business news in context, analysis with attitude

On Friday, MNB wrote about a story widely reported in the media about how Wal-Mart had caused a bit of a controversy with an internal email to associates reportedly describing Christmas as a mix of world religions’ holidays and suggesting that its employees say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas,” and that the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights called for a customer boycott until the world's largest retailer apologizes.

Subsequent stories after our piece was posted elaborated on the events and the controversy…and certainly the hundreds of emails we received on Friday in response to our coverage and commentary reflected just how contentious debates like these are.

Remarkably, we got only one email that objected to the discussion taking place on this site, from MNB user Tom O’Connell who wrote:

Kevin, why don't you just stick to the grocery industry news and keep your own personal views to yourself when it comes to Catholics. I enjoy MorningNewsBeat but not some of your views & comments. I guess just like you don't like the Catholic League’s views.

We never viewed this as a story about Catholics. We viewed it as a specific business story about Wal-Mart, its customers, and what seems like the increasingly intertwined interests of commerce and religion.

There was a story over the weekend in the Los Angeles Times that illustrated how this is happening in other ways. Let us quote the first four paragraphs of the story:

    Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and its critics have been fighting for the hearts and minds of the American public, through advertising, media outreach, worker testimonials and public debate. Now the two sides are fighting for souls.

    The world's largest retailer and its adversaries are hoping to sway religious leaders to their respective causes, seeking to use the clergy's powerful influence to reach flocks that may not respond to mere public relations or media-driven pitches.

    Wal-Mart has quietly reached out to church officials with invitations to visit its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., to serve on leadership committees and to open a dialogue with the company.

    Across the aisle, one of the company's chief foes, Wal-Mart Watch, this weekend is launching seven days of anti-Wal-Mart consciousness raising at more than 200 churches, synagogues and mosques in 100 cities, where leaders have agreed to sermonize about what they see as moral problems with the company.

The irony, of course, was that this story appeared even as all hell was breaking loose between Wal-Mart and the Catholic League over what was seen by the latter as an anti-Christian attitude on the part of the retailer – and retailer that has, best we can tell, been about as aggressive as possible in trying to communicate a certain values consciousness through its choice of products. (Even if you wish to debate its values, choices and priorities, you can’t deny that Wal-Mart’s stores reflect a specific view of American values.)

We think this is a dangerous game that Wal-Mart and its critics are playing, seeking a religious imprimatur for the conduct of commerce. A quote comes to find: ”Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

With all due respect to Tom O’Connell any other MNB users who believe that this subject is not appropriate to a site like this one, we disagree. This is an important discussion to have, because it speaks to both the wallet and the soul, the heart and the mind.

Sure, it’s risky. We almost inevitably will offend someone. But we hope you will see this in the proper context – we actually are trying to figure out in a very public forum, through debate and discussion, what is right and wrong, what is appropriate and inappropriate.

The good news was that while we got a lot of email regarding our story, “Peace On Earth, Goodwill To People Like Us,” we got very few emails of the “burn in hell” variety.

That sentiment apparently is being reserved for the people of Dover, Pennsylvania.

But before we get to a selection of your emails, let’s look at the way the story was expanded upon after our original posting on Friday.

The problem, apparently, wasn’t just that Wal-Mart was suggesting that its employees say “Happy Holidays.” It also was because a woman who complained to Wal-Mart’s customer service department about the replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” got the following email from someone named Kirby:

“Walmart is a world wide organization and must remain conscious of this. The majority of the world still has different practices other than ‘christmas’ which is an ancient tradition that has its roots in Siberian shamanism. The colors associated with ‘christmas’ red and white are actually a representation of the aminita mascera mushroom. Santa is also borrowed from the Caucuses, mistletoe from the Celts, yule log from the Goths, the time from the Visigoth and the tree from the worship of Baal. It is a wide wide world.”

