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Here are the President’s remarks on the lighting of the national Christmas tree.  Note that he doesn’t refer to it as a holiday tree.

More than 2,000 years ago, a child was born to two faithful travelers who could find rest only in a stable, among the cattle and the sheep.  But this was not just any child.  Christ’s birth made the angels rejoice and attracted shepherds and kings from afar.  He was a manifestation of God’s love for us.  And He grew up to become a leader with a servant’s heart who taught us a message as simple
as it is powerful:  that we should love God, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

That teaching has come to encircle the globe.  It has endured for generations.  And today, it lies at the heart of my Christian faith and that of millions of Americans.  No matter who we are, or where we come from, or how we worship, it’s a message that can unite all of us on this holiday season.

So long as the gifts and the parties are happening, it’s important for us to keep in mind the central message of this season, and keep Christ’s words not only in our thoughts, but also in our deeds . . . .

And this holiday season, let us reaffirm our commitment to each other, as family members, as neighbors, as Americans, regardless of our color or creed or faith.  Let us remember that we are one, and we are a family.

While it is possible to read his language in “universalistic” terms, it seems to me pretty explicitly addressed to Christians.  The message that “can unite all of us on this holiday season” includes a reference to the first table of the Decalogue.  Christians love a God who calls them to love their neighbors as themselves and to regard one another as God’s children.  I can certainly be generous to my fellows “in the spirit of the season” (not quoting Obama here) regardless of the faith or lack of faith they profess.  I can regard us all as members of a family “regardless of our color or creed or faith.”  (There’s room for more nuance here, to be sure, and perhaps some quibbling, but, again, this is a recognizably Christian message.)  Maybe the President means that “our commitment to each other” is “merely” as fellow Americans, but somehow I don’t think so; that’s not the context.

He may not mean a word of it, but he said it.  He called us to generosity and openhandedness and gratitude and unity by using recognizably Christian language.  Would any other language have worked as well?

I am most emphatically not one of those who would question the President’s personal faith .  To say the least, that’s politically unproductive.  Not presuming to know what’s in his heart, I am, however, prepared to explore the implications and ramifications of his public statements, as well as of his deeds.  I can praise or blame his speeches and deeds (even on religious grounds, if I need to) without impugning his faith.

Merry Christmas, Mr. President.

Joseph Knippenberg is Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University.

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