Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Call a shovel, a shovel?

This is a Midweek Classic Post. Mid-week is a tough time to come up with a post -- and keep my job. And I'd like to have a chance to repost a few of my early posts that got even less readership than current posts. So here's another rerun.

This was a very early post -- December 8, 2005 -- I'd been blogging less that a month. At the time there was great controversy over the use of the word "holiday" versus "Christmas".

Ladies and Gentlemen!
Behold, a spade!

One of my genuine pet peeves for many years has been the tendency of public institutions to muddy the water, dumb down the discourse, and bore us all to tears, just to avoid controversy.

Some folks have complained, justifiably, when public schools, for instance, have allowed themselves to be in the position of promoting a religion. As a result, some dumb and/or lily-livered school administrators, textbook companies, and teachers have taken the easy way out and basically pretended religion doesn't exist. How stupid! And how destructive to the cultural literacy of our students!

Madison and Jefferson, even though they breeched it themselves sometimes, were in favor of a wall of separation between church and state. Me too. But it doesn't have to have razor wire at the top and guard dogs and armed sentries. It could even have a few windows in it, for heaven's sake! They did not want us raising ignoramuses who do not know the stories of the Bible, who do not know the meanings of religious words, who do not know the basic tenets of various Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Mormon, and other groups.

This is not officially a "Christian" nation and never has been. It has certainly never been an "Evangelical Christian" nation. Our framers were careful and deliberate and specific in leaving references to the deity out of the Constitution with the exception of the traditional "in the year of our Lord" at the end. We have always had a variety of religious and non-religious men among our leaders. But they were not, as a group, anti-religious. (Paine was and Jefferson may have been privately.) And they didn't expect us to pretend religion doesn't exist.

I teach fourth grade. We used the Houghton Mifflin, Spelling & Vocabulary series for several years. Near the first of the year one of the spelling words is "pray". According to Houghton-Mifflin the word means: "To wish or hope strongly" ARRRGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!! "Pray" may sometimes be used in this way, but it is primarily used to mean "To petition or express thanks to God". It is simply absurd to give "wish" as the primary definition.

Similarly, to call a Christmas Tree by another name as a way of making it palatible for a multi-cultural group is just revolting. "Holiday Tree" is boring and incorrect. There are ways to be sensitive to a diverse populace short of homogenizing the taste right out of our diversity.

"Happy Holidays" is a perfectly suitable greeting with history behind it. It's not very interesting, but there's nothing wrong with it. If I were a Jewish or Muslim businessman that might be my most common greeting during the Christmas season. But there is no reason to demand that those who observe Christmas ignore its name or its significance.

Neither is it un-American to admit to your beliefs (or dis-, un-, or other belief). If I use my position as a public school teacher to actively promote the United Methodist Church, I should be reprimanded. Public school groups have no business attending church-related activities or meetings and such meetings should not take place at school. But there is nothing wrong with my students knowing that I am Methodist; that I pray; that I attend services regularly; or, incidentally and assuming I want to share them, what some of my beliefs are. Cultural literacy demands exposure to the different belief systems in our country.

It is a fine line. Teachers should be careful they don't cross the line between teaching and preaching. I would certainly scream bloody murder if the Falwell ilk started proselytizing my children at school. But I have no problem with my children having an idea of what it means to be, for example, Baptist in Georgia. They would be illiterate in this society without that information.

There is nothing unconstitutional about calling a spade a spade, even religious spades.

[By the way: to "call a spade a spade", of course, is an idiom that comes from card games not from implements of excavation. We have no trouble explaining that to our studaents. Think of all the idioms and allusions that will confuse students who do not learn basic religious cultural literacy at home or at school.]

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