When I encounter fellow Christians during these days of comfort and joy, I wish them a Merry Christmas. When I encounter Jewish friends, I wish them Happy Hanukkah. And when I encounter...

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WASHINGTON — When I encounter fellow Christians during these days of comfort and joy, I wish them a Merry Christmas. When I encounter Jewish friends, I wish them Happy Hanukkah. And when I encounter people whose religious beliefs are unknown to me, I wish them Happy Holidays.

Does this make me a Christian sellout? Or does it make me an authentic Christian?

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The Christmas wars seem hotter this year. Listening to conservative talk shows and watching the lawsuits fly around, you’d think there’s a conspiracy to block celebrations of the birth of Jesus Christ. Politicians who speak of “the holidays” instead of “Christmas” now face angry Christian protests. What’s happening?

Partly, this is an old fight that reflects our First Amendment’s dueling religion clauses. One warns against government entanglement with religion. The other guarantees its free exercise.

Many of our fights over religious freedom pit those who fear government meddling with faith against those who worry that isolating government from religion interferes with its free exercise.

That’s the civilized version of the argument. The Christmas confrontations are particularly prickly because they come down to competing struggles for respect. Some believing Christians see the broader culture as unremittingly hostile to their faith and wonder why it’s easier to celebrate Santa, Rudolph and the Grinch than to sing praise to Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and unbelievers, meanwhile, insist that government should not push the faith of the majority into the faces of those who do not share it.

This second view is now being dismissed as “political correctness,” an increasingly meaningless phrase invoked to attack any point of view that conflicts with conservative preferences. If respecting the rights of religious minorities is “political correctness,” that makes Thomas Jefferson and the First Amendment “politically correct.”

It has been said that the definition of a liberal is someone so open-minded that he can’t take his own side in an argument. But some arguments are, by their very nature, illiberal because each side demands that we ignore the legitimate claims being made by the other. Talk shows love such debates — the Christmas debate is a classic — because everybody gets really mad without resolving anything.

It shouldn’t be hard to acknowledge that there is prejudice in some sectors of our society against those who hold traditionalist, evangelical or fundamentalist religious views. The familiarity of such phrases as “yahoos,” “hypocritical Puritans” and “Bible thumpers” is evidence of such prejudice.

There is something defective about a religious tolerance open to every expression of religion except for the faith of those who believe most passionately. One can oppose the political views of religious conservatives and still understand why they are tired of being called names.

But such respect cannot come at the expense of the rights of those who are not Christian. At the personal level: What in the world is “Christian” about insisting on saying “Merry Christmas” to a devout Jew or Hindu who might reasonably view the statement as a sign of disrespect? At the level of government: Is it really “Christian” for a religious majority to press its advantage over religious minorities, including nonbelievers?

Personally, I am partial to seasonal celebrations that acknowledge our religious diversity by allowing traditions to express themselves in their integrity. This is better than allowing only a commercial Christmas mush that satisfies no one except the retailers. Trying to delete every form of religious expression from the public square leads to foolishness. But one thing is even more foolish: for the religious majority to feel “oppressed” by a public etiquette designed to honor the rights of those outside its ranks.

An orthodox Jewish friend attended this year’s Hanukkah party at the White House. My friend appreciated President Bush’s gesture to his community and was surprised and pleased when the military band struck up the old Hanukkah song, “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel.” You wonder if the talk-show hosts and conservative direct-mail guys will now attack the president for being “politically correct.”

The great Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote that “the chief source of man’s inhumanity to man seems to be the tribal limits of his sense of obligation to other men.” I fear that in these Christmas debates, Christians are behaving not as Christians but as a tribe: “We will pound them if they get in the way of our customs and rituals.”

Tribal behavior is antithetical to the spirit of peace and good will. In this season, we ought to be taking the most expansive possible view of our obligations to others.

E.J. Dionne’s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is postchat@aol.com