This text was provided by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, which also released a statement from its president, William Donohue, saying: “When I read it, I thought he might be drunk. But I was wrong. We sent Kirby’s response to Wal-Mart’s headquarters only to find that Dan Fogleman, Senior Manager, Public Relations, agrees. After acknowledging that he read Kirby’s response, Fogleman said, in part, the following: ‘As a retailer, we recognize some of our customers may be shopping for Chanukah or Kwanza gifts during this time of year and we certainly want these customers in our stores and to feel welcome, just as we do those buying for Christmas. As an employer, we recognize the significance of the Christmas holiday among our family of associates…and close our stores in observance, the only day during the year that we are closed.’”

To which Donahue responded: “It’s nice to know that Wal-Mart is closed on a federal holiday. Now here is why I am asking the leaders of 126 religious organizations that span seven religious communities to boycott Wal-Mart. Go to its website and search for Hanukkah and up come 200 items. Click on Kwanzaa and up come 77. Click on Christmas, and here’s what you get: ‘We’ve brought you to our ‘Holiday’ page based on your search.’ In other words, Wal-Mart is practicing discrimination.”

When Wal-Mart tried to defend itself by saying that it was trying to be inclusive, Donahue put out the following statement:

“The piece today by Joe Kovacs on quotes Wal-Mart spokeswoman Jolanda Stewart saying, ‘We already serve a diverse customer base, and we’re just trying to help them to celebrate their individual needs and wants.’ I thought Wal-Mart was a department store—not a Wellness Center.

“Stewart’s remark is flatulent. If Wal-Mart had a ‘Holiday’ section on its website that directed customers to its Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa sites, that would not be objectionable. What is objectionable is its steadfast defense of the statement about the origins of Christmas as crafted by its Customer Relations department, and the way its customers are directed online to find Christmas items. Searches for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa direct customers to the Jewish and African-American holiday sections, but searches for Christmas are directed to the ‘Holiday’ section. Ergo, Wal-Mart discriminates in its treatment of Christmas.”

As the story gained momentum and Donahue’s comments gained enormous circulation, Wal-Mart backed off, changed its website and said that the comments by Kirby (who, according to some reports, now is a former Wal-Mart employee) were unauthorized and did not reflect the company’s policies….though it stands by its recommendation that employees say “Happy Holidays” because it is more inclusive.

To which Donahue responded that he was lifting the boycott threat:

“Wal-Mart says it is not going to change its policy of encouraging employees to say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’ This is dumb, but it was never part of the Catholic League’s complaint. We only trigger boycotts when we’ve been grossly offended.

“This is a sweet victory for the Catholic League, Christians in general, and people of all faiths. And it means that Wal-Mart can now enter the Christmas season without this cloud hanging over it.”

Being in the commerce business, Wal-Mart – and other retailers – probably can’t afford to alienate people like Donohue and organizations like the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

We, fortunately, feel no such constraints.

Being on the wrong side of these people isn’t like having a cloud overhead. Rather, it is like being in the sunshine of tolerance and open discourse.

A couple of comments here before we get to your emails.

1. We agree that Kirby’s comments were at best impolitic, and certainly ran the risk of being inflammatory to Christians, but we feel sort of sorry for the guy. If you read those comments carefully and with the slightest bit of sympathy, they seem to be the words of someone who is just trying too hard to be politically correct. But he doesn’t sound like a bigot, just someone who probably shouldn’t be interacting with customers.

2. We’re not sure what is served by one person calling another person’s comments “flatulent” and another person “drunk,” other than raising the level of hostility. Donohue just seems like a bully, pure and simple. He battles what he views as intolerance with his own small-mindedness, apparently unleavened by any compassion, generosity or even a sense of humor.

And now, to your emails.

One MNB user wrote:

Watering down the celebration of the birth of the Savior and Creator of the universe should be offensive to anyone who call themselves a Christian. However Jesus Christ will never stop loving those who openly reject and oppose Him and neither should Christians let this offense be a stumbling block to the very mission for which Christ stepped out of heaven and became human. The mission of seeking and saving the lost. Lets extend the same grace to the folks at Wal-Mart.

