What's missing from the White House Christmas card? Christmas.
This month, as in every December since he took office, President Bush sent out cards with a generic end-of-the-year message, wishing 1.4 million of his close friends and supporters a happy "holiday season."
Many people are thrilled to get a White House Christmas card, no matter what the greeting inside. But some conservative Christians are reacting as if Bush stuck coal in their stockings.
"This clearly demonstrates that the Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and that they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights.
Bush "claims to be a born-again, evangelical Christian. But he sure doesn't act like one," said Joseph Farah, editor of the conservative Web site WorldNetDaily.com. "I threw out my White House card as soon as I got it."
Religious conservatives are miffed because they have been pressuring stores to advertise Christmas sales rather than "holiday specials" and urging schools to let students out for Christmas vacation rather than for "winter break." They celebrated when House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) insisted that the sparkling spectacle on the Capitol lawn should be called the Capitol Christmas Tree, not a holiday spruce.
'Sent to people of all faiths'
Then along comes a generic season's greeting from the White House, paid for by the Republican National Committee. The cover art is also secular, if not humanist: It shows the presidential pets -- two dogs and a cat -- frolicking on a snowy White House lawn.
"Certainly President and Mrs. Bush, because of their faith, celebrate Christmas," said Susan Whitson, Laura Bush's press secretary. "Their cards in recent years have included best wishes for a holiday season, rather than Christmas wishes, because they are sent to people of all faiths."
That is the same rationale offered by major retailers for generic holiday catalogues, and it is accepted by groups such as the National Council of Churches. "I think it's more important to put Christ back into our war planning than into our Christmas cards," said the council's general secretary, the Rev. Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman.
But the White House's explanation does not satisfy the groups -- which have grown in number in recent years -- that believe there is, in the words of the Heritage Foundation, a "war on Christmas" involving an "ever-stronger push toward a neutered 'holiday' season so that non-Christians won't be even the slightest bit offended."
One of the generals on the pro-Christmas side is Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association in Tupelo, Miss. "Sometimes it's hard to tell whether this is sinister -- it's the purging of Christ from Christmas -- or whether it's just political correctness run amok," he said. "I think in the case of the White House, it's just political correctness."