Americans have a great ability to get lost in the forest of meaningless trivialities, missing things on the horizon that truly matter. Now that December has come, the forest is getting thick, indeed.
"Yeah, there's a lot of bad 'isms' floatin' around this world," the character known only as Alfred, a janitor at Macy's, says in the 1947 version of Miracle on 34th Street, "but one of the worst is commercialism. Make a buck, make a buck. Even in Brooklyn it's the same — don't care what Christmas stands for, just make a buck, make a buck."
The commercialism of Christmas is not a new concern. Neither is its cousin, the concern over popular culture's dilution of the true meaning of the season. But these concerns are merging in confusing ways. And so, many Americans in 2015 find themselves criticizing big businesses for not being Christ-centered enough in their commercialization of Christmas.
You want trivial? Some even find sinister motives in the designs of coffee cups.
Meanwhile, Christians and other religious groups are being tortured and killed by the thousands in many parts of the world, including some quite close to where Jesus ministered, and the collective outrage in the United States to this clearly non-trivial reality isn't enough to fill a stocking, or even a Starbucks cup.
In North Korea, China, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Sudan, religious persecution is especially bad, according to a recent report by UPI on a study by Aid to the Church in Need International, a Catholic foundation. In North Korea, 33 Christians who contacted other Christians in South Korea were summarily executed. South Korean television reports up to 50,000 North Koreans are imprisoned in re-education camps for practicing Christianity.
Meanwhile, chief among the atrocities committed by ISIS is a systematic destruction of believers, including Christians, Yazidis and Muslims. But ISIS isn't alone. Other terror groups — Boko Haram and al-Shabab, principally — also target faith groups with terror.
Rabbi David Saperstein, the U.S. ambassador at-large for international religious freedom, told NPR last month he is deeply distressed by these things.
"Freedom of conscience underlies all other rights," he said. "It's why our Bill of Rights begins with the free exercise of religion. And without the freedom of conscience, to live in accordance with your core values, all other rights are in peril."
The Founding Fathers couldn't have said it better. Yet, despite Saperstein's zeal and good intentions, the Obama administration has not made religious freedom a visible and persistent foreign policy priority.
Saperstein notes, correctly, that the nation can do little diplomatically when dealing with ISIS and other terror groups.
But it could do more when dealing with growing anti-Semitism in Europe or similar problems in other allied countries. It could send stronger signals about the role of religion in public life in this country, rather than attacking the Little Sisters of the Poor over contraceptive coverage.
But the public has little credibility attacking the Obama administration's record so long as its attention remains riveted on coffee cups and store clerks who say "Happy Holidays."
Try explaining to a Syrian Christian refugee why these things are so important.
Emma Green, an editor with The Atlantic, got it right when she recently wrote, "Coffee-cup outrage is flimsy when paired with real conflicts of conscience that have led to years-long lawsuits and businesses shutting down and significant public protests — and it is shameful in light of the violent persecution of Christians around the world."
Maybe average citizens can do little to stop ISIS, but they could do much through protests and campaigns to force this nation's leaders to make religious freedom a bigger priority. They might even raise enough noise to force passage of HR1150, a bipartisan measure that would elevate Saperstein's office and give him more tools.
The Christmas season abounds in much that is good and truly meaningful. It is rooted in the miraculous birth of a child who conquered evil and brought true hope to the world.
Of course, commercialism muddles that message, But confusing battles over it and other cultural issues waste energy that ought to be directed at more important and long-lasting attacks on believers who need help.