© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

choosing your battles

prayball!

I’m all Southern now. For proof, see last post, in which God and football are mentioned in the same breath.

Somebody emailed me to ask why exactly I’m not girding for battle over the inclusion of God as one of the four team values for my son’s public football league. Let’s suppose for a moment it was a serious question. When it comes to religious incursions into public life, how do you decide when to fight and when to let it be?

Since I edited Parenting Beyond Belief, I’ve heard stories of church-state violations that would make your fries curl: public school marquees with Bible verses, a public kindergarten teacher showing the bible-based Veggie Tales and reading from In God We Trust — Stories of Faith in American History, even a values assessment in a public high school that gave kids a lower values score if they didn’t attend church or believe in a “higher power.”

Like the aforementioned curly fries, some of these are small issues, some are medium — and some are SuperSize. To sort them out, it’s a good idea to think about why church-state separation exists. It does not exist to “avoid offending atheists.” Ed Buckner put it this way in Parenting Beyond Belief:

Many people do oppose separation of religion and public education, of course, but most do so because they lack good understanding of the principle and its purpose. The most common misunderstanding is that separation is designed to protect religious minorities, especially atheists, from being offended. Offending people without good reason isn’t ever a good idea, but that isn’t the point of separation. Separation is necessary to protect everyone’s religious liberty.

chac xib chacTHAT is what separation is for. If I tell you I’m in favor of putting God back in schools, half of my relatives would cheer — until I announce that it’s Chac-Xib-Chac, the Mayan god of blood sacrifice, who will be worshipped, and the Mayan creation story that’ll be taught as true.

Suddenly I’m no fun at all.

Likewise, if I said our prayers would be specifically Catholic — that we would pray to Mother Mary and invoke the name of Benedict XVI each morning, for example — there’d be Protestants laying bricks in the principal’s office.

Nobody understood this better than Southern Baptists at their founding. They were a tiny minority then, you see, and didn’t want some majority vision of God forced on their kids. Here’s Dr. Ed again:

The Southern Baptist Conference understood the point so well that it included separation of church and state as one of its founding principles. The Southern Baptists adopted, in their “Baptist Faith and Message,” these words: “The church should not resort to the civil power to carry on its work….The state has no right to impose penalties for religious opinions of any kind. The state has no right to impose taxes for the support of any form of religion.” Only by consistently denying agents of government, including public school teachers, the right to make decisions about religion is our religious liberty secure.

But now that they’ve made it into the mainstream, why, they can’t quite remember what all the separationist fuss was about.

If I heard that a teacher at my kids’ school was advocating atheism — saying specifically that God does not exist, for example, and telling the kids they should believe the same — I’d be the very first parent demanding his or her head. Secular schools are not the same as “atheistic” schools. They are neutral on religious questions — and that, you careful readers of the Constitution will know, is the American Way.

Anyway, back to my boy’s football thing. Stu Tanquist (whose essay title I stole for this entry) offered a list of considerations in Parenting Beyond Belief:

When considering whether or not to challenge religious intrusion in our lives, there are many factors to consider:
• Is your child concerned about the consequences?
• Could your child be negatively impacted by the challenge? Might he or she be ostracized at school by teachers or students?
• If successful, how significant would the change be? Would it positively benefit other families and children?
• Could you and your family be negatively impacted?
• What are your chances of success?
• How much time and resources are required?
• Do you risk damaging existing relationships?
• Is this likely to be a short-term or long-term fix?
• Is legal action necessary?
• Are there other parents or organizations that could assist you?
• Are you bored? Do you really need the spice this will add to your life?
• Would it feel rewarding both to you and your child if you succeeded?

This list isn’t designed to spit out the “right” answer; it simply raises the right issues. “Damage to existing relationships” is unfortunate, but in some cases might be outweighed by “positive benefit [to] other families and children.” Read his chapter and you’ll see how Stu geared his own responses, sitch by sitch, as his daughter encountered religious incursions in her public education.

The most important point Stu makes is the importance of considering the child’s wishes. Pushing a point your child doesn’t want pushed might do far more damage to your parent-child relationship than the issue is worth.

In the end, the football thing was a no-brainer. Compared to the likely consequences — especially for the new kid — it just doesn’t matter enough. God is just being presented as a value — inappropriately so, yes, but the effect is mild. My boy isn’t being forced to pledge individual belief in God, as he was (repeatedly) in Scouts. And he’s less impressionable now, better able to think for himself, so I’m not concerned about him being unduly influenced by an admired figure like his coach.

