Controversy erupted over Christmas week when the Washington Post tweeted out an opinion article by Raphael Lataster they had published in 2014. It claims to show that the existence of Jesus as a historical figure is likely no more than a myth. Critics questioned the timing of the tweet as a slap in the face to Christians preparing to celebrate one of their holiest days.
Possibly more importantly, many seized on the reaction to the 2014 publication. Historians, including a professor who had taught Lataster in a class about the historical Jesus, demolished the claims. Its ideas were described as “the fringe of the fringe,” and compared to anti-vaccine scientists’ efforts to prove their dubious assertions.
Given that the article has been widely debunked, what would lead the Washington Post to tweet it out, essentially rerunning it? If there is some news value in questioning the existence of Jesus in the Christmas season, why not at least run a new article that addresses the harsh criticisms of the original? Perhaps the Post has its reasons for ignoring those criticisms, but even so, why put this out during the Christmas season at all?
The Real and Pretend Wars on Christmas
As with so much news coverage these days, the answer to why this essay ran may well boil down to two words: Donald Trump. A reported story in the Post on December 24 might offer a clue. It was titled, “In a Pro Trump Town, They Never Stopped Saying Merry Christmas.” It’s a strange article, which acknowledges that most people never stopped saying “Merry Christmas,” yet goes on to paint Trump supporters from Linden, Tennessee, as paranoid, Bible-clutching rubes convinced by Trump that there is a war on Christmas.
In the Post’s defense, Trump himself has made the war on Christmas a centerpiece of his social conservatism. In a series of videos and tweets, the president has essentially claimed that we can finally say “Merry Christmas” again. This seems odd to the millions of Americans who never stopped saying it. But is Trump tapping into a real anti-Christian strain in the media and popular culture, and might the “Jesus is the Harry Potter of the First Century CE” Washington Post article be a part of that strain?
One reasonable question many have asked is whether the Post would have run an article questioning the facts about Mohammad on Ramadan, or of Moses on Passover. To the extent that such articles seem less likely, it’s because Christianity is viewed as the dominant religion in the United States, and therefore a more legitimate target for criticism.
It was Finley Peter Dunne who first said it is the job of journalists to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. But the phrase is best known from the play “Inherit The Wind,” where it is uttered by fictional journalist E.K. Hornbeck (based on H.L. Mencken) while covering the Scopes monkey trial. The notion was, and apparently still is, that Christianity exists in a comfortable place in our society.
The Bible’s Cultural Dominance Has Flipped
But we do not live in the 1920s of Mencken, where it was illegal to teach evolution in schools and perfectly normal to teach the Bible. For most of American history, religious freedom battles focused on protecting non-Christians (including atheists) from government sanctioning of Christianity. This took the form of bans on the Ten Commandments in courthouses, prayer in school, and preaching politics from the pulpit.
In recent years however, this basic framework of religious liberty questions has been turned on its head. Now it is the Christian baker who seeks protection from a government forcing him to violate his faith. It is the pro-life campus group that is demanding recognition from colleges unwilling to give it. Many Christians feel besieged by efforts that are no longer meant to deprive Christianity of dominance, but to drive it entirely into the shadows of public life.
In this context, the Post’s decision to again publicize an academically challenged refutation of the most basic premise of Christianity starts to look an awful lot like punching down. This brings us back to Trump. Many have asked why evangelicals would support a man whose life is far from an example of Christian ideals. The answer lies in the fact that they do not look at him as the embodiment of Christianity, but rather as its protector.
Does Christianity really need a protector? Is it actually being threatened with becoming a marginal force in American society? Here the answer is certainly yes. According to recent polls, only 53 percent of Americans believe in an anthropomorphic God. As this is a core doctrine of Christianity, lack of a prevailing belief in it challenges the notion that Christianity remains the dominant moral cultural force. Yet it is still treated as such, and therefore subject to attacks like the one leveled against it in the Post.
Christianity Deserves Equal Protection
Meanwhile, atheism, a belief system or lack thereof growing in U.S. adherents, is still treated as an underdog, marginalized perspective that requires protection from media and other cultural powers. This is an outdated and dangerous perspective. Today, atheism often has just as much, if not more, power in public matters, especially in education. Where are the articles in our top outlets focused on atheism’s inability to point to an absolute moral framework? Where are the attacks on the relativism it is indoctrinating many of our children with?
It is easy to roll one’s eyes at President Trump’s proclamation that he has made it okay to say “Merry Christmas” again. But that particular holiday greeting has always been a stand-in for a much deeper phenomenon in American culture. The presence and influence of Christianity is diminishing. So it is simply irresponsible for the Washington Post to push an article they know is flawed that so directly targets Christianity.
It is perfectly acceptable to explore the historic nature of Jesus. It happens in colleges across the world every day. But it should be done in a way that is respectful and balanced. The Washington Post article is neither.
News outlets need to adjust to the new country and culture in which they now exist. The protection of minority religious views that media has extended to Islam and Judaism must now be offered to Christianity, as well. Attacks on Christian belief are no longer a redress of historical inequality, they are now simply bigoted. And they need to stop.