On Christmas Day, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Queen Elizabeth II all released their Christmas messages. All three leaders are, or will be, the heads of state of English-speaking nations, but their situations and the traditions surrounding their Christmas addresses are so different as to defy comparison: an unelected monarch addressing her nations on Christmas for the sixty-ninth year in a elaborately produced video broadcast around the world, and two politicians joined by their spouses in a short messages that will be seen primarily by their supporters. But the various manners in which they approached the Christian dimensions of the holiday.
President and Mrs. Trump appeared in a two-minute-forty-second video. They took turns speaking. The president stated, “During the sacred season, Christians celebrate the greatest miracle in human history, more than two thousand years ago God sent is only begotten son to be with us.” Trump proceeded to recount the words of the angel recorded in Luke 2:10-11 announcing the birth of “a savior” who is “the Messiah, the Lord,” and concluded, “at Christmas we thank God for sending us his son to bring peace to our souls and joy to the world.” The Trumps like the Bidens and the Queen took note of Covid and thanked those who had made a special contribution to help people combat it. The president concluded, “We thank God for his infinite love and we pray that the light of his glory will forever shine on this magnificent land.”
This year, President Trump employed higher christology than in his previous three Christmas addresses. In 2019, he did mention the birth of “our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ,” but did not refer to him as the son of God. In 2018, while he mentioned that Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, most of the focus was on peace and goodwill. In 2017, he recited Isaiah 9:6, which Christians understand to be about Jesus emphasizing the phrase “the government will be on his shoulders,” and concluded that the birth of this one who would be called “Mighty God” is “the reason for our joy.”
Trump voiced Christian theological language even more in his more extended remarks after lighting the National Christmas Tree on December 3, 2020. In these he spoke of giving thanks to God “in that God sent his only son to die for us and to offer everlasting peace to all humanity.” But as one conservative website noted, this address was not available via the White House or most news outlets.
In his address President-Elect Joe Biden was joined by his spouse, Jill Biden. They steered clear any particular Christian reference aside from saying Merry Christmas and mentioned that they were forgoing their usual large family Christmas Eve dinner because of the pandemic. Like the Trumps they emphasized the particular trials of this year and expressed gratitude to those who have served the nation this year and the themes of love and joy that mark “this holy day.”
Queen Elizabeth II’s 2020 message was notable for the way it avoided both the Trumps’ exclusive focus on Christianity and the Bidens’ lack of reference to any particular religion. In her five-minute talk, the queen noted that while Christians were unable to celebrate this year as they usually would, the same had been true earlier in 2020 for people of all faiths as they variously celebrated other festivals. She mentioned Passover, Easter, Eid, Vaisakhi, and Diwali.
The queen’s Christmas message is one of the few times each year in which she speaks publically for herself, not for her government. As is her custom in these addresses, she explicitly witnessed to her own Christian faith, saying “the teachings of Christ have served as my inner light.” In this year’s address she also briefly retold two New Testament stories that related to her central themes: the Good Samaritan’s service to others and the light of the star guiding people to the infant Jesus. The broadcast closed with a choir of National Health Service workers singing three stanzas of Isaac Watts’s paraphrase of Psalm 98, “Joy to the World.” This emphasized Christian focus of her annual Christmas message.
As I watched these messages I wondered how the conservative evangelical college students I teach would respond to the leaders’ various ways of discussing the holiday. I expect that some of them would note approvingly that Trump spoke of Jesus as savior, but would fault the queen for only referring to Jesus as a teacher. On the other hand, I think they would warm to her first-person-singular testimony. Some might take Trump’s first-person-plural references to Christian faith as signs that the U.S. is, at least in his view, a Christian nation, while others might see it as an evasion of his own religious identity.
Perhaps I’ll have them watch these videos this spring and find out.
Revised December 26, 2020, 7:10 p.m. (CDT).