November 30, 2021
I have many fond memories of growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. However, I also can see the places where the political, educational and religious systems in place at the time failed, allowing some of us to fall through the crack and land where empathy and compassion are void.
It was a time where lines were blurred when it came to religion’s presence in education. Having been raised Southern Baptist in the upper part of the Bible Belt, it was a normal part of everyday life to pray in public school, sing of Baby Jesus in the Christmas Pageant sponsored by that same public school, and to celebrate Easter by coloring Biblical scenes that would adorn our hallways and classrooms.
The public school I attended for elementary and junior high was predominantly Catholic. On days like Ash Wednesday, most of the student body and teachers attended mass, while I and a few of my fellow protestant classmates remained in study hall. When the local mass ended, attendees returned with their foreheads marked with the symbolic charcoal colored cross. Then classes resumed, and classroom life returned to normal.
It never occurred to me that religion had the potential to divide and condemn, until the day it did just that to me. It was during science class with one of my favorite teachers, meaning she was my educational rock star. Her opinion mattered, as well as her praise, and she would prove to be pivotal in the discussion that arose between me and some fellow classmates. While I do not recall the circumstances which led to our discussing baptism, I do recall stating, rather nonchalantly, that I had not been baptized yet. The manner in which I had delivered this news to my classmates -- as a matter of fact and nothing more -- did not match their reaction. In fact, to call it a tizzy of a reaction would be putting it mildly.
It was quickly, and unanimously, declared that the fate of my soul was in jeopardy, and I had somehow missed out on some serious chances that were reserved only for those who had been baptized as infants. The exact words used escapes me, but I do recall something about the danger of my soul being in limbo, and that sounded like a place I needed to avoid at all costs.
Well, I come from a long line of Southern Baptists who also hold strong opinions about religion, baptism, and salvation. In other words, I did not take this condemnation on my soul lying down, and I challenged their assertion that something was wrong with my understanding of how heaven works.
That led to a group of us marching up to our teacher’s desk, where we hoped this matter would be settled once and for all. Because in the 60’s and 70’s, it just made sense to us that a teacher could help resolve a matter of spirituality -- in a public school no less. Retelling this story at 60 years old, I can clearly see the layers of issues here.
It speaks highly of a teacher who is held in such regard that students intuitively understand that their insight can settle a dispute among students, and I am blessed to have had many such teachers in my educational history. Unfortunately for me on this one occasion, this teacher let me down by agreeing with my classmates that I was sadly mistaken, and I should have been baptized as an infant.
In my adolescent brain, thoughts of hell, darkness and isolation quickly flooded me with fear and regret for having the unfortunate lot in life of being born into a Southern Baptist family. After days of pondering my fate, however, I used my gift of questioning everything and took my new insight into the dividing lines of religion to my grandmother, who assured me my soul was safe and my season to be baptized would soon be upon me.
That experience taught me at a formative age that some things should not be discussed in the classroom. Because I adored my fellow classmates but did not agree with their theology, I learned to avoid conversations about religion for the greater good of our social community and education.
However, in that one instance, a young, impressionable girl’s eyes were opened to how religion can be used to judge, condemn and divide believers. It didn’t feel good, and had I not had the religious support in my own family, it could have changed the educational landscape for me at a time when I needed my educators to be a positive role model for all the changes going on in my young life.
Of course, my experience can be dismissed as one teacher’s mistake, and I would agree. But who among us is qualified to decide what theology is used, how teachers are educated, and what liberty teachers have to discuss their own beliefs? The truth of the matter is that any religious teachings in a public school will lead to the exclusion of someone’s beliefs.
If our children are missing opportunities to learn how spirituality (which can be without religion’s involvement at all) can be a positive attribute to mold and shape young minds, it is because we as parents and grandparents are failing at our job to educate, inspire and love the children who have been entrusted in our care.
No child should experience the condemnation I felt that day, and every child, regardless of faith origin, should feel welcomed into the public educational system. Christian educators, as well as others from different faiths, can positively impact these students and plant seeds of love, tolerance, a sense of community and compassion that will do much more for religion than forcing one ideology when, in my opinion, not one comes close to holding the complete truth of God.
I will continue to advocate for separation of church and state.
Resources for this episode include: The 1619 Project, Heather Cox Richardson's 'Letters from an American, White Evangelical approval of Trump, 2020 Faith Vote Reflects 2016 Patterns, Top Ten Public School State/Church Violations, White male minority rule, How the Trump Administration's '1776 Report' warps history, Ex-member of Amy Coney Barrett's faith group speaks out, Faith Leaders Nearly Unanimous in Condemning Assault on Capitol, The Christian Insurrection, Pence Urges Americans to Pray, Critical Race Theory is a Flashpoint for Conservatives, The Young Turks on Critical Race Theory.
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The 60’s were a dichotomy. They held great tension as people risked their lives to free themselves from the oppression their ancestors had endured. Even brutal winters did not deter activists from marching in frigid temps to stand together and fight for their rights.