Last year on this day - the eve of Thanksgiving - the voters had just returned George W. Bush to the White House for a second term. The role of religion in public life had played a part in the campaign and Crabby Old Lady, with good reason, had harsh words for a minister she had seen interviewed on television:
"Crabby Old Lady was shocked to hear the minister say further that Bush’s election shows God is giving the United the States one more chance to mend its ways, and when asked about those citizens who adhere to other religions, he dismissed them all with one word: 'Repent’ or they will - to his satisfaction - burn in hell.”
When two weeks ago, Dover, Pennsylvania voters threw out all the school board members who supported teaching intelligent design on an equal footing with Darwinism, Pat Robertson called down the wrath of God on the town. On the same election day, the Kansas Board of Education voted to join four other states in requiring that intelligent design be taught in the state’s science curriculum.
Let us be clear: intelligent design is dressed-up creationism. Teaching it as a scientific alternative to evolution is an attempt by certain Christian groups to subvert the Constitutional doctrine of the separation of church and state and, long term, to turn the United States into a Christian theocracy. We all know how peaceful the theocracies of the world are. [Be sure to check out biology professor Colin Purrington's funny (and serious) take on the teaching of evolution here and here.]
It all makes one nostalgic for the good old days of my youth. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, I was surrounded by the numerous religions of my neighborhood playmates. There were more stripes of Protestantism than anyone could count. Kids are curious sorts and sometimes I went to church with my friend Carol, who was a Baptist. It surprised me that they used grape juice for Communion; the Episcopal Church used real wine.
In a row of three houses across the street were three related Chinese families who practiced Buddhism and I remember watching Yeu-Bun’s mother saying prayers at a shrine in a corner of their living room.
The other Chinese family around the corner were Catholic as was the woman who took care of my brother and me after school, and we attended Mass with her sometimes.
For the year or so leading up to our 13th birthdays, the Catholic kids in my grade were let out of school early one afternoon a week to attend Catechism classes, and the Jewish boys (bat mitzvahs for girls were not common in those days) were allowed out early too for bar mitzvah classes. The only complaints were from Protestant kids whose churches didn’t have such ceremonies, but it was just schoolyard joshing among kids. No one really minded.
There were Christmas pageants at school (I have vague memories of being a snowflake one year), but parents of non-Christian kids showed up with every other parent to watch their little darlings recite their lines. No one was bothered that the pageant celebrated a Christian holiday and no one sued the school board. Although not as excessive as today, Christmas was a secular holiday in the 1950s, as it is now and without which, retailers could not survive. That was understood and I am certain no one of other religions thought their beliefs were diminished by the pageants.
I grew up in an ecumenical place and time. Religion - except for kids' normal curiosity about one another’s differences - was a private, family matter. Today, we have public, Christian prayers at the start of school sporting events; lawsuits over the Ten Commandments displayed in schools and courtrooms and creationism in science classes - the last endorsed by a president who swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
We have made gains in many social problems that hadn’t been addressed yet in the 1950s, but on this issue, it feels like two steps forward, one step back. We would do well to return to the old time religious attitudes of my childhood.