Being Secular During Religious Holidays and the Real Origins of the Religious Right

What if the Christmas tree had more to do with paganism than Christianity? What if your favorite holiday celebrations were more inclusive, less religious, and yet equally festive? And find out the real origin of the religious right

Episode 69: Being Secular During Religious Holidays and the Real Origins of the Religious Right

What if the Christmas tree had more to do with paganism than Christianity? What if your favorite holiday celebrations were more inclusive, less religious, and yet equally festive? We explore secular alternatives like Human Light and Festivus, and address the ‘Happy Holidays’ vs ‘Merry Christmas’ debate in an attempt to foster inclusivity and respect for everyone’s beliefs during this festive season.

Strap in as we journey back to the rise of the religious right in the 70s and 80s, a movement not birthed out of conflicts over sex education or abortion, but a court ruling disallowing tax exemptions for religious schools endorsing racial discrimination. We analyze the political activism of Jerry Falwell and Ralph Reed, and their influence on the 2016 and 2020 elections. Ronald Reagan’s role in the movement and he led to Donald Trump. We round off the episode by spotlighting the issue of conservative religious groups violating tax laws and the IRS’s backlog of untouched cases due to political influence. Beware that you aren’t indirectly supporting discrimination or a conservative agenda.

00:45 Being secular during religious holidays
15:07 The Real Origins of the Religious Right

Click to open in any app


How to Celebrate HumanLight, A December Holiday for Humanists
Here’s When to Say ‘Happy Holidays’ Instead of ‘Merry Christmas’

Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right by Randall Balmer (can be ordered from any book store if not in stock)
The Evangelicals: The Real Origins of the Religious Right, and Why It Matters (video)


Click Here to Read Full Transcript

00:02 – Voice Over (Announcement)
This is Glass City Humanist a show about humanism, humanist values, by a humanist. Here is your host, Douglas Berger.

00:11 – Douglas Berger (Host)
In this episode we look at how a secular person can be included when there are so many religiously based holidays being celebrated at this time. Then we take a deep dive into the real origins of the religious right.

00:25 – Voice Over (Announcement)
Glass City Humanist is an outreach project of the secular humanists of western Lake Erie, building community through compassion and reason for a better tomorrow.

00:45 – Douglas Berger (Host)
As this is being recorded, it is the month of December Every year. The month of December there are many, many holidays. I took a look to see how many holidays are celebrated in December and obviously there’s quite a few religious holidays. We have Christmas, obviously there’s Advent, hanukkah, feast of the Holy Family, the Death of Prophet Zaruthra, then you have Kwanzaa. Like I said, those are just religious holidays.

Now some people question when we’re talking about humanism, I guess they come out and they say well, I guess you aren’t allowed to celebrate these holidays, right, because you’re a humanist, you’re non-religious, You’re secular. Most of us are secular and that’s not necessarily true. One of the main things about holidays that we latch on to, even though we don’t go for the religious meaning, is it’s a time to gather with friends and family and honor and celebrate the end of the year, because we have New Year’s Eve coming up at the end of the month and it’s wintertime and it’s time to gather and cook some food and have a communal meal, pass out gifts. There’s a lot of things that you can do that aren’t necessarily specifically religious and still celebrate a holiday, and there’s also some, oddly enough, some secular type holidays in December as well, one that’s been around for a little while is called Human Light. The date for Human Light is December the 23rd, which is probably one of the reasons why I don’t personally celebrate it. I try to avoid secular things that co-opt religious things, and having it on the 23rd just seems too much. But we also have the Winter Solstice, which is the 21st 22nd December.

There’s also one that’s based in TV history called Festivus. That was a holiday created by the character George Costanza on Seinfeld, by his father, as a counterpoint to the crash commercialism of Christmas, which still exists. There’s still a lot of commercialism about Christmas, and so the character’s dad had come up with Festivus and he had a Festivus poll and giving of grievances and tests of strength. It caught on. I mean, it’s still popular for many people who follow the TV show. But that’s one way.