Another MNB user wrote:

Consider the origins of Christ-mas. It was a Christ Mass that gave it its name. I do not think it appropriate to include the world's religions in the greeting that represents Christmas. Happy Holidays does not cut it with me and many other people. (I am not Catholic). I always answer a Happy Holidays greeting with Merry Christmas. I would rather the employees said nothing to me or "Have a nice day" than to denigrate the origins of Christmas by saying "Happy Holidays". In the rush in this world to not offend anyone, we offend the origins of Christian celebrations but that's OK because it is considered politically correct to offend and rebuff the Christian faith in our society. Too many, this is a sad thing indeed.

Still another MNB user wrote:

I am sure you are going to get a ton of email on this issue. As a Christian, you can guess which side of the fence I am on the Merry Christmas v Happy Holidays debate, but a non-religious article by Dyske Suematsu really made me think. He says, (at least I hope I have gender correct), "The idea behind saying "Merry Christmas" is to spread the joy. It is not an expression of solidarity among Christians. It is meant for everyone. Why should it offend or annoy anyone?"

He concludes by saying, "As someone who is religiously neutral, I would like to suggest that we all let others fully enjoy their own religious holidays without tainting them. If they invite everyone to join in their festivals, let's gladly take up the offer. If they do not want their festivals to be "trivialized" by non-believers, then let's respect that wish too, and leave them alone."

I wish these words were my own, but I do greatly support them. From the bottom of my heart, and with al of the joy of this season, I wish you a very Merry Christmas.

One of the really remarkable things about all the emails we got is that we were wished a “Merry Christmas” dozens of times…and it is only early November!

Another member of the MNB community wrote:

I think it's nice that Wal-Mart is trying to be inclusive of its shoppers who celebrate other holidays this time of year. That being said, I haven't read the actual Wal-Mart email/memo, but after reading your summary of its contents it's not difficult to see why Catholics (and other Christians) would have been offended by it. Wal Mart's description of Christmas as being a mix of world religions' holidays is wrong. Christmas has become a secular holiday for many and some traditions like Santa have been integrated from other cultures, but Christmas is historically rooted in the celebration of the birth of Christ.

In the end, Wal-Mart's attempt to be inclusive ended up making some feel excluded. If Wal-Mart had grossly misrepresented some other religious group's holiday, it's probably safe to assume they would have put up a fight as well. Why is it so wrong for Catholics to stand up for their beliefs and request the same respect as everyone else?

MNB user Rosemary Fifield wrote:

It seems that the mistake Wal-Mart made was to characterize "Christmas" as a mix of world religions' holidays. We all know they meant this end-of-the-year holiday season. Somebody there just needs to be more sensitive to the words they choose. I'm no fan of Wal-Mart, but in this case, they've done no wrong.

From another MNB user:

Have to disagree with you on this one. It seems to me the Catholic League was just defending the holiday for what it is - a celebration of the birth of Christ. To say Christmas is "a mix of world religions‚ holidays" is just nuts - it's not true of chanuka, diwali, ide or any other religious holiday either. These holidays should be celebrated for what each represents to each faith - each makes the world a better, more interesting place to live in. Homogenizing these holidays makes them meaningless.

We could learn a lesson from Trinidad - they celebrate all these holidays, and many families have members in each religion. Can you imagine?

MNB user Al Kober wrote:

If it is Merry, Happy or any other adjective, it is not Christmas with Christ. Christmas is Christmas because of Christ and any one who celebrates Christmas without Christ is not celebrating Christmas. Many people have made it just another day off or a reason to give gifts. Even the giving of gift is a celebration of the greatest gift ever given, that being Christ. "For God so lover the world that He gave..." his Son". So if anyone want to enjoy Christmas, give gifts, etc, and wants all the good stuff associated with Christmas with out Christ, go get your own holiday, because this one belongs to Christ.

