Sunday, June 17, 2007


Let me begin by wishing a happy Father’s Day to any dad out there in cyberspace. To retailers, Father’s Day isn’t quite as important as Mother’s Day (it generates 40% less revenues on average), but our society ought to view the two occasions as equally important. I don’t go for the traditional attitude that men should rule the workplace whereas women should rule the home. A worker is a worker, and a parent is a parent. While our gender may influence the way we carry out our duties at work or at home, that is not to suggest that one gender is better suited for those duties than the other.

Personally, I take my job as father seriously enough that I’m often in awe of its challenges. In fact, I sometimes find myself ill-equipped psychologically to carry out my duties. What do I know, for example, about disciplining teenagers? I want to extend my teenagers the latitude to develop their own judgment, but if we extend too much latitude, we can enable them to make some pretty awful mistakes, and it’s sometimes hard to know where to draw the line. That’s one reason why it’s so much more fun to be the child asking for privileges than the tough-loving parent who is forced to restrict them … or to regret not having done so.

And yet, like just about every parent I know, I wouldn’t trade parenthood away for all the money in the world. When things are going well, there’s nothing more satisfying than to appreciate your children’s beauty. Just looking at their faces and hearing their voices can be enough to put you in a wonderful mood. And how much more wonderful does that mood become when you witness your children grow in wisdom, compassion, or strength of character.

This past week for me has been one of those weeks that every parent dreams of. One day I was in a school awards ceremony watching one of my daughters receive a standing ovation from her peers – all 200 classmates, to be precise. The next day, I was in the stands at Cole Field House at the U of MD, watching that same child and her friend win the Special Prize for the History of Religious Freedom at the National History Day competition. The standing O was moving – I don’t recall ever receiving such an ovation myself, and I’m more than three times as old as my daughter – but the Religious Freedom prize was totally overwhelming. In part, I was appreciative at seeing a couple of good kids rewarded for their hard work and quality accomplishments. (You can read the play they wrote and performed that earned them the prize by going to and clicking on the “Spinoza Society” page.) But in part, I was awed by the specific topic of the award. Few things, to me, are more important than religious freedom. To hear my daughter associated with that concept was more than enough to bring me to tears.

There was a time in my life when I used to think about religious freedom even more than I do now. The first writings I published – a law review article and an educational policy piece -- centered on religious freedom generally and, in particular, the way we deal with religion in the modern American schoolhouse. I conceived the ideas for those articles back when I was finishing up law school and was looking back on my career as a student – a career that spanned two full decades and virtually my entire life to that point.

I realized then that here in America, the schoolhouse is kept “free” from religion and spirituality. We learn about history, geography, chemistry, physics, biology, math, English, foreign languages, music, art, physical education, wood shop/home economics. You name it; if it’s secular, we learn about it. But religion? Spirituality? Philosophy? Apparently, that stuff doesn’t belong in the school. That, we figure, will be learned on Sunday mornings – even though we know that a lot of families don’t send their kids to Sunday schools and many of those who do de-emphasize its importance. (It doesn’t really “count” like the stuff you learn during regular school.)

When it comes to religion, I’ve always been something of a skeptic. I’ve mocked the traditional conception of God. I’ve questioned the manner in which egotistical clerics have viewed our place in the cosmos and their own place in our society. I’ve considered the term “irreverent” to be a badge of honor; it connoted someone who’s willing to speak truth to power and make light of “holy” myths that are as much superstition as they are truth.

In short, I have not exactly been the world’s foremost advocate of organized religion. And yet … even back in my early 20s, I felt in my heart that “the sacred” exists … that religion is among the grandest of disciplines … that while words like “irreverence” or “iconoclastic” are holy, so too is “religiosity” … and that too many kids in America grow up without a sufficient appreciation for the spiritual domain.

To me, freedom of religion as a legal matter must entail the freedom not to practice a religion as much as the freedom to worship in one’s own chosen manner. Nevertheless, my own personal belief is that the sense of the spiritual is like a sixth sense, and to be deprived of it is no less tragic than to be deprived of the ability to see or hear. More and more, I’ve come to know people – adults, not just kids – for whom spirituality is completely absent from their lives. Some revel in that; others, like me, consider it a shame. But what frustrates me the most is that our schools have pushed so many children in that direction, for they never have been exposed to religion as any sort of attractive option – not at home, and not on Sunday mornings. They are no more “free” in the positive sense of that term to practice religion than my dogs are “free” to study Spinoza simply because nobody has stopped them from doing so.

Readers of The Creed Room might recall my opposition to the idea that religious freedom requires us to rid ourselves of religion from the public domain. No, I wouldn’t allow public institutions to embrace one set of religious symbols or ideas over others. But I couldn’t strongly enough encourage schools to teach comparative religion and philosophy classes. That’s right – even though some teachers would clearly go too far and try to indoctrinate their students, I’d still advocate that we teach a lot about religion, and deal with moronic teachers when they identify themselves. Moreover, I would advocate opening and closing each school day with a minute of silence – not a minute of “prayer” but a minute of silence. Kids could spend the time praying, but they could also spend it reflecting, planning, and even welling up their heart with hatred, if that is their preference.

The job of our schools must never be to indoctrinate. But nor should it be to trivialize – or should I say, marginalize – the sense of the spiritual. The older I become, the more important that sense becomes to my life. I would hate to think that it is incompatible with modernity. That sounds to me like the opposite of evolution.

So, here’s to religious freedom -- however we as individuals define that term! Here’s to the right to be able to practice a minority religion as well as a mainstream form of Christianity. Here’s to the right to be able to practice no religion at all, no matter what yours truly thinks of that choice. And here’s the right to be exposed enough to religion to be able to decide what religion means to us as individuals, and how much it means to us.

Let me also propose a toast to parenthood. As frustrating as it can be, there is also nothing more rewarding. To those who take it seriously, I offer a major word of thanks. And here on Father’s Day, let me give my greatest thanks to my own father. He never received any standing ovations (at least not to my knowledge). He never received many accolades at all. But he always was and always will be my hero and greatest source of inspiration. Upon hearing on October 1, 2002 that he had passed away, he taught me a new word: to keen. Thanks to my dad, I was able for the first and only time to get in touch with my inner wolf … and thereby to understand what it means to be fully human.

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