The other thing to consider too is a lot of the trappings of the Christmas holiday is not originally religious. Having a Christmas tree in your house that’s a pagan ritual. The pagans used to do that. They used to bring evergreens into their house in order to bless the winter and making sure that they have a good harvest the next spring. So they would bring evergreens, which never died during the winter time into the house and decorate it with candles and things like that. And in fact most people kind of ignore or don’t acknowledge that one of the strictest religious orders the guys that are the people that we celebrate for founding coming to the New World, the Puritans, who had come to the New World that eventually became the United States in order to practice their religion freely. They outlawed Christmas Because back in those times, back in the 1600s, 1700s, christmas was a party, drunkenness, public drunkenness, and it was an all night party and debauchery and stuff like that. So when the Puritans got their own area in Massachusetts, one of the first things they did was they outlawed the celebration of Christmas.

A lot of religious conservatives, when they’re going on about the war on Christmas, they forget that their brethren in the early days had outlawed it. And there’s still some religious groups that don’t celebrate Christmas. I believe Jehovah Witnesses, they don’t celebrate Christmas. There’s also some extreme religious conservatives that don’t celebrate Christmas. They don’t believe in giving gifts to people, they only believe in giving gifts to Jesus. This one article I read what they would do is they would have a birthday cake for Jesus and it would be all about Jesus because obviously in the story that’s why it’s called Christmas, because it’s the birth of Jesus, even though the dates, you know, the historical record is murky and anyway we’re not going to get into that today.

The other thing that we have, the other conflict that we have sometimes with religious conservatives, is saying happy holidays, to be inclusive. A lot of retail clerks and people going about their business during the holiday season, you know, you’ll see somebody. You’ll say happy holidays. Well, religious conservatives just get all up in arms about it and, like I said, they call it the war on Christmas because you’re trying to outlaw Christmas and that’s not the case.

Basically, if you say happy holidays to somebody, you’re trying to be as inclusive as you can Because you don’t know that person. That’s the thing is, you come up to a person and I think it’s wrong to assume that one that they’re Christian and two that they celebrate Christmas. You know, they might not. They might not be Christian, they might not be, they might not celebrate Christmas. So saying happy holidays is you’re being nice and considerate to somebody and it’s being inclusive. Maybe it’s somebody who celebrates Kwanzaa, you know. Maybe it’s somebody that is Orthodox and they’re following the advent, or or the Orthodox Russians, russian Orthodox Church. They don’t even celebrate Christmas. They celebrate Christmas in January. The birth of Christ is celebrated on, I believe, january the 7th, you know, and so if you say Merry Christmas to them, they’re not gonna know what you’re talking about. But if you say happy holidays, that’s just a way of building relationships with people and that’s important. You know, a lot of times when we have strife and violence about surrounding religion, it’s because people don’t want to know each other, they don’t want to build relationships and and know that that we’re all in the same boat and that we need to work together and do these things, and so it’s important to say that to people, say happy holidays.

The other thing that I wanted to talk about with, in particular, humanism in the holidays and ways for non-religious people to celebrate and and I kind of wanted to, this is something that comes up every year is one of the things that my Humanist group, the secular humanists of Western Lake Erie, one of the things that we’ve done the past few years, is we’ve sponsored a family through the Lucas County Children’s Services, and what that means is that that we tell them that we’ll sponsor a family. They assign us somebody with their wants and needs and we fill it and we get to get them gifts, because a lot of the, a lot of the families that that Go through the Lucas County Children’s Services, they’re struggling, they need help and it’s something nice to do and one of the things that I get from members that Talk to me about this is is you know they’re like, you know these people need help All year round and they do. There’s a lot of people that are struggling that need assistance all year round in and they have a point. It just seems disingenuous at times to focus so much on Holiday time December, november, december to Do charity work and to help people. It seems kind, it seemed to me. It seems a little bit condescending to the people that are struggling that need assistance. Well, you know, throughout the rest of the year we’re not going to do anything for you, but hey, here in December we’re going to clean out our closet here, some old clothes we don’t wear, or? Or my group one.

