BOB GARFIELD:: The holidays are upon us, with all the good cheer and generosity of spirit that marks the season.
BILL O'REILLY: I am not going to let oppressive, totalitarian, anti-Christian forces in this country diminish and denigrate the holiday and the celebration.
BOB GARFIELD:: That is the redoubtable Bill O'Reilly, host of the O'Reilly Factor on Fox News, inveighing against the liberals who he says are laying siege to Christmas.
BILL O'REILLY: I'm going to use all the power that I have on radio and television to bring horror into the world of people who are trying to do that.
BOB GARFIELD:: In this crusade, he is joined by prominent members of the Christian right, including Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, and most especially, Fox News anchor John Gibson, who's written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse Than You Thought.
JOHN GIBSON: It's like the secret bombing of Cambodia. It was a secret from everybody except the people getting bombed. Same deal here -- people trying to keep Christmas in schools and parks and libraries and city halls know about the war on Christmas. The people waging this war are trying to keep it secret, but it's too late. They have been outed!
BOB GARFIELD:: Last month in Salon, Michelle Goldberg traces the history of Gibson's vast conspiracy theory, which she says is assembled out of old reactionary tropes, urban legends and increasingly organized hostility to the American Civil Liberties Union. And Goldberg concedes that people like Gibson can build their case on some choice anecdotes.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: There are damning stories out there. They're not difficult to find. There was a case in Massachusetts where students were suspended for handing out candy canes with religious messages attached. There was the case that Gibson mentions in Mustang, Oklahoma, where a principal who was fearing a lawsuit cut a nativity scene from the school Christmas pageant. The place where Gibson is really dishonest is where he attributes that both to a liberal plot and, more specifically, to the American Civil Liberties Union.
BOB GARFIELD:: It turns out the ACLU has actually been occasionally on the other side of the fight, defending the free speech rights of those who want to talk about Christmas in public places.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: That's absolutely true. The ACLU wrote a brief defending the students that were suspended in Massachusetts. One of their more famous cases was defending a woman named Rita Warren who called herself "The Lone Ranger of the Manger" and who made it her life mission to put nativity scenes in public places. There are a lot of cases like this. They just get very little attention.
BOB GARFIELD:: On their shows, Gibson and Bill O'Reilly have vilified the ACLU and George Soros for allegedly having some secret plan to destroy Christmas. But they've also gone after department stores for eliminating the phrase "Merry Christmas" from in-store displays and advertising and so forth. What's that all about?
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: The idea that this is part of a plot - I mean, there are stores that, you know, wanting to kind of appeal to as many people as possible, try to use the broadest possible language. That's not that surprising. But having been told that "happy holidays" is intended as a direct assault against Christianity, you actually are now having people in department stores, you know, somebody says, "Happy holidays" to them in Wal-Mart and suddenly they're writing angry letters to the management. And that kind of starts a lot of these tempest in a teapots that then become part of the larger story of the war on Christmas.
BOB GARFIELD:: I'm gathering you've divined a difference that Gibson and O'Reilly have not been able to identify, and that is between trying to kill off Christmas and Christian values and trying not to offend, or, at least to embrace, the religions and cultures of a lot of people.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, what I would say is that for people like Gibson and O'Reilly who not just want to have Christianity affirmed but want to have Christianity affirmed as the kind of American faith, and want this constant affirmation that this is a Christian nation, anything that would seem to dilute that seems to them to be a de facto assault on Christianity. And I don't think that that's just me reading things into this. You probably know about the statements that Gibson made on Janet Parshall's radio show - Janet Parshall, the Christian broadcaster. Gibson basically said that if somebody wants to follow what he calls the wrong religion, that's between them and God. Then he says, quote, "But in the meantime, as long as they're civil and behave, we tolerate the presence of other religions around us without causing trouble, and I think most Americans are fine with that tradition."
BOB GARFIELD:: All right. Now, these sentiments, as shocking and/or comical as they seem, depending on your point of view, aren't new. They have quite a heritage in American society. Tell me about the history of the so-called "anti-Christmas plot."
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, it first shows up, as far as I've been able to find, in The International Jew, by Henry Ford, in the 20s, which is his book about malign Jewish conspiracies and Jewish influence in American life. And he talks about a plot to remove Christmas from the public square. And he also links together several different incidents in which Jewish groups objected to carol singing or to Christmas trees or to, you know, participating in Christmas pageants. Then it reoccurs in the 1950s, with the John Birch Society. And the enemy is no longer Jews. Now it's the United Nations' one-worlder. And they actually, in 1959, issued a pamphlet called "There Goes Christmas," warning about a plot to remove Christmas decorations from the nation's department stores and replace them with symbols of one-worldism as an opening wedge in the greater struggle to undermine the Christian character of America.
BOB GARFIELD:: Now, there's another organization that has come into the rescue in various of these cases - the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center. Tell me about Charlie Haynes and what he's been able to do.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Okay. Well, Charlie Haynes is actually somebody that Gibson cites as a hero in his book, somebody who he says is always coming to the rescue when a school is overreacting, like banning religious or Christmas iconography or performances or speech. When I talked to Haynes, he said that there's absolutely no war on Christmas and that, in fact, there is more religion in public schools today than ever in modern history. Those were his words. The difference is, is that it's not really coming from the top. There's not a lot of evangelical Christianity being imposed by school administrators. What you have instead are things like Bible clubs and prayer studies and students giving each other religious literature and prayers around the flagpole, and all of this religious activity that's generated by students, that's protected under the First Amendment and that's kind of flourishing in public schools all across the country.
BOB GARFIELD:: So then let's just stipulate for the moment that there is, in fact, no conspiracy to take Christmas away from Christian Americans. But we have broadcasters on a national cable channel fanning the flames of resentment and paranoia. What do you think they're up to?
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Apparently it's good for ratings. Otherwise I would think that would have dropped it by now. But also, a lot of the kind of Republican or conservative pet issues, the things that get the crowd all excited, are probably not working that well right now. The war is increasingly unpopular. It's hard to kind of gin up a lot of anger against President Bush's critics at a time when President Bush is so unpopular. So this is a way to kind of really rally the base and get people angry and get people to feel under attack, polarizing the country and hoping that you end up with the bigger half when it splits.
BOB GARFIELD:: Now, your last name is Goldberg. How can I take what you have to say seriously? Maybe you're just one of them.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: Well, I am, and I got my memo from George Soros today, and he told me that this is what I should start saying.
BOB GARFIELD:: [CHUCKLES] Michelle, happy holidays.
MICHELLE GOLDBERG: [LAUGHS] And merry Christmas.
BOB GARFIELD:: Michelle Goldberg is a senior writer for salon.com. Her new book, Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, will be in bookstores in the spring. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER: "HAPPY HOLIDAYS"]
BOB GARFIELD:: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited - by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Katie Holt and Kevin Schlottmann. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media, from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.