Tuesday, November 14, 2006

THE WALL OF SEPARATION

If you listen to all our politicians, this is supposed to be a time of bi-partisanship -- a time when Republicans and Democrats come together, when liberals reach out to conservatives, and vice verse. Allow me to do my part in ushering in a new era. Below, I shall argue for a position that is generally considered to be “conservative,” even though I am a liberal. I encourage any of you who comment on my posts to do the same: pick an issue in which you agree with people whose political views/values are typically quite different from your own.

Many people who affirm the separation of church and state do so as a way to combat the power of religion. But historically, in the United States, that wall of separation was advanced more to protect religion from encroachment by the state than the other way around. I sympathize with that old-fashioned perspective and would like for measures to be taken to ensure that the government is giving religion its proper respect.

Does that mean that I want the public sphere to establish one sectarian approach to religion above others? Hardly. In a pluralistic society, that doesn’t sound religious at all. It sounds irreligious – as in, some of us feel that we have a monopoly on ultimate truths and everyone else should shut up and listen to us. Like I said, irreligious.

Moreover, the idea of a government promoting one system of worship over others isn’t my only concern when it comes to determining the proper relationship between religion and government. I’m also concerned that the government could promote religions that worship a traditional God-concept over those that wish to throw the idea of the divine into the scrapheap. It’s not the place of the government to dictate to people how they should think of God. In fact, I would go further to say that it’s not the place of the government to take sides on the whole question of God. Secular humanists can be even more religious, in the true sense of that word, than “devout” Christians, Jews or Muslims. Secular humanists tend not to advocate killing innocent people in the name of populating the Promised Land, carrying out a Crusade, or conducting a jihad. Moreover, secular humanists tend not to absolve themselves of responsibility for the healing of their planet. Since there exists no God in their heavens, they must take on the sacred duty of public service that many “devout” people assign to Providence. Maybe these secular humanists choose not to use the word “sacred” to refer to their social service, but a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.

Suffice it to say, then, that I’m not a huge fan of the establishment of any church or religious tradition by the government. But I am also concerned about a government that abridges the free exercise of religion. I’m concerned about a government that shows such disdain for the whole domain of religion that it wishes to keep religion – in the broad sense of the word – as far as possible away from the public sphere. My specific concern is the public schoolhouse, where children sit for hours on end gulping down that which the government decides is worthy of their consideration. We want them to learn science. And math. And literature. And a foreign language. And history. And art or music. And physical education. We even require that they learn about human sexuality. And that makes sense to me. But what of religion? Are they required to think about that? Nah. “Too dangerous,” we say. “Let the parents teach them outside of school.”

In the name of religion – not sectarianism, but spirituality – I find the above priorities offensive. Spirituality is every bit as important as any of the above disciplines. In fact, it’s arguably as important as all the other disciplines combined. So why don’t we pay it any mind when we are deciding how to educate our children? Some are concerned about the danger of the slippery slope: once we require instruction in comparative religions, won’t we open the door to teachers taking the opportunity to preach incessantly about the wisdom of their chosen religion and bad mouth any alternative faiths? How, for example, can we trust a traditional Christian teacher to speak fairly about the Jewish assertion that God never took human form? Do we want our Jewish children to sit in a classroom in Lubbock, Texas listening to a Christian teacher lecture about the Jewish faith in a classroom composed almost entirely of Christians?

I’d be willing to take more chances than most and advocate requiring comparative religion courses in public schools. But, for the moment, let’s not talk about taking chances. Let’s just talk about the idea of moments of silence. What if, for kids who are in middle school and high school, the first and last class periods of every school day began with one solid minute of compelled silence? And what if that minute of silence was introduced by a statement from the teacher to the effect that we believe it is important to take some time either to pray, or if you are not one who prays, to at least spend some time meditating or reflecting on what is really important in life? How can that possibly be considered an inappropriate establishment of religion?

Some might say that two daily minutes of silence would be merely a waste of school time. But to me, that attitude shows a hostility to religion that un-becomes a free society. The kids spend 45 minutes a day on science. They can’t spend at least two on religion? Some kids would actually take the time to pray – and yes, the official minutes of silence are a way to remind them that their prayer is something that we in society respect. But to those who don’t pray, they are also being given an opportunity to relax and collect their thoughts. Lord knows that we should respect the need for that as well.

Sorry, but I have trouble appreciating the other side of this issue. And spare me the slippery slope argument that moments of silence will turn into opportunities to make atheists feel out of place. I was an atheist as a child, and I would have felt fine with the notion of meditating or relaxing while my religious friends prayed … at least if they prayed silently and an introductory statement was made that a “prayer” is not necessary. Nobody’s talking about minutes of indoctrination; I’m talking about minutes of silence.

So let’s say that a law was passed mandating two minutes of silence per class day. How might I spend such minutes? Well, in prayer, hopefully. But I tend to take a dim view of traditional, petitional prayers. (“Dear God … do this for me, do that for me, etc.) Accordingly, in my next post, I’ll suggest a group – other than ourselves – that could use our love and sympathy. This group contains rich people, poor people, sick people, healthy people … they run the gamut in all respects except one: their age.

4 comments:

Benedict S. said...

"What if, for kids who are in middle school and high school, the first and last class periods of every school day began with one solid minute of compelled silence?" In three weeks or less the kids would begin to treat the minutes as a form of punishment.

Finding Fair Hope said...

All this sounds as if religion were just another skill set for children to master among their already content-driven school subjects. Marietta Johnson, America's great visionary educator of the 20th Century, felt that while perhaps important in a child's life, religion in school should be interpreted as a spiritual approach to learning and the general betterment of life during and after school hours.

As to the moment of silence and its possible cause for stress and interpretation as punishment, how about this quote from Mrs. Johnson: "The little child should have much time for play, and even for dreaming. If one may not dream in childhood, when will time be found for this accomplishment?"

Daniel Spiro said...

Comparative religion, if taught in school, could emerge as a skill set for children to master. But it needn't. It would help if the schools didn't develop an "AP Test" for religion, and allowed teachers not simply to teach to a test.

In any event, we can talk all we want about the problems with introducing religion into the public domain -- and those problems are obvious -- but the status quo is a spiritual wasteland. The essence of liberalism is the courage to risk making things worse based on the hope of making things better. I'm willing to take some chances in order to see if we can make more and more people respect the value of spirituality as a domain that they might want to wrestle with, if not embrace.

Daniel Spiro said...

Benedict --

If the teachers handle the minute of compelled silence sensitively, it need not come across as punishment. Today, we have the "pledge of allegiance" -- which includes an arguably unconstitutional statement about this nation being "under God." That pledge probably takes 20 seconds. Kids probably don't view it as punishment. They may view it as stupid, but not as punishment. If the kids think taking a minute to be with their own thoughts (or dreams, prayers, etc.) is stupid, who would they be indicting but themselves?