One year we volunteered at one of the local food banks and we were clearing out all this crappy food. It was like stuff that you wouldn’t even buy, you people normally wouldn’t consume Normally, and they had shelves just chalk full of stuff Stuff that was close to Expiration date. You know, canned goods you can’t keep canned goods forever and it looked like people were cleaning out their cupboards and getting rid of canned goods that they had had for years, you know, and and it was just bothersome and I and so one of the things that we decided to do was when we when we set up our campaign for this year in particular is let people know that we acknowledge that these people Need assistance all year round, and we’re going to try to do something all year round. We have tentatively plan that we’re going to volunteer at a food bank, probably in February, and to Coincide with Darwin Day Charles Darwin Day and that’s one of the things we want to do is go in February and then we’ll try to do it again in in the next quarter, like in during the summer, and and try to find opportunities where we can help people all year round, because people need help all year round.

The other thing, too, is when we’re helping food banks, one of the things that we want to do is we also want to donate cash, actual money, to the food banks, not just our old canned goods, our old food that we want to get rid of our old clothes. You know things like that. You know, when you donate to, to Other charities that like Goodwill and Salvation Army I don’t know why people would donate to Salvation Army, but anyway, that’s a whole other story we’re not going to get into, but you know that’s one of the things that we want to do. Going forward and and in. That’s kind of like a common sense thing that we’ve come up with is that we are going to identify places and things where we can help people all through the year.

You know, we might try to sponsor a family Locally. You know, outside of an agency. Maybe we hear about somebody that needs help. Maybe they have I don’t know Common thing a house fire, maybe they got burned out from a house fire and they need assistance. We might try to assist them with that way.

We’re still a small group, so there’s not a lot we can do, but we’re going to try and and one of the things that we talked about and was about how religious groups like Catholic Charities and some of these other big Charitable groups are able to to do a lot because they have a large infrastructure and that makes it hard for a small group like ours, but we’re going to try to do what we can to help people and try to do that all year round.

So when it’s coming up to the holidays and and You’re looking, you know, like I said, there’s many different holidays that you can celebrate during December. It doesn’t matter, you can even make up your own if you want and and the main thing is, you know, just Coming together with people that maybe you don’t see all the time, sharing a communal meal, maybe exchanging gifts, it doesn’t matter. And so you can still fit in during this holiday time with religious people who are celebrating it for different reasons. But you know you don’t have to be excluded and and it also would also do well For you to say that people happy holidays, to try to be as inclusive as possible.

14:53 – Voice Over (Announcement)
For more information about the topics in this episode, including links used, please visit the episode page at GlassCityHumanistshow.