Another MNB user wrote:

I think the Catholic League's point of contention is in Wal-Mart's describing Christmas as a mix of world religions. Christmas clearly is one of Christianity's most important holidays. Other groups celebrate other holidays during the same period of the year. I have no issue with greeting people with "happy holidays"; however, in their strive to be inclusive and sensitive, I believe Wal-Mart would be better off acknowledging the many holidays, religious and otherwise that are celebrated during the holiday season when asking their associates to say "happy holidays."

Another MNB user chimed in:

It's just dumb to try and be politically correct around the holiday. All you do is offend everybody. It's Christmas for Christ's sake. Do Catholics wish Jews "Happy Holiday" when they mean I hope you have a nice Rosh Hashanah? In NY State, there is a ban on all "religious" holidays in the schools. So my kids couldn't exchange Valentines cards with their class mates, and in the peek of hypocrisy and frankly circumventing the spirit (can I say that?) of the law, it's been reduced and renamed "red heart day". Luckily body parts are still legal celebration relics, because we'd have to cal it red Symmetrical contour day.

In an attempt to be sympathetic to Wal-Mart, we wrote last week that “we think it would be fair to say that the Catholic establishment probably has done more to create any sort of anti-Catholic sentiment in this country than Wal-Mart ever has.”

MNB user Kevin Sheehan responded:

I have only read what you printed on the WalMart note, and the Catholic League response in your article as well. Based on those few paragraphs it appears you are making a bit of a leap in your conclusion.

What I take away from the passage is the Catholic League believes that Wal-Mart should recognize "Christmas" as a Christian celebration, not to be watered down in political correctness. That would seem reasonable.

I do not see any ("Amazing how the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights sees an effort to be sensitive to all religions and beliefs as an attack on Catholicism") mention of attack from the Catholic viewpoint, just a request for respect of the religious basis of Christmas.

I agree the Catholic church has not helped its image in the last 15 years or so, but I do not see the conclusion you reached based on the article as it is written.

MNB user Allison Duncan wrote:

As a daily reader of Morning News Beat, I was greatly disheartened to read your response to the Wal-Mart controversy involving the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.

While I agree that the (now terminated) boycott is a battle of semantics that has been taken to the extreme--and one that will most likely continue every holiday season from here on out—the Catholic League did not view Wal-Mart's statements as "an attack on Catholicism," but rather on Christianity as a whole. As noted by the Catholic League's website, the boycott was requested of "126 religious organizations that span seven religious communities."

While the "Catholic establishment" does indeed have its faults, I challenge you to find any establishment that doesn't. I find it extremely unfortunate that your own anti-Catholic sentiment was expressed in this manner.

MNB user Mike O’Donnell wrote:

I have no problem with "Happy Holidays" - but Christmas is celebrated for the birth of Christ.

I normally would have overlooked this but your comment about the "Catholic establishment" was completely out of order!

MNB user Jimmy Ducey wrote:

I'm still a fairly new subscriber and have to this point enjoyed KC's View. But your thoughts regarding the Wal-Mart memo on Christmas seemed so out of character!

What started out as your comments on the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in one final sentence became an attack on the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church did not release a statement that I am aware of.

Most readers like me are probably thinking, "if this group represented
another denomination would Kevin have responded the same?".

Another MNB user wrote:

I don't think anti-Catholic sentiment is one bit funny. Why is anti-Catholic sentiment ok in your eyes and those of the media but not ok for Muslims, Jews and other religions and races? I guess you think its alright to be inclusive in all aspects of society but bash Catholics at the same time.

MNB user John Welsh wrote:

The point is not about any Catholic organization. It is about companies such as Wal-Mart, Sears-Kmart, and Kohl's trying to pacify the ACLU and the 20-odd percent who comprise all the minorities in America. I happen to be in the 80 percent (I happen to be Catholic also), and I want Christmas acknowledged as such in every way: advertising, store decor, customer greetings...every way. Minorities complaining about this need to get over it: this is a Christian country which has historically celebrated Christmas as Christmas. I am tired of feeling like an outsider in my country, and I am sick of these self-anointed saviours such as the ACLU challenging most every custom and tradition in America.

