Did President Bush Forget About Jesus Day?

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Mr. Dennis is a professor of history at the University of Oregon and is the author of CULTIVATING A LANDSCAPE OF PEACE: IROQUOIS-EUROPEAN ENCOUNTERS IN SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY AMERICA and RED, WHITE, AND BLUE LETTER DAYS: IDENTITY, HISTORY, AND THE AMERICAN CALENDAR.

"During Christmas, we gather with family and friends to celebrate the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ."--President Bush, Christmas Message, Dec. 2002.

On Saturday May 29, 2004, during Memorial Day weekend, President George W. Bush appeared on the Mall in Washington, D.C. to officially dedicate the new World War II Memorial. This grand occasion eclipsed another, which Bush has held dear: Jesus Day. As governor of Texas in 2000, he declared June 10 officially “Jesus Day.” Tied to a liturgical calendar, the movable feast occurs each year (since 2000, that is) on the Saturday before Pentecost Sunday—in 2004 on May 29. How could he forget?

Governor Bush’s 2000 proclamation claimed, surprisingly, “Throughout the world, people of all religions recognize Jesus Christ as an example of love, compassion, sacrifice and service. Reaching out to the poor, the suffering and the marginalized, he provided moral leadership that continues to inspire countless men, women and children today.” Universalizing Christ as an American hero, Governor Bush then enshrined him and “faith-based” social and political activism in the state calendar: “Jesus Day challenges people to follow Christ’s example by performing good works in their communities and neighborhoods.”

As the Jesus Day website (www.jesusday.org) recounts, the event began in England in the 1980s with annual public expressions of prayer and praise in the March for Jesus. Spreading beyond the British Isles to more than 130 countries, promoters claim, the march involves millions. From these beginnings another “tradition” was soon invented—Jesus Day itself—which emerged for the first time, not merely in the Republic of Texas, but in 450 cities throughout the United States, in the year 2000. Governor Bush thus became one of its Founding Fathers.

As he moved from Austin to Washington, why not bring Jesus Day with him to the federal calendar? Such an act would bring the nation full circle, conflating the political and religious calendar in a manner reminiscent of the colonial period, before the First Amendment prohibition of established religions. Jesus Day makes clear—as do other American holy days/holidays, including our newest three-day weekend, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Birthday—that, despite secular trends, the United States remains a religiously charged political world.

The evangelical Christian fete certainly has zealous supporters as well as its adamant critics, but it would be likely to fail both judicial and popular scrutiny in a country committed to religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Ironically, New England Puritans themselves would have seen Jesus Day as blasphemous and redundant—for them, Christ should rule over all 365 days, and the designation of one particular day would make devotion inappropriately formulaic. Puritans sought to purge their calendars chock-o-block with saints’ days. Today most Christians seem satisfied with what they have: a sacred, if unofficial, place in the weekly public calendar—the Sabbath.

For Christians, then, Jesus already has his day, celebrated not only Sunday, but on Christmas and Easter as well, in feasts marking the Christian savior’s birth, death, and resurrection. It’s odd that Governor Bush would invent a new red-letter day when similar ones already existed. Is it lack of confidence or memory? Either way the problem seems chronic with President Bush, who similarly erected a new Patriot Day for September 11, even though Patriots’ Day already existed. In Massachusetts and Maine, Patriots’ Day commemorates the “shot heard ‘round the world” at Lexington and Concord on April 19, 1775, commencing the War for Independence.

God knows our present broken world could use more “love, compassion, sacrifice and service.” Heaven knows we are making extreme sacrifices, even if they are largely hidden—consider the financial and human cost of the Iraq war, now tallying some $113 billion and over 800 American dead. And now more than ever we need “moral leadership,” particularly in the face of the Abu Ghraib atrocities, not to mention the war profiteering of certain well-connected American corporations operating in Iraq. Did Jesus slip President Bush’s ever-slippery mind on Jesus Day? Probably not. But the president’s advisors surely have told him, to paraphrase Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, “You’re not in Texas anymore.” Even if Bush tends to equate “God” specifically with “Jesus,” he no longer does so blatantly in public, where he tries to talk (if not walk) the ecumenical line.

Yet on June 2, President Bush hosted a White House Conference on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and heralded his administration’s $1.1 billion in grants last year to social programs administered by religious organizations. Though Congress balked at the president’s initiative, tripping on the First Amendment problem, as the New York Times reported, Bush pursued his program through executive order, establishing religion-based offices in ten federal agencies and removing barriers for religious organizations to compete for public money. President Bush insists, “I fully understand it’s important to maintain the separation of church and state. . . . We don’t want the state to become the church, nor do we want the church to become the state.” Nonetheless, the Times reported the next day that the Bush-Cheney campaign sought to enlist thousands of religious congregations in key swing states to distribute campaign material and register voters (though such action might compromise their tax-exempt status). In these acts we can see a stealthy effort to attract and energize conservative Christians, without alienating moderates. That pesky First Amendment notwithstanding, Jesus can help. Even if he does not quite dare to impose a “faith-based” red-letter day on the calendar, President Bush’s evangelizing efforts hope to place more red-states on the 2004 electoral map.

What’s next, God on U.S. currency or in the Pledge of Allegiance? Like the 2000 election, that’s something the Supreme Court should decide.



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andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Dr. Livingston I presume. Let me first say that I have admired your excellent contributions to this forum.