15:07 – Douglas Berger (Host)
One of our recent monthly programs, in fact the one we just had in December for the Secular Humanists of Western Lake Geary, we talked about the real origins of the religious rite and we showed a video of a talk given by historian Randall Ballmer. He’s a professor of church history and religion studies at Dartmouth and he wrote a book. It was called Bad Faith Race and the Rise of the Religious Rite, and so the talk that we showed in our interview and I’ll play a clip in a little bit was given last year, in 2022, after the Dobs decision, and he talks about one of the myths about the rise of the religious rite in claiming that it was all about abortion, stopping abortions, and he said that was not true and he’s done historical research. He’s talked to the people, the powers that be in the religious rite movement, the evangelical, and we’re talking about evangelical Christianity, which makes up a large part of the religious rite. We’re talking about people like Jerry Falwell, who was the founder of Liberty University and his church in Virginia, and Paul Reinrich, and there’s quite a lot of Ralph Reed, and basically what it is is we’re talking about evangelical Christians who use their religion to justify their conservative agenda, political agenda. So they’re using their religion to justify their politics and, as Professor Ballmer points out, that’s a bad mix, and that’s one of the reasons why we have the First Amendment, because one of the things it’s trying to prevent is people using their religion to hurt other people, either taking away their rights or making the Bible part of law, making law out of the Bible, things like that. And so Professor Ballmer did a lot of research in writing his book and he discovered that it’s a myth that the rise of the religious rite in the 70s and 80s was the result of a battle against abortion. And in fact, he points out that Jerry Falwell didn’t have a sermon against abortion until 1979. And some other religious evangelical groups, like the Southern Baptist Convention and some others, actually came out with statements in the late 60s, early 70s particularly around the time that Roe v Wade was decided that called for the legalization of abortion. And he also points out that a lot of Protestant evangelicals didn’t latch onto abortion because they considered it a Catholic thing, because Catholics have always been opposed to abortion. And so he had a lot of interesting things to talk about in this talk and, like I said, I’m going to play a clip here in a little bit and I’m going to share the link in the show notes so you can go watch it, because it’s very interesting a lot of the things that he talks about. Now I’m going to date myself.

I grew up in the 70s and early 80s when I was in school, and I had always understood that the rise in the religious rite came about because of conflict with teaching sex education in public schools. That was a big thing. When I was in junior high school in the early 80s, late 70s, early 80s, was teaching sex education and it got a lot of feedback from conservative parents who didn’t want their little Timmy and Joni to be taught sex education. In fact, the point that I made out at the meeting was I had two friends of mine, two good friends. They were brothers, tracy and Terry, and they came from a very strict conservative religious household, so much so that they weren’t allowed to watch much TV. They weren’t allowed to watch much TV. They weren’t allowed to go to R rated movies, that sort of thing. They weren’t allowed to go dancing oh boy, that sounds like the plot line to Footloose, anyway and so one of the things that one of the conflicts that they had with doing it in my school district is parents demanded to be able to opt out their kids if they didn’t want them to learn. And Tracy and Terry were the only two people in my class that opted out of sex education, and they had to. When we were going to start that chapter in our health class, they actually had to get up, take their books and leave the room, and then they went to another room and did homework and so you have a kid 10, 11, 12 year old kid. Basically, you’re being ostracized because that’s the one thing you want to draw attention to yourself when you were that young and they had their attention drawn to them, which they did not wish for it to be. Anyway, so that’s what I always thought. I always thought it was sex education, and other people think it was abortion. And Professor Ballmer points out that it was none of that. It wasn’t abortion at all, and in fact, I’m going to spoil it. So if you don’t want to hear it, turn down the volume now.

The real origins of the religious right is racial discrimination, believe it or not? Well, for those of us who’ve studied this area for a long time, it’s not a surprise, but it might be a surprise to people that don’t get into the politics of church and state, but basically what happened was that there was a court decision in 1971 that disallowed tax exemptions for religiously based or religiously church sponsored schools that were segregated, that discriminated against children of color, that didn’t admit them, and many of these schools were founded by churches, and normally things that are founded by churches and operated by churches get a tax exemption from the federal government. And so somebody sued, or this group of parents sued, because they didn’t want this school to get tax exemption, and so the court ruled that if the school was founded and one of their policies was to discriminate, they could not have a tax exemption, which is generally true in general that racial discrimination. You can’t get a tax exemption for racial discrimination. That’s one of the protected classes in the Civil Rights Act.

