Church and state in Staunton?
Sunday's Washington Post had an article on a big controversy right here in the friendly, laid back town of Staunton. For 65 years, the public schools have had a "weekday religious education" (WRE) program for elementary students, but there is a move to cut the program back or eliminate it entirely. The nearby town of Harrisonburg (home of James Madison University) eliminated their WRE program last year, and other towns in the Shenandoah Valley are considering doing the same. Ironically, it is said that adhering to the Standards of Learning and "No Child Left Behind" initiatives (usually favored by conservatives) is getting more difficult because students are away from the classrooms for WRE, even though it only takes up one half hour per week. Several Supreme Court rulings in 1948 and 1952 forced the schools to remove these classes from the school premises, and since then WRE sessions have been held in nearby churches. No public funds are involved, and those conducting the sessions do so on a volunteer basis. At least 80 percent of students participate in WRE, and hundreds of pro-WRE parents have shown up at recent school board meetings to protest the proposed elimination of the program.
Like others who moved here after having lived in Northern Virginia, my eyebrows were raised when I first learned about this. I knew that the numerous churches throughout the town are indicative of a strong and widespread religious belief -- which may explain the low crime rate and general good vibes -- but [until recently] was unaware of WRE. My feelings on this issue are torn: On one hand, many college students these days have an abysmal knowledge of the religious history which is such a vital underpinning of Western Civilization. On the other hand, I sympathize with families who are affiliated with minority religions, as well as agnostics and atheists. Feeling left out can be a very painful experience for young children, though most people in Staunton cited in that Post story insist that non-participating students are not made to feel bad. Later in life, some students may end up questioning their own faith if they come to believe that it may have been forced upon them.
In my view, this is not really a church versus state issue, but rather a community versus individual issue. If a given community overwhelmingly supports an institution that reflects their own cultural values, it would be hard to deny them that right, as long as minority rights are respected. Indeed, there is some precedent for this: For example, in much of Utah the Mormon Church has a quasi-established status, and there is a small town inhabited by ultra-traditional Jews north of New York City in which the "public" schools teach Jewish religion. What most concerns me is that the WRE program goes beyond education per se, it promotes specifically Christian beliefs and Christian values, including group prayers. I wholeheartedly agree that promoting Christian beliefs and values is a good thing, but it depends who is doing the promoting. In my view, parents who object to such tacit "evangelizing" by public schools have a valid point, even though some seem to be objecting too stridently. I would feel more comfortable with the WRE program if the curriculum were broadened to include other religions, perhaps with interfaith prayers like they do at public ceremonies such as the inauguration. But that might be too confusing for tender young minds, which would then suggest that the whole concept is flawed. Whatever the Staunton School Board decides, I just hope that the Christian activists pushing WRE take into account the need to accommodate cultural diversity, which may be an overused cliche but is nonetheless absolutely essential for any community to thrive and grow. The Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, which takes on major legal cases involving religious issues, may get involved with this case, and it may go all the way to the Supreme Court.
On a related note, that organization's head, John W. Whitehead, wrote an interesting piece, entitled The Gospel of Darwin: Its Sordid History. How many people know that Darwin believed that women were biologically inferior to men, and that his ideas were used to justify totalitarian ideologies? (Well, he was only human.) And speaking of evolution (GROAN!), today's Washington Post has an eminently sensible editorial on "intelligent design," and the bogus attempts by some activists to portray it as legitimate science.
Europe: the biggest "Blue state"
There has been much recent press coverage of the dismayed, stunned attitude much of Europe has toward the United States in the wake of President Bush's reelection and reinauguration. For example, see Washington Post and Christian Science Monitor. Apparently, Freedom is seen as a dangerous menace in many countries in which socialism or social democracy is the prevailing ideology, as if we might invade France to take away the six-week vacations their (white) citizens enjoy. Fear of U.S. "unilateralism" may simply reflect the refusal of people who have their heads in the sand to face up to the real threat in their own midst, that of radical Islam. The popular "war blog" Belmont Club has a nice interpretation of Euro-dismay:
It is perhaps the subconscious realization that it has awakened to a nightmare new world that drives the the Left's incredulous reaction to George Bush. ... The European ideologies of the last century have left the stream of history and will not, cannot acknowledge it.
Why anyone would look to such a dull, culturally and economically stagnant part of the world as Europe as a model for us to follow is beyond me.
Condi: Grace under pressure
One of the first requirements of being a good diplomat is having poise, which is often defined as "grace under pressure." In spite of a withering barrage of insults from Sen. Barbara Boxer during last week's confirmation hearings, Secretary of State designate Condoleeza Rice refused to buckle. Media critic Howard Kurtz asks a very pertinent question about that little Capitol Hill circus in the Washington Post: "Why on earth do senators who are supposed to be engaged in a serious "advise and consent" role spend so much of their allotted time giving endless speeches?" He counted the dozens of paragraphs of prepared text uttered by Democrat Senators Kerry, Biden, Sarbanes, and Dodd, which greatly surpassed what the Republican committee members had to say.
But all this paled compared to a 27-paragraph monologue by Barbara Boxer, who went way over her time limit in accusing Rice of changing the rationale for Iraq after the WMD thing didn't pan out, ending with:"And you don't seem to be willing to . . . admit a mistake, or give any indication of what you're going to do to forcefully involve others. As a matter of fact, you've said more misstatements; that the territory of the terrorists has been shrinking when your own administration says it's now expanded to 60 countries. So I am deeply troubled."
That brought the day's sharpest exchange, when Rice forcefully defended herself, saying she has "never, ever lost respect for the truth" and didn't want anyone "impugning my credibility or my integrity."
Whatever point Boxer was trying to make about administration policy got lost in the disgraceful slurs. Even though her confirmation has been pointlessly delayed by the opposition party, Ms. Rice got off to a fine start in what will be one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Being young, articulate, and highly competent, one can imagine that she might aspire to even higher positions in the public sector...