Controversies have arisen regarding the celebration or acknowledgment of the Christmas holiday (or the lack thereof) in government, media, advertising, retail, and various secular environments. The controversy also includes objections to policies that prohibit government or schools from forcing unwilling participants to take part in Christmas ceremonies. In the past, Christmas-related controversy was mainly restricted to concerns of a public focus on secular Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and gift-giving, rather than the birth of Jesus.
Modern-day controversy occurs mainly in Western countries such as the United States, Canada, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom. This usually involves governments or corporations avoiding the day's association with Christianity to be multiculturally sensitive. In recent decades in the United States, public, corporate, and the federal government mention of the term "Christmas" during the Christmas and holiday season has declined and been replaced with a generic term, usually "holiday" or "holidays," to avoid referring to Christmas by name and/or to be inclusive of other end-of-year observances such as Hanukkah and Kwanzaa. Popular non-religious aspects of Christmas, such as Christmas trees, lights, and decorating are still prominently showcased and recognized, but are vaguely associated with unspecified "holidays" rather than with Christmas. Also, several US chain retailers, such as Walmart, Macy's, and Sears, have experimented with greeting their customers with "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings" rather than with the "Merry Christmas".
Some supporters of using terms such as "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas", including some atheists and agnostics as well as some adherents of non-Christian religions and Christians who do not observe Christmas as a religious holiday, may remind others that many of the symbols and traditions that Western societies have come to associate with Christmas, such as caroling, Christmas trees, mistletoe, holly wreaths and yule logs, were originally syncretized from pre-Christian pagan traditions and festivals that predate Jesus. They argue, then, that such symbols and traditions need not be directly associated with Christmas.
- 1 Historical controversy
- 2 Present-day controversy
- 2.1 History
- 2.2 Government-related controversies
- 2.3 Christmas tree controversies
- 2.4 Retailer controversies
- 2.5 Religious controversies
- 3 See also
- 4 Notes
- 5 References
- 6 External links
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In the year 45 BC the Julian calendar, created from the best technology of its day, was put into effect. The date of the December solstice (winter in the Northern Hemisphere) that year occurred on December 25.[note 1] The December solstice marks the shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, the point where daytimes stop getting shorter and begin to increase again. Many ancient societies observed the coming of the solstice and the increasing sun with festivals and/or religious rites. The establishment of the Julian calendar as the civil calendar of the Roman Empire had geographically widespread effects in associating the date of December 25 with the solstice in many cultures.
There is controversy concerning the precise date of December 25 as the presumed birthday of Jesus. Many customs from these holidays, particularly from the pagan Scandinavian and Germanic celebration of Yule in northern Europe, are transparently present in later Christmas customs, suggesting that the date was appropriated directly from pagan customs and given a Christian veneer rather than being the true birthday of Jesus.
The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a twelve-day "midwinter" (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) beginning on December 25. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log, and others, are direct descendents of Yule customs. As Northern Europe was the last part to become Christianized, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas "Jul". In English, the word "Yule" is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900. It is believed that the celebration of this day was a worship of these peculiar days, interpreted as the reawakening of nature. The Yule (Jul) particular God was Jólner, which is one of Odin's many names. The concept of Yule (Jul) occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about AD 900, where someone said "drinking Jul". Julblot is the most solemn sacrifice feast. At the "julblotet", sacrifices were given to the gods to earn blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops. Julblotet was eventually integrated into the Christian Christmas. As a remainder from this Viking era, the Midsummer is still important in Scandinavia, and hence vividly celebrated.
Sol Invictus ("The Unconquered Sun") was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian. His holiday is traditionally celebrated on December 25, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions.
The first documented Christmas controversy was Christian-led, and began during the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament. Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan (because they were not biblical in origin) from Christianity (see Pre-Christianity above). In 1647, the Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas, replacing it with a day of fasting and considering it "a popish festival with no biblical justification", and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior. Protests followed as pro-Christmas rioting broke out in several cities and for weeks Canterbury was controlled by the rioters, who decorated doorways with holly and shouted royalist slogans. The book The Vindication of Christmas (London, 1652) argued against the Puritans, and makes note of Old English Christmas traditions, dinner, roast apples on the fire, card playing, dances with "plow-boys" and "maidservants", and carol singing. The Restoration of King Charles II in 1660 ended the ban, but many clergymen still disapproved of Christmas celebration. In Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland also discouraged observance of Christmas. James VI commanded its celebration in 1618, but attendance at church was scant.