I wasn’t agreeing with my pal Dennis’ assertion that the substance of what he said was true…cause I don’t know. Never researched it. I do think that he is wrong about his claim that Puritans would find the observance of Jesus’ birth blasphemous, absent the pagan ritual. But regarding it being redundant, I gave him the benefit of doubt. The truth, in my view, that he uncontrollably lurched into was that all 365 days are Jesus’.

Now, as far back as I can remember I have understood the contraction of Christ’s Mass, but I was raised Catholic. The origin of the celebration of Christmas is Christian in name only. The Roman Catholic Church co-opted an existing pagan observance to the sun god and yule god and named it Christ-Mass or Christ’s Death. Part of the reason for the co-option was to eliminate the competition by bringing all pagans into the church. I suspect that the pagan ritual was outlawed by the Puritans, not an observance of Christ’s birth. To me I observe Christmas as the birth of Jesus, nothing more, nothing less.

Dave, I am aware of some of the animus between Catholics and Protestants and it is misplaced. They are both Christian and that should be the emphasis. Fundamentalist Protestants REALLY don’t like to hear of the pagan origins of Christmas either. But often times those imparting the knowledge will say something like, “hey ya know, Christmas is a pagan holiday”. When stated like that it is no wonder why a Christian might take offense to it.


andy mahan - 9/18/2006

At the start of the article it appears that Dennis doesn’t understand the concept of federalism, i.e. GOVERNOR Bush declared the observance for TEXAS. PRESIDENT Bush had not declared the observance as a federal holiday. However, Dennis later reveals that he does recognize the concept, but only played ignorant in order to deliver a childish, still obtuse, insult.

Dennis’ repeated sophomoric attempts to show himself intellectually superior as compared with our President’s attempts do good for the poor and needy through his faith based initiative is an exercise in self-aggrandizement. Dennis’ multiple references to the “pesky first amendment” problem, is nonsense. No such problem exists, save only in the space between Dennis’ ears. I am not aware of ANY legal challenges to our President’s faith based initiative program. I suspect that if there were any way possible some anti-Christian group or politician would make it a legal issue.

Finally, the last sentence, “What’s next, God on U.S. currency or in the Pledge of Allegiance?” I have news for the good Professor, God IS on U.S. currency and IN the Pledge of Allegiance, neither of which constitute an “establishment” of any particular religion.

BTY: I would be in favor of a federal Jesus day. Dennis did manage to uncontrollably lurch into some truth when he mentioned that the New England Puritans, “would have seen Jesus Day as blasphemous and redundant.” Though Dennis overstates the “blasphemous” aspect, all 365 days are Jesus’.


andy mahan - 9/18/2006

Mr. Todd:
Your equations, "Quetzalcoatl == Christ" and "Christ as Thor" are images espoused from the vantagepoint of the newly wed pagans/ex-pagans, providing a means through which they can resolve the Christian message. Of course, the Catholic Church does not endorse paganism. I suspect that most Protestant churches would also reject the concept, labeling those that accept pagan gods as not being Christian. Christian churches generally believe that you either buy the whole gospel of Jesus or you’re not Christian.


Dave Livingston - 1/7/2005

Andy Mahan,

Are you (& your pal,Dennis) certain the Puritans would have considered Jesus Day redundant? After all, the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas, which is a ZCatholic holiday that was forbidden by law to be celebrated in the U.K. from 1588 until 1829. Indeed, the very expression "Merry Christmas" was forbidden as an illegal political expression.

Christmas not a Catholic holiday? Just look at it, por favor, the word is a contraction of the phrase Christ's Mass.

It is amusing to contemplate that Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in the U.S. until the influxes of immigrants from Ireland, Italy & Eastern Europe in the 19th Century. Not until the dominant Protestant culture observed & became envious of the joyous time Catholics had at Christmastide.

Even today most Protestants, especially the Fundamentalist types, simply don't make the connection between Christmas and Christ's Mass. Moreover, sometimes enlightened about the origin of the feast day a given Protestant will express resentment about the knowlege. In fact, once a Protestant told me "Don't tell people about that, you'll hurt someone."


Andrew D. Todd - 6/11/2004

Well, of course that is an ongoing tradition of the church. It can be seen most clearly in Latin American Christianity, because there the church has had to incorporate pagans in comparatively recent times. There's a whole kind of equation of Quetzalcoatl == Christ.

There are old Germanic texts which refer to "all-wielding Christ," that is. Christ as Thor (and not Frey).


Tricia L. Betts - 6/8/2004

I also agree with many of the points the Professor made. However, about the tone of the article...

I found it refreshing. I tend towards sarcasm myself and it is easier for me to pick up on points when they are spoken in a language similar to the one I use every day.

I agree, Ralph, that it might alienate people who feel strongly about religious matters. To them, I would say they should look more closely at what Professor Dennis is saying. He is not attacking Christianity, or religion, or even Bush's view of religion or morals as important, but is instead pointing out how Bush is using his political offices to promote his religion. There are many other ways to promote 'performing good works in communities and neighbordhoods' without naming them after a figure specific to a particular religion. I do not feel Professor Dennis was showing a disdain for popular piety as much as he was showing a disdain for Bush;s use of his political offices to promote his religion.


E. Simon - 6/8/2004

I wasn't aware that federalism allowed for U.S. Constitutional law to be made selectively innapplicable in Texas.


Ralph E. Luker - 6/7/2004

I find myself agreeing with Professor Dennis. The corrupting power of government money for religious communities is to be shunned. Even so, the tone of this piece, with its cynical disdain for popular piety, is just the sort of thing that could alienate many pious voters from the effort to remove the Bush administration from office.