And, about anti-Catholic sentiment: you are correct. I personally know little about this Catholic League, but some other Catholic groups have hurt our Church badly, namely the bishops by the way they have mishandled the abuse scandals.

I fear most Catholics feel the Church has let them down. Many of us still practice our faith, but we do not trust the Church leadership.

MNB user Jerry Schindler wrote:

Most of us Catholics have never heard of this organization and I for one wouldn't donate a dime to them but at least they aren't quite as ridiculous as your report painted them.

I doubt that Wal-Mart had any serous concern over their threat of a boycott but Wal-mart apparently did add "Christmas" to their website links along with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't consider getting someone fired at "Christmas" time a "sweet victory", but I guess that was Wal-Mart's doing.

MNB user Bill Jensen wrote:

Kevin, your comment about the Catholic "establishment" was at best ill advised. I am not familiar with the organization you cited in your column, and as such, doubt seriously that they are considered a core part of the Catholic "establishment" whatever that is. I am very aware of a program that is deeply supported by a Catholic institution, the Kroc institute for Peace Studies, on the campus of the University of Notre Dame.

Part of their research and action is to study ways to reduce conflict that is caused by religious involvement in conflicts. To quote part of the web site " The institute hosts not only scholars in the humanities and social sciences, but also religious leaders and peacebuilding practitioners whose research would explore the role of religion in a diverse range of religious, cultural, and political contexts, including Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Sikh, or Christian traditions and movements. Research by visiting fellows explores three thematic concerns: comparative religious ethics, human rights, and intolerance; inter-religious and intra-religious differences and dialogue; and post-conflict peacebuilding. "

For example, one of their instructors (who I know personally) currently heads up a peacebuilding effort targeting many religious traditions at the grade school level on a multinational basis. He happens to be Episcopalian, working at a Catholic university, and broadly attempting to bridge many religious differences by educational outreach and providing tools for teachers to encourage peaceful solutions starting at a very early age. This is not pure research, this is faith, many faiths actually, in action. And oh, by the way, the Kroc institute was born of the driving will of Fr. Ted Hesburgh, president emeritus of Notre Dame. He has worked for civil and religious rights, as well as religious tolerance, for decades.

I would think that the University of Notre Dame would be considered more a part of the "Catholic establishment" by any fuzzy definition. And they have many people working to break down the barriers that cause conflict, religious or otherwise. I enjoy your column, for the most part, but in this case, you are citing one group's comments, ascribing them to millions of people, and frankly, have undermined your own credibility. Anti-Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim or other tradition backlash can happen for a lot of reasons, but in this case I do not accept your premise that an organized "establishment" of Catholics is attempting to advance an agenda of religious intolerance, and therefore causing an Anti-Catholic sentiment to occur. The evidence does not support that assertion. There is social action benefiting many countries by concerned, and established religious groups (not just Catholics), promoting not only social welfare, but tolerance and peace. Please give a more accurate, or at least balanced, view. I encourage you to learn more about those positive efforts being made by people of many faiths in many countries.

If we may respond…

We agree that Donahue and the Catholic League should not be represented as the Catholic establishment. Our reference to the “establishment” was meant to refer to members of the bureaucracy who tolerated and even enabled unspeakable and abusive behavior by certain members of the clergy, and who even now try to avoid responsibility.

We are not anti-Catholic. We were raised Catholic, and went almost exclusively to Catholic schools, being trained by Dominican nuns, Irish Christian Brothers, and Jesuit priests. We are, however, anti-intolerance, and have a low threshold for folks who seem to practice it.

Donahue seems to be the person used on almost every cable TV network when they are looking for a Catholic spokesman. So it isn’t like he’s completely without portfolio. A lot of people think he speaks for the Church.