In Colonial America, the Puritans of New England disapproved of Christmas, and celebration was outlawed in Boston from 1659 to 1681. The ban by the Pilgrims was revoked by English governor Edmund Andros, however it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region. By the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was not widely celebrated in the US.
Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. Its importance was often considered secondary to that of Epiphany and Easter.
As was the case with other Christian holidays, Christmas borrowed elements from pagan peoples, including yule logs and decorations such as candles, holly, and mistletoe. Christmas trees were seen as pagan in origin. During the various Protestant reformations, these paganizing elements were a source of controversy. Some sects, such as the Puritans, rejected Christmas as an entirely pagan holiday. Others rejected certain aspects of Christmas as paganizing, but wanted to retain the "essence" of the holiday as a celebration of the Christ's birth. This tension put in motion an ongoing debate within some Protestant denominations about the proper observance of Christmas.
According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday, spearheaded by Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol, Hutton argues, Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to refocus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one centered on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response. Christmas was not proclaimed a holiday by the United States Congress until 1870.
In the early 20th century, Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis had already noted a distinct split between the religious and secular observance of Christmas. In Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus, Lewis gives a satire of the observance of two simultaneous holidays in "Niatirb" ("Britain" spelled backwards) from the supposed view of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus (484–425 BC). One of the holidays, "Exmas", is observed by a flurry of compulsory commercial activity and expensive indulgence in alcoholic beverages. The other, "Crissmas", is observed in Niatirb's temples. Lewis's narrator asks a priest why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas. He receives the reply:
- It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left." And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, "It is, O Stranger, a racket. . . 
The December 1957 News and Views published by the Church League of America, a conservative organization co-founded in 1937 by George Washington Robnett, attacked the use of Xmas in an article titled "X=The Unknown Quantity". The claims were picked up later by Gerald L. K. Smith, who in December 1966 claimed that Xmas was a "blasphemous omission of the name of Christ" and that "'X' is referred to as being symbolical of the unknown quantity." Smith further argued that Jews introduced Santa Claus to suppress the New Testament accounts of Jesus, and that the United Nations, at the behest of "world Jewry", had "outlawed the name of Christ". There is, however, a well documented history of use of Χ (actually a chi) as an abbreviation for "Christ" (Χριστός) and possibly also a symbol of the cross. The abbreviation appears on many Orthodox Christian religious icons.
The Soviet Union, and certain other Communist regimes, banned overtly religious Christmas observances. Most customs traditionally associated with Christmas, such as decorated trees, presents, and Ded Moroz, were later reinstated in Soviet society, but tied to New Year's Day instead; this tradition remains as of the present day. It should, however, be noted that most Russian Christians are of the Orthodox community, whose religious festivals (Christmas, Easter etc.) do not necessarily coincide precisely with those of the main western Christian churches (Catholic or Protestant), because of continued connection of the church calendar to the Julian calendar.
The expression "the War on Christmas" has been used in the media to denote Christmas-related controversies. The term gained notability due in part to its use by conservative commentators such as Peter Brimelow and Bill O'Reilly beginning in the early 2000s.
The claim among Brimelow and O'Reilly was that any specific mention of the term "Christmas" or its religious aspects was being increasingly censored, avoided, or discouraged by a number of advertisers, retailers, government (prominently schools), and other public and secular organizations.
Jeff Schweitzer, a commentator for Huffington Post, addressed the position of commentators such as O'Reilly, stating that "There is no war on Christmas; the idea is absurd at every level. Those who object to being forced to celebrate another's religion are drowning in Christmas in a sea of Christianity dominating all aspects of social life. An 80 percent majority can claim victimhood only with an extraordinary flight from reality."
Christmas Day is recognized as an official federal holiday by the United States government, however, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State argue that government-funded displays of Christmas imagery and traditions violate the U.S. Constitution—specifically the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment by Congress of a national religion. The debate over whether religious displays should be placed within public schools, courthouses, and other government buildings, has been heated in recent years.
Supreme Court rulings, starting with Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984, have permitted religious themes in government-funded Christmas displays that had "legitimate secular purposes". Since these rulings have been splintered and have left governments uncertain of their limits, many such displays have included secular elements such as reindeer, snowmen and elves along with the religious elements. Other recent court cases have brought up additional issues such as the inclusion of Christmas carols in public school performances, but none of these cases have reached the US Supreme Court.
A controversy regarding these issues arose in 2002, when the New York City public school system banned the display of Nativity scenes, but allowed the display of less overtly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, Hanukkah menorahs, and the Muslim star and crescent. The school system successfully defended its policy in Skoros v. City of New York (2006).
In 2007, a controversy arose when a public school in Ottawa, Canada planned to have the children in its primary choir sing a version of the song "Silver Bells" with the word "Christmas" replaced by "festive"; the concert also included the songs "Candles of Christmas" and "It's Christmas" with the original lyrics. Also, in 2011, in Embrun, Ontario, near Ottawa, one school barred the Christmas pageant and replaced it with a craft sale and winter concert scheduled for February 2012.
In the United Kingdom there have been some controversies, one of the most famous being the temporary promotion of the phrase Winterval for a whole season of events (including Christmas festivities) by Birmingham City Council in the late 1990s. This remains a controversial example of "Christmas controversy", with critics attacking the use of the word "Winterval" as being political correctness gone mad, accusing council officials of trying to take the Christ out of Christmas. The council responded to the criticism by stating that Christmas-related words and symbols were prominent in its publicity material: "...there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas"...
In November 2009 the city council of Dundee was accused of banning Christmas because it promoted its celebrations as the Winter Night Light festival, initially with no specific references to Christianity. Local church leaders were invited to participate in the event, and they did.
Christmas cards no longer have as much religious imagery, such as the Nativity scene or the Virgin and Child, but instead have idealised Winter Images and images of Father Christmas, or other secular images. The state Church of England complained in 2004 when religious images were removed from the annual tradition of special postage stamps around Christmas.
The Christian holidays of Christmas Day and Good Friday remained in secular post-apartheid South Africa's calendar of public holidays. The Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities (CRL Rights Commission), a chapter nine institution established in 2004, held countrywide consultative public hearings in June and July 2012 to assess the need for a review of public holidays following the receipt of complaints from minority groups about unfair discrimination. The CRL Rights Commission stated that they would submit their recommendations to the Department of Home Affairs, the Department of Labour, various Portfolio Committees and the Office of the Presidency by October 2012. The CRL Rights Commission published its recommendations on 17 April 2013, including the scrapping of some existing public holidays to free up days for some non-Christian religious public holidays.
Kreuzberg, an ethnically diverse district of Berlin, renamed its Christmas markets as Winterfest in 2013. The local government also gave religiously neutral names to festivities of other religions. The Christian Democratic Union expressed concern and a Protestant clergyman "even went so far as to call religious neutrality a hallmark of "dictatorial states," according to Tagesspiegel". The feast marking Ramadam was renamed Sommerfest.
The common practice of schoolchildren visiting local churches for Christmas masses in December is opposed by the Norwegian Humanist Association, the Children's Ombudsman and by the Union of Education. There have been several local controversies over the issue. The political parties have mostly been in favor of this being decided by the schools themselves, but the government has underlined that schools who participate in Christmas masses must offer an alternative for pupils who don’t want to attend and that masses must not take place on the day that marks the closing of schools before the Christmas holiday. The Solberg's Cabinet says in its government declaration that it looks positively upon schools taking part in masses in churches before religious holidays.
A school law in 2011, which explicitly stated that public schools should be non-confessional, led to debate over what this meant for the tradition that schools gather in churches in December to celebrate advent, Lucia or Christmas. 80,000 Swedes signed a protest letter (Adventsuppropet) initiated by the newspaper Dagen to Minister for Education Jan Björklund where they demanded that school visits to churches should still be allowed to include religious rituals. The minister clarified that church visits before Christmas might include singing of Christmas hymns and a priest talking about the Christmas gospel while on the other side common prayers and reading a Confession of Faith would violate the law.
Christmas tree controversies
Since the 1980s there have been several instances in both the United States and Canada when official public mentions and references to Christmas trees were renamed to "holiday trees" for various reasons, mostly for an enforcement of separation of church and state or a recognition of cultural and religious diversity. Reaction to such renamings has been mixed.
One of the most prominent Christmas tree controversies came in 2005, when the city of Boston labeled their official decorated tree as a holiday tree, and the subsequent response from the Nova Scotian tree farmer who donated the tree was that he would rather have put the tree in a wood chipper than have it named a "holiday" tree.
In 2009 in Jerusalem, Israel, the Lobby for Jewish Values, with support of the Jerusalem Rabbinate, handed out fliers condemning Christmas and called for a boycott of "restaurants and hotels that sell or put up Christmas trees and other 'foolish' Christian symbols".
The Brussels Christmas tree in the Belgian capital sparked controversy in December 2012, as it was part of renaming the Christmas Market as "Winter Pleasures". Local opposition saw it as appeasement of the Muslim minority in the city.
Reclamation of the term "Christmas tree"
Efforts have also been made to rename official public holiday trees back to Christmas trees. In 2002, a bill was introduced in the California Senate to rename the State Holiday Tree the California State Christmas Tree; while this measure did not pass, at the official lighting of the tree on December 4, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to the tree as a Christmas tree in his remarks and in the press release his office issued after the ceremony. Schwarzenegger had previously ended the secular practice of calling it a "holiday tree" in 2004 during the 73rd annual lighting. The name change was in honor of the late Senator William "Pete" Knight. Schwarzenegger said at Knight's funeral that he would change the name back to Christmas tree. Knight had lobbied unsuccessfully to change the name after Governor Davis decided to call it a holiday tree.
The Michigan Senate had a debate in 2005 over whether the decorated tree in front of the Michigan Capitol would continue to be called a holiday tree (as it had been since the early 1990s) or named a Christmas tree. The question was revisited in 2006, when the bipartisan Michigan Capitol Committee voted unanimously to use the term Christmas tree. And in 2007, Wisconsin lawmakers considered whether to rename the tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, a holiday tree since 1985, the Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.
Since at least 2005, religious conservative groups and media in the United States such as the American Family Association, Liberty Counsel and Fox News have called for boycotts of various prominent secular organizations, particularly retail giants, demanding that they use the term "Christmas" rather, than solely "holiday" in their print, TV, online, and in-store marketing and advertising. This was also seen by some as containing a hidden anti-Jewish message. All of the major retailers named denied the charges.
- The Sears Holdings Corporation (which owns Sears and Kmart) altered their marketing policies from using the term "holiday" to using the term "Christmas". The change of policy included the distribution of "Merry Christmas" signs to stores nationwide, and the changing of the term "holiday" to "Christmas" on their website and in stores. Kmart opened the 2006 Christmas season with their slogan "Where Christmas comes together", and several commercials acknowledging Christmas, including one with the tune to "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing".
- In 2005, Wal-Mart was criticized by the Catholic League for avoiding the word "Christmas" in any of their marketing efforts. The company had downplayed the term "Christmas" in much of its advertising for several years. This caused some backlash among the public, prompting some groups to pass around petitions and threaten boycotts against the company, as well as several other prominent retailers that practiced similar obscurations of the holiday. In 2006, in response to the public outcry, Wal-Mart announced that they were amending their policy and would be using "Christmas" rather than "holiday". Among the changes, they noted that the former "Holiday Shop" would become the "Christmas Shop", and that there would be a "countin' down the days to Christmas" feature.
- In 2005, Target Corporation was criticized by the AFA for their decision not to use the term "Christmas" in any of their in-store, online, or print advertising. The AFA initiated a nation-wide boycott of the Target Corporation, resulting in over 700,000 petition signatures. Within a week of initiating the boycott, the AFA received an official letter from Target which indicated that they would begin incorporating the term "Christmas" in their advertising: "Over the course of the next few weeks, our advertising, marketing and merchandising will become more specific to the holiday that is approaching – referring directly to holidays like Christmas and Hanukkah. For example, you will see reference to Christmas in select television commercials, circulars and in-store signage." 
- When it was revealed in November 2006 that Wal-Mart would be using the term "Christmas" in their advertising campaign, an article about the issue initiated by USA Today pointed out that Best Buy Corporation would be among the retailers that would not be using "Christmas" at all in their advertising that year. Dawn Bryant, a Best Buy spokeswoman, stated: "We are going to continue to use the term holiday because there are several holidays throughout that time period, and we certainly need to be respectful of all of them." The AFA launched a campaign against Best Buy's policy. In reaction to the same policy, the Catholic League placed Best Buy on its 2006 Christmas Watch List.
- In 2005, despite other promotional material using the term "Christmas trees", an Austin, Texas location of the U.S. hardware retailer Lowe's used the term "Holiday tree" on a bilingual banner advertising its Christmas trees. However, the Spanish text underneath it inconsistently used the term "árboles de Navidad", which translates to "Christmas trees". Following complaints by the AFA, the company stated that it would remove the offending banners, and that "to ensure consistency of our message and to avoid confusion among our customers, we are now referring to the trees only as 'Christmas Trees.'" In 2007, the AFA complained that the chain's holiday catalog contained references to the term "Family trees" instead of "Christmas trees", despite all other promotional material using the term "Christmas tree". Lowe's admitted that the usage of "Family treea" was a proofreading error that had not been caught before the catalog was published.
