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WASHINGTON: Religion has always had an essential but subtle influence on US politics, but the Trump administration — celebrating its first Christmas in office — has pushed it on the centre stage.

Even a mainstream news agency like the Associated Press — which mostly does straight reporting without offering comments — pointed out this week that President Donald Trump “wields it (religion) as a weapon against political correctness”.

The report noted that during this Christmas season, Mr Trump has been “liberally sprinkling his public remarks with Christmas tidings. And then pointing it out in case anyone fails to notice.”

The New York Times pointed out how Mr Trump used religion to get congressional approval for his $1.5 trillion tax package, by attaching to it a provision to repeal a 1954 law.

The law prohibits churches from engaging in political activity, if they want charity funding for their programmes. Congress approved the package this week, along with the provision. Removing the restriction “could blur the line between charity and politics”, the newspaper warned.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Trump claimed credit for reintroducing ‘Merry Christmas’ in official greetings. “People are proud to be saying Merry Christmas again. I am proud to have led the charge against the assault of our cherished and beautiful phrase,” he wrote. “I hope everyone is having a great Christmas, then tomorrow it’s back to work in order to Make America Great Again,” he tweeted on Tuesday, along with three other Merry Christmas messages.

The United States is legally a secular country with no state church or religion, and the US Constitution prevents Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise of religion.

Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s founding fathers and the principal author of its declaration of independence, defined the first amendment as “a wall of separation between Church and State”.

Article Six of the US Constitution specifies that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”.

But throughout his campaign for president, Mr Trump kept reminding the Americans that if elected, he would restore their Christian pride and would reintroduce the phrase ‘Merry Christmas’ in official Christmas greetings.

“The word Christmas — I love Christmas, I love Christmas — you go to stores now and you don’t see the word Christmas, it says ‘Happy Holidays’,” Trump said at the Values Voter Summit in September 2015.

“Remember the expression ‘Merry Christmas’? You don’t see it anymore. You’re going to see it if I get elected, I can tell you right now.”

President Trump’s Christmas Eve tweet received a warm response from his followers, as more than 170,000 people clicked the “love” button under the tweet and almost 50,000 re-tweeted it. Many sent out tweets, saying they were proud to have a president willing to say “Merry Christmas” rather than “Happy Holidays,” as was the tradition before him.

The US media, however, pointed out that Mr Trump and his supporters were both wrong.

Although not an official phrase, ‘Merry Christmas’ was regularly used by past presidents, including Barack Obama, in their Christmas greetings.

The media noted that President Obama frequently said ‘Merry Christmas’ in his holiday greetings, both formally through White House statements and informally.

Published in Dawn, December 27th, 2017