As if Americans weren't divided enough, even in this season celebrating peace and good will, the public is split over whether shops should greet customers by saying "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays."
Just under half (49 percent) of those surveyed in a new poll said stores should have a "Merry Christmas" greeting policy, while 44 percent say businesses should opt for the more generic "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" out of respect for people of different faiths.
Robert Putnam of Harvard, a leading scholar of religion and co-author of "American Grace: How Religion Unites and Divides Us," said he was surprised at the popularity of the inclusive holiday greeting.
"That represents a major change over the last 50 years toward greater interfaith sensitivity," Putnam told Religion News Service
But it also means that the debate over the proper holiday salutation has become yet another flashpoint in the tinderbox that is America's ongoing culture war, and in the so-called War on Christmas clash that flares up every December.
A campaign by a Dallas church to develop an online "Grinch list"
of stores that don't use "Merry Christmas" was one of this year's more innovative battle tactics.
Not surprisingly, the new poll
by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), in partnership with Religion News Service, found that the December greeting dilemma also divides Republicans and Democrats.
Almost two-thirds (64 percent) of Republicans say stores should use "Merry Christmas," while nearly six in 10 (58 percent) of Democrats say they should opt for "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings."
One interesting religious split is that nearly 70 percent of white evangelical Protestants support the "Merry Christmas" greeting -- no surprise there -- and white mainline Protestants, generally more liberal, are also supportive, at 57 percent. Yet 55 percent of Catholics, who are usually more in line with mainline Protestants on such cultural issues, prefer that stores use something inclusive like "Happy Holidays."
The PRRI/RNS poll did show that whatever one's greeting preferences, Christmas itself is as popular as almost anything in America today, with 96 percent of respondents saying they celebrate Christmas. Seven percent said they celebrate Christmas along with another holiday.
But Christmas continues to have a strong secular streak, as Americans are more likely to watch movies like "It's a Wonderful Life" (83 percent) than attend religious services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (66 percent). And reading "Twas The Night Before Christmas" (43 percent), the poem about Santa Claus (St. Nicholas, if you prefer), is as much a part of family observances as reading the Gospel story about the birth of Jesus (40 percent).
"Celebrations of the birth of Jesus in Christianity have always blended the explicitly religious with elements of the contemporary culture," said Robert P. Jones, head of PRRI. "That roughly equal numbers of Americans both read the story of the birth of Jesus from the Bible and the story of Santa Claus in ''Twas the Night before Christmas' is a continuation of that tradition."