We’d always turn to folks like your friend for wisdom and guidance in such matters, and wish that they would be the face and voice of Catholicism in this country. We have a friend, Father Gilbert, a parish priest here in Connecticut who is the closest to being a saint of anyone we know. He is compassionate and wise and tolerant – even of us, which must be really trying for him, and probably alone will get him into heaven.

There were a few people sympathetic to our case. Very few – and we’re going to grant them anonymity (even if they didn’t ask for it) just because we think it might cause them trouble to be seen on our side of this issue.

One MNB user wrote:

Couldn’t agree more with your views on The Catholic League and Wal-Mart. The Catholic League somehow reminds me of the bumper sticker that says “we are making enemies faster than we can kill them.”

And, from another MNB user:

As a product of a Catholic education and someone who is trying to bring their kids up right, I’m ashamed of my faith when I see stories like this. One would think that organizations like the one referenced would spend more time constructively rebuilding the church’s image rather than try to grab headlines by making such a commotion. On their own website they now gloat over how “Wal-Mart caves” and express satisfaction that someone has been fired. Taking satisfaction in someone potentially losing their ability to feed ones’ family doesn’t sound very “Christian” – like to me.

Groups like this have caused such a stink in this country that our children’s school has now taken every reference to every holiday away from the children. A snowman is now considered a religious symbol – never saw one of those on the altar at my church. The larger issue that this presents is that we’re stifling the conversations that should take place among our children before they’re old enough to start developing biases. I agree that religion shouldn’t be a part of the lesson plan, but how do we expect children to appreciate other celebrations and cultures if we don’t allow people who observe them to celebrate in an appropriate and balanced manner? By stripping all of that away we’re simply setting the stage for more bigotry to emerge as they encounter stereotypes outside of the classroom – unfortunately often at home. Organizations like this are actually hurting their own cause as events at schools get cancelled or scaled back.

While I feel strange siding with Wal-Mart, they should not be forced to use the term “Christmas” versus “Holiday”. Contrary to Mr. Donahue’s opinion, saying “Happy Holidays” is not “dumb” (another Christian term I missed in my altar boy days ) While I’m certainly not offended by “Merry Christmas” I don’t use that greeting with Jewish friends – it’s simply a matter of appreciating differences and acting accordingly – a point that’s clearly being steamrolled by efforts on behalf of ultra conservatives that I suspect are nowhere close to a majority but simply better organized. Mr. Donahue says this is “ a victory for people of all faiths “ – really?

There was another great email from MNB user Jim Green:

Kevin, here you go again, but I think you enjoy it. And so do most of your readers... me, included.

It's a good thing Pat Robertson isn't Catholic and a reader of MNB. Otherwise, there would be a plague coming your way.


The fact is, this was just some of the email we got. This is a subject that ignites passions and gets people thinking and, quite obviously, writing. That’s a good thing.

It certainly has made us think. Especially because, as one MNB user noted, this is an issue that probably will come up every year, in one form or another. That’s the price we pay for living in a highly diverse society. In some cultures, this debate would cause riots and deaths. Here, it just creates illuminating debate and impassioned conversation.

Here’s where we come out on the issue. For the moment, at least.

Clearly, if a retailer wants to use religiously themed Christmas decorations all over the store and wish all customers “Merry Christmas,” that is within its rights. It is their choice.

And if a retailer wants to be less specific, recognizing that a lot of people don’t celebrate Christmas but do have end-of-year celebratory observances, that also is a legitimate choice.

Neither one is wrong. And customers can choose whichever one makes them more comfortable. That is the decision the customer makes, based on choices the retailers have made.

But neither retailer should be excoriated for the choices they make.

For this former altar boy, it doesn’t matter. We’d choose the retailer that had the products and services we wanted, regardless of what decorations were on the wall. We’d respond cheerfully to a checkout person who said “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukah” or “Happy Holidays” or whatever. We’d know what they meant, no matter what they said.

The real pleasure would be in having a pleasant checkout person and a sincere sentiment to respond to.

Now, that would be a Christmas present.
KC's View: