Pew, Charles Schulz, and The Christmas Story
I thought about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” recently after seeing a new Pew Research Center survey finding a noticeable decline in the percentage of Americans who affirm core biblical teachings of the Christmas story. Like Charlie Brown in the long-running animated holiday classic by Charles Schulz, more and more of our fellow citizens need to be taught the answer to Charlie’s plaintive query, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?”
In Pew’s survey, released December 12, only 57 percent of Americans believe four key aspects of the Christmas story are actual historical events – the virgin birth; Jesus was laid in a manger; wise men, guided by a star, brought gifts to Jesus; and angels announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Just three years ago, 65 percent of Americans affirmed all four claims. An eight percent decline in only three years is a troubling indicator that merits our attention.
Unsurprising – and yet very troubling – is the decline among millennials who affirm these four elements of the Christmas story: only 44 percent – down from 59 percent just three years ago – accept the historicity of the biblical nativity story. Think about this: just three years ago more millennials affirmed these facts than do all Americans today.
Still more troubling is the decline in the percentage of self-professed Christians who affirm these core truths. While a much larger 76 percent today believe the biblical accounts, that’s down from 81 percent in 2014.
But, there’s good news in the Pew survey.
White evangelicals hold to biblical claims at very high percentages: 95 percent affirm the virgin birth (96 percent in 2014); 97 percent affirm the angelic announcement (same as 2014); 95 percent accept the wise men (96 three years ago); and 98 percent believe Jesus was laid in a manger (95 percent in 2014).
Pew does not survey black evangelicals, but those who are categorized as “Black Protestant” also strongly affirm these truths: virgin birth, 96 percent; angelic announcement, 91 percent; wise men, 90 percent; and Jesus laid in a manger, 88 percent. Pew did not survey this demographic in 2014.
Another notable finding by Pew: among those who attend religious services at least weekly, 85 percent affirm all four elements of the Christmas narrative, down one point from 2014.
While I question how anyone can be an evangelical without believing these four truths, the extremely high affirmations of these truths by evangelicals is a demonstration of the centrality of the Bible among evangelicals – and it is also the solution to lower percentages of acceptance of these truths among others. We must proclaim unashamedly and consistently the biblical Christmas story.
In the pivotal scene in “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” Linus Van Pelt answers Charlie’s question concerning the meaning of Christmas by taking the stage in the school auditorium and reciting Luke’s nativity narrative (Luke 2:8-14, which, by the way, includes two of the four elements surveyed by Pew). The two-minute-long scene has become iconic – and, ironically, almost never made it to television.
According to numerous accounts, the producers lobbied Schulz to cut the Linus scene, concerned that it made the special too religious. When asked if he was sure he wanted to include the biblical text, Schulz said, “If we don’t do it, who will?” according to a Washington Post article in 2015 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
The answer to Charlie Brown’s question about the meaning of Christmas is found in Schulz’s rhetorical question to producers who wanted the remove the biblical narrative from the “Peanuts” special. If we don’t do it, who will?
Schultz’s question should ring in our ears.
With new evidence of the declining acceptance of the biblical account of the Christmas story, National Religious Broadcasters and its members must redouble our commitment to advance biblical truth – the Gospel truth that took on flesh in a manger and ends in an empty tomb -- God becoming man to save sinners.
By James A. Smith Sr., Vice President of Communications
Published: December 21, 2017