A prominent Texas church, First Baptist of Dallas, has sparked controversy with an online "naughty-or-nice" list that allows congregants to target stores that wish customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas," in the hope that Christian consumer buying power can remind retailers of the reason for the season.
"Too many businesses have bowed down to political correctness," the Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist
, told The Dallas Morning News
. "I thought this would be a fun way to call out businesses that are refusing to celebrate Christmas."
The website, which launched this week, has a "Naughty"
list for stores whose signs and employees say "Happy Holidays" and a "Nice"
roster of those places that use "Merry Christmas."
To be sure, it's a novel tactic in the annual "War on Christmas" that is fought every December. But whether "fun" accurately describes the campaign may depend on whether your store makes the "naughty" list or the "nice" list, or whether you are a Christian who thinks commercialism -- or Christ -- should be the focus of Christmas.
Indeed, the website Jeffress set up is called GrinchAlert.com
, after the beloved Dr. Seuss book, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" But the point of that tale -- spoiler alert! -- is that the Grinch couldn't steal Christmas by making off with all the presents because Christmas was about the spirit of the season, rather than the material things associated with it.
"The appropriate thing for Christians to do at this time of year is to find new and more effective ways to extend the love and peace of the season to others, not to insist that such enterprises as commercial businesses put up Christmas trees," William Lawrence, dean of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, told The Morning News.
Dallas is increasingly diverse, ethnically and religiously, and insisting that stores -- even those that may be operated by non-Christians -- maintain a "Christmas-only" greeting policy could be bad for business as well as not terribly neighborly, or reflective of the various religious celebrations during December.
There is also the ethical problem of promoting an open-source, unmoderated list of "bad" stores in an era when the Internet can spread information like a prairie fire -- whether it's true or not, and without any nuance or opportunity for the accused to defend themselves.
"We're simply providing a forum," Pastor Jeffress said in justifying the Grinch Alert. "People may post whether they believe a business or organization ought to be on the naughty or nice list. We're not making that determination."
One of the businesses on the "Naughty" list is the Mi Cocina Restaurant in Southlake, and a woman who answered the phone -- with a cheery "Happy Holidays" -- said the generic greeting was corporate policy. She hadn't heard of the First Baptist campaign, and the restaurant is decked with a Christmas tree and decorations, so maybe walk-ons won't notice the absence of a "Merry Christmas" either.
Also on the "Naughty" list is the City Hall in Crowley.
"The city hall at Crowley has GIANT letters in front of the city buildings that say "HAPPY HOLIDAYS"......I say "booooooooo"!!! Merry Christmas is the true REASON for the SEASON!!!" the offended complainer wrote.
Crowley City Manager Truitt Gilbreath, who is Southern Baptist, said he didn't know the sign was a problem.
"We really didn't know we were making a statement of any sort," Gilbreath told USA Today
. "We've had that sign out for seven or eight years."
Moreover, Crowley raised $1,000 for the local House of Hope to buy gifts, clothes and food for needy families by displaying nine fully loaded Christmas trees at City Hall that were then auctioned off.
"We have a happy family of giving people here in Crowley," Gilbreath said. "If anyone were interested enough to check us out, they would see this is a spiritual community of people who help each other."
So far, large retail chains like Nordstrom's and Macy's have dominated the complaints list, which had seven entries as of Thursday. The "Nice" list has 10 entries.
Given that scope, it's hard to see any of this affecting the trend toward the blanket holiday greeting, much less the steamroller of consumer buying habits.
Others argue, however, that it's the principle that counts, and that First Baptist is on the side of the angels.
"This is about freedom, free speech and voting with your pocketbooks," Kelly Shackelford, head of the conservative Liberty Institute in suburban Plano, told The Morning News.
On the other hand, the "naughty-or-nice" shopping campaign could also boost the profile of First Baptist, a 13,000-member church that embarked on a major fundraising and building campaign after Jeffress was hired in 2007. In that time, Jeffress has made news with strong statements against homosexuality and Islam. But a spokesman said Wednesday that Jeffress was being interviewed on CNN and Fox News, among other stations. So this could be his biggest splash yet.