- In late October 2008, U.S. hardware retailer The Home Depot was criticized by the AFA for using terms such as "holiday" and "Hanukkah" on their website, but avoiding the term "Christmas". The retailer responded by saying they will be adjusting their website to make references to Christmas more prominent. It was later claimed by Snopes.com that the AFA's characterization of Home Depot's advertising was false, as the retailer's advertising had initially included several references to the word "Christmas".
- On November 11, 2009, the AFA called for a "limited two-month boycott" of Gap, Inc over what they claimed was the "company's censorship of the word 'Christmas.'" In an advertising campaign launched by Gap on November 12, the term "Christmas" was both spoken and printed on their website at least once, and was part of a television ad campaign sung as: "Go Christmas, Go Hanukkah, Go Kwanzaa, Go solstice... go Christmas, go Hanukkah, go whatever holiday you Wannakuh". On November 17, AFA responded to this campaign by condemning the ads for references to the "pagan holiday" of solstice, and declined to call off the boycott. On November 24, Gap responded to AFA's initial boycott, stating that they would launch a new television commercial on Thanksgiving weekend that would have a "very strong Christmas theme". The AFA then ended their boycott of Gap.
- On November 24, 2010, the branch manager of Chase Bank in Southlake, Texas (northeast of Fort Worth) told Antonio Morales that a Christmas tree he had donated to the branch had to be taken down per JPMorgan Chase's policy to use only decorations supplied by the company. Bank spokesperson Greg Hassell stated that the company-provided decorations are designed to be "something everyone is comfortable with, regardless of how they celebrate the season."
- Also in 2010, Wachovia Bank was briefly rumored to have banned Christmas trees from its local branches in favor of poinsettias. In response to complaints, the company affirmed that Christmas trees were permitted to be displayed and decorated by branch employees.
- In November 2010, the word "Christmas" on two signs at Philadelphia's Christmas Village was removed by the organizers after complaints, but restored three days later after the mayor intervened.
Certain Christian sects and communities reject the observance of Christmas for theological reasons. These include Jehovah's Witnesses; adherents of Messianic Judaism; most Sabbatarian denominations, such as the True Jesus Church and the Church of God (7th-Day); the Iglesia ni Cristo; the Christian Congregation in Brazil; the Christian Congregation in the United States; and certain reformed and fundamentalist churches of various persuasions, including some Independent Baptist, Holiness, Apostolic Pentecostal, and Churches of Christ congregations.
The celebration of Christmas has occasionally been criticized in countries which are predominantly Muslim. Turkey, whose population is 99.8 percent Muslim, has adopted a secular version of Christmas and a Santa Claus figure named Noel Baba (from the French Père Noël). During the 2013 holiday season, a Muslim youth group launched an anti-Santa Claus campaign, protesting against the celebration of Christmas in the country. Calling Christmas a "Christianity practice” and something which has nothing to do with Turkish culture, the group put out a poster depicting Santa Claus being punched by a pious Muslim.
- Christmas and holiday season
- Culture war
- Political correctness
- Santa Claus—Christian opposition
- Separation of church and state
- War as metaphor
- While the Julian calendar approximated the length of the solar year far more accurately than most of its contemporaries, slight inaccuracy caused a subsequent backward drifting of the date of the solstice over centuries of time. The Gregorian calendar we use today (instituted by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582), a derivative of the Julian calendar, reflects the solar year length much more accurately, causing a much slower drift (one day over about 900 years of time). For religious reasons, this calendar was initially calibrated in such a way that the solstice arrived around December 21, the same as it did in the Julian calendar during the fourth century. It will remain there for quite a few centuries yet to come. As a result of modern advances in mathematics and astronomy, a precise timing of the solstice is now known (and predictable) to fractions of a second, though unpredictable perturbations in the earth's orbit can and do cause tiny variances. The exact calendar date of a solstice (or equinox) can vary year to year, in part because of calendar-cycle rules like "one leap day every four years, except century years not divisible by 400". It may also vary locally due to the consideration of time zones and the international date line.
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- A history of the War on Christmas/Christianity in images and video.
- Naughty & Nice: A History of the Holiday Season Public radio program explores the contentious history of Christmas and other winter holidays in America.
- I'm Dreaming of a Right Christmas Vision Magazine facts about Christmas.
- Christmas – an untold story The United Church of God's arguments against the current manner of celebrating Christmas.
- "It's Time for the Annual War on Christmas" An argument denying the existence of a "war on Christmas".
- "How the secular humanist grinch didn't steal Christmas" An article analyzing the so-called "war on Christmas" and arguing that it is not an actual movement but rather a creation of right-wing conservatives designed to advance their political goals.