Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Secularism in the Public Sphere.

I’m writing because I have an entire hour of almost completely unstructured time. And because I was inspired by a post over at Muzikdude’s blog. This post isn’t really a direct response to what he’s written, but his post is worth checking out if these topics interest you. Besides, he’s one of the funniest, most self-effacing bloggers out there.

So, anyway, religion in the public sphere. More specifically, religion in education.

When you’re talking about morality in the public sphere, and particularly when you’re talking about instilling morality in children in the public education system, I think it’s necessary to recognize that everyone is going to be clouded by their own upbringing and their own current religious convictions. So I think it’s fair if I explain where I’m coming from.

My mother and father are sort of nominal Christians. My dad’s family is Episcopalian, my mom’s family describes itself as “not Catholic.” I was baptised at Grace Episcopal Church in 1982 at the tender age of five months, largely at the urging of my paternal grandmother, who offered my mother a fifty dollar savings bond in my name if I’d undergo the dunk (or, rather, since we’re Episcopalians, the sprinkle). I was not raised in church, was never confirmed, and have had a largely secular upbringing.

I attended public school for all but one year of my education, when I was homeschooled so I could help take care of my mother when she was undergoing kidney dialysis. My school district was rural, conservative and thoroughly religious. Crestview was the kind of school district that every parent wants their children to be part of, and that children like me absolutely couldn’t tolerate.

The vast majority of students at Crestview were at least nominally religious, with a strong low church Protestant emphasis. Most of the kids I knew were Baptists or Pentecostals, though there was also a strong contingent of low church Methodists and non-denominationals. There were also Lutherans, though they tended to be pretty quiet. And there were Catholics too, though nobody knew who they were, because it was definitely not a good idea to talk about it.

I didn’t fit into any of those groups. At best, I was an Episcopalian, which for most low church Protestant types is a just a watered-down Catholic. At worst, I was some manner of Satan worshipper. For the record, I have never worshipped the devil, or pretended to be a witch, or whatever it is that gothic type kids do these days. I just listened to dark music, and wore dark clothes, and had a dark sense of humor and refused to go to church on Sundays. At Crestview, that was enough to garner me the nickname “Satan” somewhere in junior high school.

Crestview was a unique school in the modern sense, I guess. Though our teacher’s never led us in it, the kids definitely prayed. Teams prayed before sporting contests, the band prayed before performances, we had moments of silence on holidays, when kids were injured in accidents, at graduations, etc. Lots of kids carried their Bibles around at school, and it wasn’t unusual to hear God and the Bible mentioned in class as part of a lesson or in class discussions. Nobody got made fun of for wearing their W.W.J.D. bracelets, or for having Christian t-shirts. We had scripture on our “Go Team!” banners and a substantial portion of our assemblies had religious themes, particularly following the Columbine massacre. In fact, Rachel Scott’s dad came to our school and spoke once, and told us about how God had prepared Rachel for martyrdom and such. These messages were explicitly Christian, and so was the mainstream culture at Crestview.

I have a hard time understanding Christians now who claim to have been so persecuted in high school. I had the exact opposite experience. Christianity was definitely the dominant culture in my school, and I was on the outside. One of the greatest difficulties of my conversion has been my distaste for “those people.” That is, the kids that I grew up with who thought they were so much holier than me because they wore their youth group shirts and watched Veggie Tales for fun instead of listening to Tool or Pantera or whatever the hell it was I was into in high school. I didn’t like those kids.

In any case, it’s difficult for me to imagine this monster secularism that so many Christians seem to fear. Where I live, Christianity is by far the standard by which people live. That isn’t to say that all of the people where I live are good Christians, or even Christians at all, but it’s the basic moral standard. Plenty of folks spend their weekends drunk or high, having pre-marital or extra-marital sex, and doing all of those other sinful things we were taught not to do as children. But these behaviors aren’t condoned. The people who do those things are bad people; those people need to be saved. That’s the dominant attitude, even among populations most known for engaging in those behaviors.

I’ve seen on television where atheists want to remove “under God” from the pledge, or that they want to ban Easter break, or put an end to nativity scenes and carol singing or whatever, and I can hardly imagine it. Not only because it’s foreign, but because it’s ridiculous. Whatever hippies, liberals and college professors stage protests over, from what I’ve seen of America, most of us still like lights on our house at the holidays, and we don’t mind Memorial Day prayers for dead soldiers, and we don’t get all uptight when some kids want to pray at their graduation ceremonies either.

I hated Crestview High School and all of the pseudo-religious trappings that came with it. I hated the hypocrisy, and feeling different, and being left out. I didn’t like my teacher’s censoring my research paper topics because they didn’t fit into their ideal Christian worldview of what “good” high school students should be thinking about. However, I don’t blame Christianity for all of those things I hated. It wasn’t Christianity I hated; it was the tendency of human beings – and especially teenagers – to ostracize people who are different from them. That’s not the Gospel, and as a post-adolescent now, who’s really put some thought into it, I can say that for certain.

I gained absolutely nothing from the moral instruction I received at Crestview. D.A.R.E. did not keep me off drugs. The Christian songs we sang in choir did not make me run off to join the local Baptist women’s organization. The guest speakers who poignantly told us of their salvation by no means brought about my own. But none of those things particularly hurt me either. They might have been monumental wastes of time, but at least they were benign monumental wastes of time.

I think at the end of the day, the question of morality in the public sphere is almost a moot one. I don’t believe it’s something that can be imposed from above. Crestview was Crestview because the people who lived there believed a certain way, pressured each other to behave a certain way, and expected that everyone would conform to the standard, which, most people did. The government, in the form of legislators or in the form of school administrators, could never have forced us to study our Bibles. It was the urge to fit in that accomplished that.

I’m not fond of secularism, but I don’t find it that terrible a danger either. Christianity is the dominant religion in America in a profound and unique sort of way. We still think that we’re the Promised Land and we’re not ready to let go of the dream. I don’t think we’re going to go the way of Europe; we will never be post-Christian in the way that modern Europe is post-Christian. Not so long as the majority of us eat meat ‘n potatos, anyway.

I worry about institutions, but not so much about populations. We’re going to be fine. All of the actresses in Hollywood might have a combined weight of somewhere just below 80 or 90lbs, but Americans as a whole are still in the midst of an obesity epidemic. We just don’t listen. And that’s a very good thing.