And so a lot of these conservatives who were segregationists didn’t want the government to tell them that they had to admit black students, and so they started getting politically active, and most of the people that were politically active at this point were the power brokers, the people in charge, like the Jerry Falwells and the Ralph Reeds of the time, paul Reinerich and Francis Schaefer and some other bigwigs. They were politically active for that. They wanted to be able to discriminate based on race. They wanted to keep out, because when you had the Brown v Board of Education that forced the integration of public schools, a lot of these white families took their kids out of school, public school, and founded these private academies, religious academies, and kept out the black students. So this was the whole thing. So that was what set up the rise of the religious right was they wanted to be able to discriminate. And one of the big named schools that lost tax exemption was Bob Jones University, I believe it’s in South Carolina. They lost their tax exemption and they’ve never asked for it back and they used that in their advertising that they don’t take any money from the federal government.

And the thing is, you know, most people are like well, it’s a tax exemption, what’s up? Well, it’s basically a subsidy. It’s a government subsidy because these religious groups and churches are not paying taxes. They’re not paying income tax, they’re not paying property tax, and so other people then in that live near them or are in the same city as them have to pay a little bit more for them to still get the same services. So they still get covered by the police and fire and sewage and all that stuff. So other people are paying for that. So that’s why it’s a subsidy and that’s why it’s important that that these religious groups and churches follow the rules. You know, if you want to have a tax exemption, if you don’t want to pay this tax, then you need to not discriminate.

25:56 – Randall Balmer (Other)
With the retrospective of 81% of white evangelicals supporting Donald Trump for president in 2016 and again a similar percentage in 2020, I think even actually a higher percentage in 2020. And trying to reconcile that with the origins of the religious right, here you have a movement that had its origins in racism and then you have this improbable I mean on the face of it, let’s let’s be honest about this. On the face of it, donald Trump is not the traditional family values candidate, and this is a movement that for decades, has been touting itself as a family values movement, and so I was trying to reconcile that and try to understand how we got to point from point A to point B, and it occurred me in the course of writing this book that the real transitional figure here is is Reagan himself. And as I looked a little bit more closely into Reagan’s history and his career, it became clear to me that there is there’s more than a coincidental juxtaposition of issues and concerns here.

Reagan got into politics in California in opposition to the Brunford Fair Housing Act, which sought to guarantee equal access to both rental housing as well as the purchase of housing. He was an outspoken opponent of both the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As president, he decimated the Civil Rights Commission. He maintained his support for the apartheid regime in South Africa along into the 1980s and throughout his political campaigns he frequently invoked the racially charged phrase law and order. And anyone who lived through that era can never forget his vile caricature of so-called welfare queens, women of color who were supposedly living the high life off of the public dull. He was never able to produce any of these welfare queens, but he talked as though they actually existed. And for me, I guess the most damning thing was his opening of his general election campaign in August 3, 1980, at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, mississippi, the place where, 16 summers earlier, three civil rights workers, two Jews and an African American, were abducted, tortured and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in collusion with the local sheriff’s department. And Reagan, of course, was the master of symbolism. Unless anyone missed his meaning, he declared the age-old segregationist battle cry.

I believe in states’ rights. Now Reagan could have opened his general election campaign in any number of places. California, his adopted home state, would certainly been a good place, because California was very much in play in the 1980 presidential election. He could have gone to one of the Rust Belt cities that had been decimated by the economic distress of the 1970s. Instead, he chose, of all places, philadelphia, mississippi, at the Neshoba County Fair. That, to me, is a pretty good indication of Reagan’s sentiments on these particular matters.

And so, as I began to think about that, what is the connection between the origins of the religious right and the overwhelming white support for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020? I have to believe that one of the links in that loop has to be Ronald Reagan in his throughout his political career, particularly in the 1980s. Now, all of this narrative does this say that? Does this mean that all evangelicals are racist? I don’t believe that’s the case at all. Again, I grew up within this movement. I think there are a lot of blind spots that many evangelicals have about racial matters, but I don’t believe that evangelicals overwhelmingly are racist. Nevertheless, I think they need to come to terms with the origins of their political movement.

