Religion & Public Life
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Ringing in the yuletide ‘culture wars’

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

The annual rumble over the “correct” holiday greeting got off to an early start this year when the Mississippi-based American Family Assn. called for a two-month boycott against Gap Inc. over the fashion company's alleged “censorship” of the word “Christmas” in its TV commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions.

The Gap embargo puts on display, yet again, the perennial battle for the year-end holy day – or secular holiday – and who gets to define it. The Christmas controversy is part of the larger, longstanding “culture war” in America over the proper role of religion in public life. In what might appear at first glance to be a petty squabble, the stakes in the broader struggle are high: Whose religion, values or ideology will dominate the national culture?


The University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray, analyzes the culture wars in the context of America's longstanding debate over religion in public life.

In previous centuries, the debate over Christmas was entirely different. The celebration of Christmas was brought to America somewhat late in colonial history by Lutheran immigrants from Germany and Catholics. The early American Puritans and Calvinists objected to the celebration of Christmas because of its “papist” associations, as Justice William Brennan observed in the 1984 Supreme Court case, Lynch v. Donnelly.

In modern times, parties to the Kulturkampf are often the American Civil Liberties Union on one side, versus the various state and local governments that are responsible for religious displays on public property. Religious Liberty in America distills the voluminous case law to draw a coherent picture of the current state of “separation of church and state.” Murray shows how how the interpretation of the First Amendment's Establishment Clause has evolved over the centuries. In addition, he analyzes how the Supreme Court factors diversity and multiculturalism in its jurisprudence.

Religious Liberty in America was selected by Choice – a publication of the Association of College and Research Libraries – as an “Outstanding Academic Book.”

“This book is a splendid presentation of the First Amendment, ‘with civil religion as a parallel theme’ — especially as presently related to so many issues in American political and religious life. Other books on these issues have been appearing of late, but none as clear and thorough as this one.”
G.H. Shriver, Professor Emeritus, Georgia Southern University

Religious Liberty in America is available at numerous university libraries, and it may be purchased from the University of Massachusetts Press.

Find out more about the author here.