Saturday, February 2, 2008

School Prayer

Have you heard this one: “Our children can’t pray in school!” What about this one: “They won’t allow God in our schools!” Both are statements of concern regarding one of the ways American schools have changed since the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Both are rallying cries used by political and religious leaders calling for a return to ‘traditional values.’ Both statements are utterly false, the semantic equivalent of doggie doo.

Nearly every morning, as I walk from my classroom to the main office, I pass near the room where a before-school student prayer meeting takes place. Although the strumming guitar and “Kumbaya”-style devotional are not what I was raised with, I am reassured as I walk past that these children are free to celebrate their beliefs together. There is also a devotional group for teachers. The majority of student athletes are members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and they pray quite frequently. These are but a few of the many, many ways in which God and prayer are present on most campuses across America.

From a theological standpoint keeping a god from going where they will is a ridiculous idea. What religion, if any, worships a deity or deities so ineffectual that He, She, or They could be kept out of any school? What teacher, school board, or court could keep out the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God of Abraham? Or the all-powerful Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva? Or Buddha, finder of the eternal truth?

What, then, are these politicians and religious leaders talking about when they say that the Supreme Court has taken prayer—and God—out of American schools? The Supreme Court has never denied anyone a right to pray. All the Supreme Court has ruled is that it is wrong for schools to mandate prayer in any way that might be coercive to the impressionable young minds in their care. Make no mistake: schools are coercive environments. Students are actively coerced by teachers, administrators, and their peers into acting, speaking, dressing, behaving--and even thinking--in certain ‘appropriate’ ways each and every day.

If religious advocates are successful in bringing back mandatory school prayer, who will get to decide what ‘flavor’ of Christian prayer (and we must assume these prayers will be based on Christian-flavored monotheism) will be endorsed by each school and/or district? If Catholic-style prayers are used by District A, would it be grounds for Protestant students to transfer to District B, which had a distinctly Protestant prayer? Don’t forget that recent suits to stop school prayer in south Texas weren’t filed by atheists, but by Catholic students and parents who felt left out by the Protestant prayers recited before sporting events.

What of the Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu parents whose tax dollars are going to support a school system that blatantly favors some other religion over their own? Should they be entitled to lower tax rates? Should atheists have even lower rates because they admit to no gods at all?

What about teachers? Would their job descriptions be amended to include ‘prayer leader?’ As a teacher my answer is “I hope not.” The primary moral obligation of teaching is to be fair, a large part of which consists of treating each student as fairly and equally as possible regardless of faith, race, economic status, etc. How could any teacher even pretend to fulfill this moral obligation to fairness if we are, in effect, acting as the agent of a school district that endorses one student’s religion over that of other students? How could we look into the eyes of our non-Judeo-Christian students after leading the rest of the class in Judeo-Christian prayer and try to convince them that their beliefs were of equal worth? That we valued them equally with Judeo-Christian students? (And what of those Jewish and Christian students who were raised to think the idea of anything both “Judeo” and “Christian” is a joke?)

Schools in some places have tried to develop ‘prayers’ that are all things to all people. Somehow they think it is possible to piece together a semi-religious patchwork of platitudes, a sort of ‘prayer lite’ that’s less offensive and prays great. The very idea that some ‘neutral party’ can bend and twist the various beliefs of humanity into a perfectly inoffensive verbal pabulum is in itself offensive. If you’re going to pray, pray in full celebration of your faith, not with some mealy-mouthed pseudo-prayer.

Where, then, does this leave the idea of administratively-mandated school prayers? Do those who want to bring them back really want to coerce children of differing faiths into Christian prayer? Is it truly their wish to offend those holding other beliefs?

No. I honestly do not think so. Some people see bringing back mandated school prayer as a way to return to the “good old days.” A few desire it because it places an official ‘seal of approval’ on their own beliefs, which lets them feel superior to people of other faiths. For many more, it is merely a desire to share with others the faith that brings them peace, gives them comfort, and is, for them, the ultimate Truth.

Regardless of your reason for wanting to bring back administratively-mandated school prayer, quite a few folks across the U.S. of A. think the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does something right in refusing to allow our nation to endorse one person’s religious beliefs over the beliefs of another. I’m not ashamed at all to admit that this school teacher is one of them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Weasel's Elbow or How I Wasn't Really Wrong and You Just Thought I Was

It is often a source of great amusement to me to sit back and watch psychics, politicians, preachers, and economists try to weasel their way out when their pronouncements and prognistications are revealed to be inaccurate. To avoid getting nailed by the truth, that they were flat-out wrong and likely have no real idea of what they are talking about, they usually claim that either: 1) they were misinterpreted and did not mean what their listeners thought them to mean, or 2) that the truth of their statements/predictions have not yet been revealed to those who would judge them. Now I must join their ranks as the Weaselly Elbow.