31:10 – Douglas Berger (Host)
I just wanna make it clear again that I’m talking about the power brokers, the people that are in charge, the leaders of the evangelical movement, such as Paul Reimerick and Ralph Reed and Francis Schaefer. Some of these people are not with us anymore. Jerry Falwell was one. I’m talking about those people, those people that use religion to advance their conservative political agenda, either to take people’s rights away, such as banning abortion or sponsoring a bill to prohibit trans people from using the bathroom of the gender that they identify with, or things like that. So that’s who I’m talking about. I’m not talking about the average everyday evangelical who goes to church and donates to charity and does those other things, and I’m not saying that, as Professor Ballmer points out, he’s not saying that they’re all racist, but I agree with him in the point that he made that the foundation of a lot of these groups is rotten to the core. And if the foundation is rotten, eventually it’s gonna collapse on itself. And so if you have John and Jane Q Public who’s going to an evangelical Methodist church and they discriminate against LGBT people because some of them do they just had this big schism these churches left the Methodist group and they donate money to the church who discriminate against LGBT people, you’re, in effect, supporting that discrimination. So, even if you yourself don’t hate LGBT people, the fact that you’re giving money to this organization that does is you’re indirectly supporting that discrimination. And so all I ask is, if you are a religious conservative and you aren’t racist and you try to love all your neighbors, as the Bible says, that maybe you need not to support those organizations that do, for example, and businesses too, like Chick-fil-A. Chick-fil-a supports anti-abortion groups in their charitable giving, but there’s always this huge lineup for their chicken sandwiches. So you’re indirectly giving money to religious groups that will hurt the people that you don’t hate, and so it’s just. It’s one of the things that we deal with every day is how you balance that, how you balance your values. You don’t wanna discriminate if that’s not part of who you are.

It makes it tough, especially when you’re talking about religious, especially religious people and their churches. Maybe they’re going to the same church that their parents went and their parents went to and their parents went to and their parents went to, and there’s a long history in this family, and yet it’s a religious conservative church that doesn’t support helping poor people, or they give money to political campaigns which they’re not supposed to do, or, like we had this church by where I live, they had a candidate forum for Josh Mandel during when he was running for US Senate and he was the only one there Because they were supporting this guy and I reported it. I reported it to the IRS because people that get the tax exemption to 501-3C, like my group, we are not allowed to support individual candidates. We’re not allowed to support or tell people not to support individual candidates because that’s a violation of our rules.

So kind of bringing this back to the tax exemption the Bob Jones case today, in 2023, the IRS does not enforce that rule about the tax exemption in religious groups. There’s a backlog, in fact, of cases that they haven’t even investigated, because these conservatives who get in office, that people from the gerrymandered maps and other privileges, that these religious conservatives well, I wouldn’t consider them all religious conservatives, but these conservatives they get into political office and then they change the rules and that’s what they’ve done is, they’ve kind of intimidated the IRS from investigating conservative religious groups that are obviously violating the tax laws, and so that’s the trouble, you know, and so that’s why I’m appealing to people who might be listening to this to you know think about where you donate your money, where you spend your money, so that you’re not indirectly supporting discrimination or not indirectly supporting a conservative agenda that hurts people that you love, and that’s all I’m asking you to do

37:05 – Voice Over (Announcement)
Thank you for listening. For more information about the topics in this episode please visit the episode page at Glass City Humanist is an outreach of the secular humanists of Western Lake. Erie SHoWLE can be reached at humanistswledotorg. Glass City Humanist is hosted, written and produced by Douglas Berger and he’s solely responsible for the content. Our theme music is Glass City Jam, composed using the Amplify Studio. See you next time.

Transcript is machine generated, lightly edited, and approximate to what was recorded. If you would like perfect transcripts, please donate to the show.


Written, produced, and edited by Douglas Berger and he is entirely responsible for the content. Incidental voice overs by Shawn Meagley

The GCH theme is “Glass City Jam” composed using Ampify Studio

This episode by Glass City Humanist is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.