What's on my mind.

28 November 2007

Church and Public Life

Early today I was driving a co-worker and two visitors out to our project site. I was running late and never properly introduced to the visitors, so I'll just refer to them as the Kingsport guys. (Their office is in Kingsport, TN.) We got talking about being in the Bible-belt. And how public religiousness isn't confined to the traditional Bible belt anymore. Then KG#1 says that he didn't like that they had stopped having invocations/prayers before football games and such. He understood why you couldn't have prayer in the classroom but seemed to be saying that a school football game is different and if the majority want it then it would be OK. What harm is there? seemed to be his point. Luckily, my co-worker is a talker. He jumped in with comments about how uncomfortable this can make the religious minority and how arrogant it is to assume that it isn't a problem to make someone else sit through your prayer. KG1 agreed that American Christians are often arrogant and assume they are in the majority and that a little humbleness could go a long way. I don't think, in the 2 minute conversation, he changed his mind about public prayer.

Now I would never suggest that one can not pray in public. Or that one can't pray out loud in public; or that one can't pray in groups in public. But we were talking about public school functions - that means the government is, in some small way, sanctioning this prayer.* All the non-Christian spectators and participants have to listen to the blessing. No one can force them to join in the prayer but there is strong peer pressure to stand and bow your head. Can you imagine a lone Muslim football player not kneeling and removing his helmet for the prayer? I'd be very impressed if he didn't, that would take some serious balls. I joined the circle when the marching band clasped hands to pray before going out for the pre-game, at my Alabama high school. The time I was too shocked not to join in. It had never occurred to me that a public school group would have teacher lead prayer. The rest of the season, I just was too much a wimp to not join in. (The director, in addition to everyone's safety, would pray that the band had a good performance. Like God doesn't have bigger fish to fry!)

The school system I grew up in was diverse. We didn't have "Christmas Break" it was "Winter Break." The idea of having a elementary school class concert in December with out the dreidel song, is completely foreign to me. When we were sending a jazz combo to play at a Toys for Tots collection site, our HS band director said "You guys know these tunes." (carols) and the sax player said "not really" under his breath. Non-Christians weren't free of Christian symbolism at school but they were also exposed to other faith's symbolism, too. If you decorated your door with a cross, there had better have been a menorah and/or Star of David, too. And possibly a crescent. Prayer before a football game? Are you insane? (But everybody stood, removed their hat, and faced the flag for the national anthem. Something I don't see all the time here.)
(Kinda' belabored the point, sorry.)

Because of where I grew up, I think I have a different view of the issue than a lot of Alabamians I've talked to about this. Religious diversity isn't a moot point, it is real to me. I'm aware of the minority and have been taught to take their feelings into account. I also like what my former Sunday school teacher said about it: "We won't be the majority forever. If we cram our religion down their throats, they'll cram their down ours." Unfortunately, she didn't say this to our whole class, just me.

I am amazed, along with several other co-workers that we have a blessing before the meal when we have a pot luck. There isn't even an attempt at being ecumenical with the blessing, it is definitely a Christian one, and usually pretty Baptist sounding, too. A co-worker of mine is shocked we have a Christmas party; I'm more shocked by the Christmas tree that goes in the lobby. At least the meals and party are for employees (and families) only. The lobby is public space at our government office. But that's Alabama.

*Yes, I know sessions of Congress open with prayer, doesn't make it constitutional. I also know that most (if not all) 50 State Constitutions mention God, that does not make it OK either.

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