Thursday, April 19, 2012

Be Careful Little Mouths What You Say (or don't)

Depending on the story, a Virginia teacher either removes, deletes, or outright bans the word God from the song “We Are the World” before elementary school students are allowed to perform it in concert.  All of the reports I’ve seen point to this as one more example of the public school system and its employees attempt to indoctrinate and secularize students. (It’s time for the secular social exorcism to stop) Online reports not only attack the system, but single out the teacher for reproach.  Ms. Flaherty is portrayed as intentionally removing this lyric with some type of ulterior motive of subverting the religious belief and identity of her students.

I want to offer a different possibility.  I bet that every public school teacher, k-12, who teaches science, social studies, or the arts has dealt with the tricky situation of allowing matters of faith and belief into the classroom.  Matters of faith and belief are more than just a style of clothes, taste in music, or the sports we like.  For most humans, matters of faith and belief are a part of our identity.  In a school, this is true for the students and also the teachers who teach them.  Outside, it is true of myself and most everyone I interact with daily. 

For this reason, matters of faith and belief cannot be suppressed.  Any misguided attempt by "authorities" to regulate against expressions of faith and belief will fail, and any misguided ideology that assumes faith and belief are systematically squelched is wrong.  Faith and belief walk through the doors of our schoolhouse by the droves every morning with every human body that enters.

That faith and belief are being intentionally removed from school is an inaccurate perception of the fact that any one person’s specific expressions of faith and belief are not given a special place of prominence over others.

In one year, I taught both Ancient and Modern World History.  At the beginning of each course I had to deal with parent complaints.  In ancient World History we began with pre-history and learned about the fossils of Cro-Magnon, Neanderthals, and other early humans.  To the religious parents I was a heretic, forcing kids to learn these things that don’t fit their expression of faith and belief.  In Modern World History we opened with the Reformation.  Once again, I handled parents who didn’t think it was appropriate to present Martin Luther’s view that salvation of the soul comes from the grace of God.

To one set of parents I was a secular humanist indoctrinating their children and to the other I was acting more like an evangelist than teacher.

I sympathize with Ms. Flaherty at Broadus Wood.  Full disclosure, I don’t know her personally, but we work in the same county.  She is also my daughter’s music teacher and I’ve been listening to my daughter sing and practice this song for the last three weeks, long before this story broke. 

I’m guessing she is young.  I’m also guessing that she knows how quickly people jump to the attack when they perceive you are treating their children inappropriately.  I know that she teaches at two schools, each about as far apart in the county as possible, perhaps more than a forty-five minute drive away from each other.  Holding part-time work at two different schools, she probably isn’t sure whether her job is secure for next year; if it is, she has no reason to think she will be at either of the same schools next year.

The kids need to perform for their parents.  She chose a song.  Hoping to avoid criticism and/or parent discontent she made a choice.   

It is not a religious song.  No indication in the song implies that the use of the term God means anything other than a generic, religion neutral god that would not offend the numerous performers involved in the song or the consumers and donors who might give money in response.  Several sources also critique the teacher for choosing the “We Are the World 25” version for Haiti instead of the original including the line “as God has shown us, by turning stone to bread.”

That line stuck out to me the first time that I heard the song in 1985!  As a Christian I appreciate its alteration.  It seems to reference Jesus time of temptation in the wilderness.  During a period of fasting, Satan tempted him.  “If you’re the son of God, turn these stones to bread.  You are hungry after all.”  Jesus refuses, while the allusion in the song would appear to reverse this bold resistance to temptation.

Unfortunately, the temptation to attack a teacher, for making a choice in which right or wrong depends on the particular constituent group you’re asking, was not resisted.

A secular work, not intended to praise or promote any particular faith or faith in general.  A single word, unnoticed by most until a controversy is created.  A teacher made out to be on the frontline of the public school conspiracy to indoctrinate the children of America to a godless liberal ideology.

She's just trying to help a group of children make a joyful noise.  

As for me and my house, our faith is taught in the home.  We participate multiple times a week in a community of faith to instruct and teach our children.  We send them into the world, thankful for their exposure to diversity and differing opinions that they might engage their minds, hearts, soul, and strength.  We play our role as parents and trust that our faith in God, the example we set in our lives, the prayers that we pray over our children, and the instruction they've been provided in our home and church will shine brightly in their hearts as they "work out their faith" growing into adulthood.

What Would Jefferson Do?
The absence of the word "god" from a school choir song will not diminish the presence of God in the life of my daughter any more than its addition would somehow make it stronger.

(What is the role of faith in schools? I've addressed the question from the other side of the schoolhouse door at YouthWorker Journal and Wild Frontier)

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.