So last Friday’s Featured Question on the Xanga was “Should religion be taught in public schools?”–which is an interesting question, because if I read it one way, my answer is “Of course not,” but if I read it another way, my answer is “Good heavens, no!” but for entirely different reasons. 

In my opinion, it’s clearly unconstitutional to “teach religion in public school” in the sense of indoctrinating students with religious doctrines.  As in, Teacher stands up in class and informs students that Jesus died for their sins and they have to accept him as their personal savior in order to avoid eternal damnation.*  (Or, alternatively, Teacher gets up and informs students that, I dunno, if they do bad stuff they’ll get bad karma and be reincarnated with a crappy life.  My Hinduism is, um, sketchy.  My apologies.)  Unconstitutional, inappropriate and rather a waste of time on top of that.  Whether particular expressions of a religious nature, e.g. student-led prayer, extra-curricular Bible clubs, etc., are unconstitutional is not something I wish to explore here (because I’m on a schedule, okay?). 

*When I was in the sixth grade, a substitute teacher performed an impromptu passion play during a language arts lesson.  Everyone was really uncomfortable.  Which, if I recall correctly, was the gist of his message:  Crucifixion Comfortable.

On the other hand, it’s not unconstitutional to teach about  religion in public school, and Stephen Prothero of Boston University thinks our society would be better off if our citizens were more religiously literate.  He says that it would improve public discourse.  He wrote a book about all this.  (You can take his religious literacy quiz, if this blog starts to bore you and you need something else to do.)  His is a compelling argument.  I can tell you that I thought many times, whilst in college, that various works of literature and many historical events-slash-trends were easier to understand in light of the religious cultural context.  (At this time I also went to church with a woman who taught English in the public schools, and she said she found it very difficult to teach Paradise Lost without bringing up religion.  And I thought, “You people teach Paradise Lost in high school?”  Aside from Shakespeare and Beowulf, my high school teachers didn’t show us anything that was written in English prior to the The Scarlet Letter.  But that may have been a California thing.) 

However, as noble and constitutional as Professor Prothero’s (try saying that three times fast–on second thought, try saying it once, at all) proposed religious literacy curriculum is, when I think of how such classes would “work” in real life, with real public school teachers and real public school students, I can only say, “Good luck with that.” 

Number one:  There’s no unringing that no-religion-in-public-school bell that was sounded back in the twentieth century.  My generation, at least, has been successfully trained to faint at the mere mention of God in a non-private setting.  Even persons of faith have been known to squirm at the sight of the Ten Commandments on display, just out there for anyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, to see.  (Shocking!)*  It would probably take neurosurgery to cure us of this response.

(*Note:  Not that I contend that posting the Ten Commandments is a politically neutral issue, but I do think people tend to get hysterical when protesting such displays.  Seriously, is this what most offends you about your environment?  If so, you’re either extremely lucky or extremely unobservant.  I wish I had such indignation to spare.)

Number two:  Can you imagine trying to teach a course in the Bible to teenagers, who think they know everything?  Everyone, regardless of his or her religious upbringing or background, will have a chip on his or her shoulder.  And if you’re unlucky enough to have both evangelical Christian and Mormon students in your class, just run for the flipping hills.  That is not a dynamic you want to engage.  I haven’t even gotten to the part where every kid feels persecuted and put-upon, and their parents threaten to sue you in case you haven’t already rotted in hell.  Seriously, just hand them a bunch of sticks and let them start beating each other.  It would be just as educational.

I’m in kind of a cynical mood today.  Maybe not the best time to ask me about religion in public life.  Hm.

As long as I’m on the subject, though, Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has said that Mormonism is the “fourth Abrahamic religion,” the first three being Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  This strikes some as being less offensive than the usual characterization of Mormonism as a dangerous cult, but it tends to rub Mormons the wrong way because we just can’t seem to let go of this idea that everyone should accept us as “real” Christians.  I used to feel that way.  It’s a recipe for perpetual disappointment.  My husband gave up calling himself a Christian years ago.  These days I’m mostly agnostic on the subject, but I’m not sure I prefer the dignity of “fourth Abrahamic religion” to the kitschy flash of “cult.”  Actually, I like to think of Mormonism as the “bastard child of Christianity,” but I don’t think that one’s going to catch on, with Mormons, Baptists or the press. 

This reminds me of when I was growing up in the church and use of the word “Mormon” (to describe ourselves) was somewhat discouraged.  Someone got the idea that if we never referred to ourselves as Mormons but always said that we belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, people might start to believe that we were Christians.  Which was nothing more than wishful thinking, but that’s beside the point.  I’ve never liked using the church’s official name, mostly because it’s way too long.  Seriously, maybe they had time to carry around that cumbersome moniker in the nineteenth century, but no one has time to listen to a name like that anymore, let alone speak it.  If someone asks you what religion you are and you respond with “I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” the reaction you’re most likely to get is either, “Mormons, eh?” or alternatively, “Huh-wha?”–in which case you’ll eventually end up telling them you’re Mormon anyway, because that religion people have heard of. 

And I’ve never thought that “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” sounded any less culty than “Mormon.”  Actually, it sounds more culty, because if you need that many words to describe your organization, it’s got to mean that you’re hiding something.  Maybe that’s why self-referring as “Mormon” came back into vogue in the church a few years ago.* 

*COJCOLDS President Gordon B. Hinckley said that “Mormon” should mean “more good.” I say “Mormon” should mean “Mo Betta,” but again, no one’s asking me to write the AP Stylebook.

As long as I’m being totally random, I read a news article the other day about the use of tribal names for sports teams.  Dennis Prager was discussing this once on his radio show, and a caller who found the practice offensive asked Dennis how he would feel if a team wanted to call itself the Fighting Jews.  I think Dennis’s reply was something like, after the last 3,000 years he’d be overjoyed to learn that the Jews had fans.  Which is funny, ha ha, but it got me to thinking, what if there were a team called the Mormons?  (No qualifier necessary, as the mere specter of those clean-cut boys in white shirts and ties is enough to strike fear in the heart of any opponent, except maybe those Fighting Amish.)  I’ve never understood why BYU’s team was called the “Cougars.”  What is that, a “mountain” thing, I guess?  Seems kind of lame to me.  

Which reminds me:

Go Ducks!