30 August 2008

Religion in Public Schools

All week I've been explaining the "Obama is a Muslim" myth to people at school. It's surprising how many people believe this, considering that it was debunked last winter pretty forcibly by the campaign. I try not to press my politics on the students, but in cases of outright lunacy--like the Obama-Muslim connection, or the Saddam Hussein-9/11 connection (which are believed by legions of Americans to this day), I feel that I have to step in with the truth. To be honest, I would also step in if a student tried to tell me that John McCain has a wooden leg.

Another popular myth is "There's no religion allowed in public schools." I have heard this more times than the Obama-Muslim myth, and frankly it rankles me a little more because I am such an outspoken Christian and I have invested my career in demonstrating my own personal Christian values in a public school setting.

For me, religion in public schools is the same as politics in the pulpit. It shouldn't be preached. There is no such thing as a homogeneous group in America where I can proclaim "Obama will be a great president" or "I believe every dumb thing you can tell me about Bill Clinton" except, perhaps a political party convention. In any other setting, the words a person wants to say about God or education, will be coopted if they insist on presenting a biased political slant on things.

That's how it is in my classroom. In any group of 20 or 25, I expect to have four or five who are members of the Baptist mega-church in Hendersonville, about four of other fundamentalist denominations (Church of Christ, Mormon, Adventist or Jehovah's Witness), three mainline or Catholic students and 30 to 40% of the room that is unchurched.

To me, this is a real opportunity to learn as well as teach. We bring up religion a lot, but I do so in a way that students feel safe expressing their own beliefs while respecting those of others. For example, in a recent discussion of the Puritans, I asked students to choose from one of the following three options: (1) Man is basically evil and therefore needs control [a la Puritans]; (2) man is fundamentally good and therefore needs freedom [a la deists like Thomas Jefferson]; (3) man is neither good nor evil and therefore must muddle through [a la postmodernists]. Religiously speaking the classes were 98% postmodern.

Students come to my school with Jesus T-shirts. Many of them carry Bibles in their backpack--I remember a hand full of students who placed them on the top of their desk tops after they sat down. I remember smiling as I passed a boy who had a cross on his T-shirt. It had the caption "I could be punished for wearing this in a public school." I left him unmolested, as did every other teacher that day.

With our boys at the public elementary school next door, we saw a classic example of how prevalent religion is in the public schools. Owen's teacher, Ms. Sloan, called us recently quite concerned. She had asked the kids about a place they would like to visit. Owen wrote, "Heaven."

Now I think most of the readers of this blog understand fully what Owen intended. Students in Adventist schools are encouraged to imagine Heaven, describe it, draw it, look forward to it.

In Ms. Sloan's faith background, it was quite different.

Think about it.

For her, going to heaven was probably a euphamism for death. And when she saw a bright, 7-year-old boy say that he wanted to go there, she could only understand that he wished to die.

It made us both glad that she cared enough to call us about this; and even more glad that Owen's religious education is up to us, not to a given teacher. As long as Owen is at Station Camp Elementary, religion will be alive and well, and that's the way it should be.

Speaking of heaven, it makes me want to include one of the verses I sang at Oasis last night:
When I come to die,
Oh when I come to die,
When I come to die, give me Jesus.

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