There are certainly cases in which I would stand up — and have. This just isn’t one of them. I’d be interested to hear what you think about Stu’s list — if there’s anything you’d add or subtract, for example — and whether you’ve come up against separation issues and how you handled them.

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This was written on Wednesday, 08. August 2007 at 20:10 and was filed under Atlanta, belief and believers, church-state separation, My kids, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, schools. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. Just wondering how the answers to Stu’s list of questions affects the decision to act or not. I’m not looking for a “score 1 point for every yes, and if the total is greater than 6, prepare for battle”, but was wondering, for example, how the answer to the last question – “Would it feel rewarding both to you and your child if you succeeded?” – influences the decision. Is feeling rewarded a reason for or against taking action? Or what about legal action? If something requires legal action does that suggest that it should be ignored or that it should move ahead (because then it means that there are legality issues at stake and not just, “it ticks me off”)?

    It seems that each question could lend itself to both decisions for and against challenging religious intrusion. I guess really these questions are a form of cost-benefit or risk analysis. Low risk, high reward, take action. High risk, low reward, stay quiet. Though now that I write that it seems rather meek – only fight the battles you can win? Aren’t some battles worth fighting regardless of the outcome? Oh I don’t know – it’s late – and I’m rambling. I’ll stop now before I venture further down the path of unadvised, sleepy blogging…

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 08. August 2007 @ 11:39 pm

  2. Yes, I do think it’s a kind of cost/benefit analysis, but you’re right, nothing so formal as a point scale. Stu has simply listed some of the considerations to ponder — a way of making the process a little more structured than chin-scratching. How any one answer affects your decision is up to you.

    In asking each of those questions for the football situation I described, it becomes obvious to me that no action is called for. Someone else might feel differently. In other situations, it might be just as clear that action IS called for. As for the muddy middle, the questions can help us make a judgment. As for this…

    Low risk, high reward, take action. High risk, low reward, stay quiet. Though now that I write that it seems rather meek – only fight the battles you can win? Aren’t some battles worth fighting regardless of the outcome?

    …The issue in the first two sentences is not whether you’ll win, but how much difference would be made by the victory if you do win. And he wouldn’t say “Don’t act if risk is high and reward low.” It is just one of many issues to consider before you make your choice.

    (I should also note that we’ve omitted two other possibilities: high risk, high potential reward [as in Michael Newdow’s Pledge challenge], and low risk, low potential reward.)

    Comment: Dale – 09. August 2007 @ 12:29 pm

  3. I think the list and the thoughts are right on target. When I was in high school everyone had a prayer circle in front of the school (there were about 100 in the HS). There were 3 of us that did not participate. If my parents threw a fit, it would not have done a thing. It wasn’t a large problem for me anyway. I wasn’t teased or harassed or anything. I was just annoyed personally because I knew that that wasn’t “right”. There were other cases in school of things that happened but really in the grand scheme of things they were pretty minor. They did not change the way I thought about things.

    I think if parents lay out a good foundation of questioning things the child will not have any large problems. If they become confused about something, maybe talking it out with parents or friends or someone who has a different viewpoint is the best thing any way. It sure becomes a valuable skill later on.

    I would say this is one great thing that the blogs do. They expose you to others viewpoints. This is a wonderful way to test and retest your beliefs on many issues.

    Comment: Hound Doggy – 11. August 2007 @ 3:49 pm

  4. Unfortunately for me, two of the examples of violations of church and state separation that Dale used, were tales of my son’s Kindergarten teacher. I can’t tell you how difficult those two situations were for me. Among other things, I felt incredible alone in my convictions. The details are in the forums.

    I can say that it is definitely a matter of choosing your battles. Sometimes it just isn’t worth it. Stu’s list and his advice certainly helped me. I made myself very clear to my son’s teacher and I was very glad that that school year was over. Now we’re gearing up for another year and I’ve already googled the new teacher hoping I wouldn’t find her listed all over the local Fundamentalist’s website. So far, so good. I chose to battle because this was in a classroom where my child was expected to consider everything that was taught as “truth”. In Dale’s case of football, I wouldn’t bother.

    Comment: Amanda – 27. August 2007 @ 10:19 am

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