In "Bill Clinton's Black Behind" I did that which I normally avoid like Jehovah's Witnesses avoid the Pledge of Allegiance: attempted to predict the future. The original version of the post stated that he would defeat her in all of the primaries "in which a significant portion of primary voters are black." I outsmarted myself, however, and shortened myself in the post's final edit to "the primary of any Southern state." The latter does flow better, but Florida's Democratic primary makes the original version a lot more accurate.

This prediction was not an attempt to paint Barack Obama as a "primarily black" candidate, like Jesse Jackson certainly was in his attempts at presidential politics. Rather, Obama's strong support (thus far) among white primary voters means that if he can continue to draw those votes in addition to the percentage of black primary voters he did in South Caronlina, he can continue to win primaries in states that have a similar percentage of black voters.

Florida (the real weaseling begins now) is an odd Southern state. Its demographics are quite unlike the other states of the deep South, with its populations of Cuban-Americans and retirees. Where South Carolina's population is nearly 30% black, Florida's is only @ 16%. Hillary's 17-point Florida primary victory vanishes in a heartbeat if Florida is 23%-24% black and Obama draws the percentage of black voters he did in SC.

If the South Carolina model for Southern primaries holds up, Obama is a lock for wins in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. In states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas, where 16%-22% of voters are black, Obama needs to do better among white primary voters than he did in Florida (which he probably will not do in Arkansas, Clinton's home state). In Texas only 12% of the population is black, which means that the Obama campaign will have to find some way to convince Austin, the hub of Texas' white, liberal voters that having a black president will be more progressive than having a woman president (which he just might do).

Please note: The above predictions might also be wrong.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bill Clinton's Black Behind

Bill Clinton just got his black backside spanked!


No, there aren’t at least three things wrong with that statement. Yes, I’m sure. Listen:

Ever since Hillary figured out that she would be facing her stiffest competition from a black man for the Democratic nomination, we have witnessed the resurrection of the two-headed campaigning behemoth “Billary.” Hillary, who appeared so stand-offish towards her husband at the beginning of this campaign, knew she needed Bill if she was going to stand a chance—especially in the South Carolina primary, where Democratic voters are less pigmentally-challenged than they are in Iowa and New Hampshire..

Maya Angelou may have called Hillary Clinton “my girl,” but she of the potent poems fell well short of what Toni Morrison* did for Bill. Using the powers invested in her as a black celebrity/intellectual, Morrison conveyed upon Bill official blackness, calling him in 1998 “the first black President.” Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, in rejecting Hillary’s use of Bill as her “wedge man” to split off a larger chunk of the black vote for herself, spanked Billary’s backsides (the blacker, flabbier one of which was Bill’s).

It hasn’t been that long since experts and analysts on cable news outlets were wondering if Barack Obama was “black enough” to compete for black votes with the well-established Senator from New York, who had the mighty Clinton machine and legions of black feminists behind her. Is anybody still wondering? I am. I’m wondering if any of these “experts” actually know any black people who are not celebrities or Democratic Party hacks. Sure, the hacks may have been evenly split, but a quick trip to any poor, black neighborhood in the South would have quickly told them all they really needed to know about the South Carolina Democratic primary's voters 'of color.'

The question now is “Can Hillary get enough of the black vote in the remaining primaries while running against Obama, who is even blacker than her husband?” Another way to put this would be “Does Billary have any idea at all how to succeed in getting the Democratic nomination when faced with a primary opponent who A) has about the same qualifications she does; B) is less divisive; and C) is vastly more popular among black voters?” So far, the actually black guy with the twin messages of “hope” and “change” is doing pretty well against the ‘officially’ black guy from Hope, whose last flirtation with real change was in the last century. **

Unless the Clintons can discover both dead babies and mutilated nuns keeping company with whatever commonplace skeletons might be lurking in Barack Obama’s closet, I cannot foresee Hillary winning the primary of any Southern state.***

The real question generated by the outcome of South Carolina’s Democratic primary, is: “In the remaining Southern states, where John Edwards will likely not be a factor, who will receive his (mostly white) share of the primary vote?” How will that twenty-ish percent of the vote be split between the two frontrunners? I’m not Nostradamus**** but I’m willing to bet that the answer to this question determines the both the winner of the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the November election.

So, Hillary, if you are reading this*****, you have two tasks ahead of you if you want to secure your party's nomination: 1) keep your black supporters working on your behalf with black voters, but do not send your husband into the fray, 2) find a way to become suddenly less divisive among white voters. Good luck on Super Tuesday. I hope you can come up with a better campaign strategy--and fast!--you're gong to need it.

* Morrison is, of course, the famous author of novels so excruciatingly depressing that the fourth protocol of a “suicide watch” calls for their removal from the prisoner’s cell.

** After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's oval office flirtations with cronyism, idiocy, and disaster, Bill's oval office flirtations no longer seem quite so damning, but his flirtations with change went mostly nowhere.

*** The original version of this post read: "in which a significant portion of primary voters are black" instead of "in any Southern state." Obama's loss in the Florida primary makes me wish I hadn't made this change.

**** Hell, even Nostradamus wasn’t really Nostradamus, if you know what I mean.

***** Yeah, right.