Christ back in Christmas, but he's also put prayer back into the White House," rejoiced Paula White, Trump's on-hand evangelical Christian, during a Monday appearance on Fox News. Rev. Franklin Graham echoed her sentiment during his own Fox News spot: "I'm so excited that the president isn't afraid to mention the name of Jesus Christ."

It has been lengthily observed that President Barack Obama said "Merry Christmas" during his tenure as commander in chief and as recently as this year; that Trump has gladly uttered "Happy Holidays" in the past; that nobody ever really stopped wishing their friends and loved ones a Merry Christmas; that prayer has long been in the White House; and that Trump himself seems almost comically indifferent to the Christian religion unless it can be summed up in a phrase that might, hopefully, offend somebody.

It's possible that, seeing all the ruckus being raised over the greeting, some person somewhere felt newly encouraged to wish a neighbor a merry Christmas. But it's also the case that more Americans (52 percent) don't care what store clerks say to them at the holidays than consider Christmas a primarily religious holiday to begin with (46 percent), and that acknowledging the secure right of private citizens to say whatever they want — festive greetings notwithstanding — is affirming the same socio-political order that permits people to be credibly offended by whatever it is you choose to say. You can say "Merry Christmas," in other words, not because there's anything special about Christianity, but precisely because there isn't.

Trump's defenders don't bother saying the purported resurgence of their preferred salutation signals any kind of comeback for Christianity itself; they're concerned with the greeting as a speech act, as rebellion against the "political correct police," as White inartfully put it. Moreover, White emphasized, Trump has "put justice back into, and religious freedom back into, our courts." It's not about evangelization, in other words, and it's not about anything so bold as the secular state affirming the truth-value of Christianity. It's about freedom, liberty and exploiting the resentments that arise in a society where people hold vastly different, diametrically opposed, emotionally charged beliefs that they are expected to keep private. Even Breitbart News agrees. When the 30,000-member Freedom from Religion Foundation took out an ad in the New York Times criticizing Trump partly for his merry Christmas campaign, the conservative outlet countered that "Trump . . . has made religious freedom a hallmark of his agenda," citing Trump's vow that "We will not allow people of faith to be targeted, bullied or silenced again and we will never stand for religious discrimination" as a summary of his ethos.


President Trump. (Susan Walsh/AP)

The liberty framing is crucial. It means that Christian greetings, like other Christian signs and symbols, ought to be permitted to private citizens because the state ought not privilege one religion over any other. This is a classically liberal approach to religion, and it presumes that religion is something that can be safely privatized, domesticated, narrowed to a point of personal preference or, if you're feeling cheeky, a salutation proffered to a store clerk you don't know as they pick up working hours over the holidays. Go ahead and say it if you want, or don't if you don't; if you get really lucky, somebody you already don't like may even be bothered by it. This sentiment contains almost every pathology of contemporary American life, but it's not Christian, and aggressively wishing others a "Merry Christmas" strictly to assert that your in-group is currently empowered isn't a victory for the faith, even if it passes for one in our current conditions.

On the other hand, if you want to see the measure of a politician's commitment to Christianity, try telling them something they don't want to hear. In a Nov. 22 letter to the Senate analyzing the Republicans' tax reform bill, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that "Congress must . . . make certain that the nation does not further enshrine indifference toward the poor into law," a most un-Christian practice, by amending its legislation to "better ensure a just and moral framework for all." Congress didn't listen.