When my son was in elementary school he came home one day and mentioned that he'd told the teacher that I was Jewish. His reasoning: He knew I wasn't a Christian, and the only possible alternative was that I must be Jewish. Because what else is there?
Well, I'm not Jewish, and I can't call myself a Christian because Christian belief requires that one accept that Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead. I don't reject the possibility, but I don't have the faith required to say, honestly, that I believe that essential concept. I think it's proper to let a religion define its rules for membership, and regardless of my feelings about Jesus and the church's other teachings, I don't meet the Easter resurrection standard.
This brings me, finally, to the last thing I want to write about on this three-day church-state binge: The mechanisms that make one thing "normal" and other things deviant.
My father was a preacher, among other things, and I was raised in various flavors of the Protestant church. Christianity is part of my cultural heritage, part of my identity, and absolutely the "normal," default state for me.
When I began to have questions about it, the stakes surrounding those questions felt extremely high to my teenage self. I felt that the answers to those questions not only had to make more sense than the answers I received from the church, but also had to be so much more convincing as to make up for the cost of being wrong: eternal damnation, not to mention separation from my community. That default state was a finger on the scale of my thoughts for years, and made me feel (mistakenly so) that my own spiritual feelings had to be viewed in opposition to Christianity. I wasted many years feeling that I had to argue with the church, and I didn't want to pass that burden along to another generation.
With my own son, I decided to try raising him with a respect for spirituality but without a default religion. His primary-school confusion about my religion became the beginning of one of our first important conversations about spirituality, and since then I've encouraged him to read, attend services and ask questions. One summer during his middle school years, concerned that he didn't properly understand Christianity, I actually offered to pay him to read the Bible, or at least the New Testament (he declined). I don't want to direct his decisions about his spiritual life, but I at least want his decisions to be informed ones.
So one reason that I particularly appreciate the idea that the state should not be allowed to use public schools as a way to endorse a particular flavor of religion is that it helps me walk a difficult line as a parent. Luke grew up in an external culture in which Christianity is normal, and like any kid, he internalized that. Meanwhile, I felt my job was to raise him to appreciate Christianity but also other spiritual traditions, so that his adult choices will be made freely. If we allowed our schools to reinforce the already powerful, normative messages that Luke was receiving from his classmates, I'd be at an even greater disadvantage.
You can be a practicing Christian and have the same experience. Seventh Day Adventists, Quakers, Christian Scientists and Mormons all consider themselves Christian, even though other denominations may disagree. Protestantism and Catholicism dispute each other's validity. And the variety of schisms within what we might call the larger body of Christ are so numerous that endorsing one flavor of Christian practice over another in school would create all sorts of problems for parents of these minority religions.
I understand that the Great Commission calls upon evangelicals to go out and convert non-believers. I appreciate that to some, saving a child's soul from godlessness and damnation far outweighs the social value of respecting the rights of that child's parents. But do we really want to turn our schools into a battleground over which religious expression shall be regarded as normal and appropriate? Do we really want the state to reinforce the religious beliefs of some parents, while undermining others?
Which raises a point that secularists like me must acknowledge: If someone believes that secularism goes against their religious teachings, then isn't secularism itself a belief system akin to religion? Isn't a policy that makes our public schools secular its OWN form of religious discrimination against sects and denominations that teach the sinfulness of secular values? Isn't it teaching children that secularism is the norm? That their parents' religion is somehow, even subtly, abnormal?
I have a lot of sympathy for these parents, and I want to make it clear that I endorse secular public schools not as an ideal state, but as the best compromise we've been able to forge as a nation. Because these parents are right: the secular compromise does have the net effect of making secularism, tolerance and multiculturalism appear more normal.
I happen to agree with those principles. And yet I've come to realize that the secular schools compromise is causing great distress for parents who wish to teach their children that faith is more important than secular considerations, that obedience is a form of humility.
For this reason, I now believe it's exceedingly important that secular Americans recognize the dilemma that the group we call "the Christian right" must face. The existence of socially acceptable alternatives to their beliefs, and the endorsement of a neutral perspective by the government, tends to undermine the lessons these parents are trying to teach. It contributes to their sense that the world is going to Hell in a handbasket.
Most Americans are at least nominally Christian and at least generally in favor of the secular schools compromise. This gives me and the Christian right a bit of common ground: we're both minorities, both trying to raise kids in a culture that sends out normative messages with which we disagree.
It's why, even as much as I disagree with their beliefs, I often find myself defending them. And it's hard to defend people who are instructed by God, as an act of love, to confront you with what they see as evidence of your sinfulness. Nobody likes being told they are evil and foolish, myself included. I'm not always my best self in such situations.
And I don't have an answer to this conundrum. How do you prescribe tolerance for people whose beliefs tell them that tolerance itself is an act of subterfuge, a wolf in sheep's clothing? How can that answer ever satisfy such people?
Yet we are called upon to make a decision, and not everyone can always be happy with the outcome. What is best for the nation? For society? I'm satisfied that this alternative is better than others, but aware that it is imperfect. In the end, all I can recommend is mindfulness, respect, and a willingness to muddle through.
I do know this: Separation of church and state, as a wise compromise that leads to the greater good, should never be used to punish those who reject secular ideals, but to protect the rights of all.
E pluribus unum.