A few years ago, attending my son’s elementary school’s December “Holiday Concert,” I was surprised to examine the program and find no recognizable titles. The “holiday” reference was to, well, whatever holiday you might be celebrating at that time of year: Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, or something else, though you would have to keep the specifics of your enthusiasm to yourself for the musical numbers were chosen under the mistaken guidance that the First Amendment demands that nothing of any religious origin could be performed in a public school. Since that requirement pretty much eliminates all the great holiday music I can think of, the school turned to the works of a cottage industry of modern composers who turn out “music” that references the season without referencing a religious thought. I put the term “music” in quotes because this stuff barely met the standard for the word.
My “favorite” selection that night was called “An Old Fashioned Holiday” and the lyrics went something like this: “I am dreaming of an old fashioned holiday, just like the one I used to know…” — a remarkably direct word steal from the infinitely superior “White Christmas,” minus the tunefulness or poignancy of the original. How ironic, I thought. “White Christmas” was written by a Jew, Irving Berlin, for a secular purpose: to be sung by Bing Crosby in the film “Holiday Inn,” in which the singer-actor appeared as a retired Broadway performer who runs an Inn in Connecticut open only on holidays. The lyrics make no reference to the Christ child or Christianity; indeed, the song is more a reflection on the beauty of nature at a special time of year. Yet someone somewhere — a poorly educated lawyer, no doubt — had counseled the school administrators to substitute a pedestrian celebration of the generic qualities of “holiday” over what he or she deemed to be a breach of the First Amendment ban on the establishment of religion.
I thought about that concert when I read in The New York Times this week that Americans display a commanding ignorance of religion (“Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans”) — and this, in a country that remains by almost all counts devout. The article, which you can read here reveals, amazingly, that atheists know the most about religion, with Jews and Mormons close behind. The least knowledgable in this study, which was performed by the Pew Charitable Trust, was Hispanic Catholics, while Protestants fell somewhere in the middle. Many people were shown to be unfamiliar with even some of the simplest details about their own faith. Among the questions: “Which Biblical figure led the exodus from Egypt?” “Whose writings inspired the Protestant Reformation?” And “what religion is the Dalai Lama?”
While all of that may all be interesting to someone writing on a religion blog, answers to other questions in the same study are revealing to our focus on the Constitution: Nearly 90 percent correctly answered that teachers in public schools are not allowed to lead their students in prayer. But less than a quarter felt the First Amendment would tolerate a treatment of the Bible as an example of literature and only one in three felt it would allow a class on comparative religion. That is the same kind of ignorance that would lead a school administrator to prohibit “White Christmas” or, for that matter, any number of religious works that should be studied and performed for their artistic and historical importance. One can, after all, appreciate Handel’s “Messiah,” without feeling that the performers are proselytizing on the divinity of Christ.
I am not alone in my belief that the First Amendment has prompted a gross over-reaction among many educators. In a 2007 cover story in Time (“The Case for Teaching the Bible”), future PJP Fellow David Van Biema (Class of 2009) wrote of the concern that many had over the growing ignorance of religion. Van Biema quotes Stephen Prospero, author of “Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, and Doesn’t,” and others who question the wisdom of banning the study of religion at a time when religion still plays a major role in politics, foreign policy, and defense issues critical to the popular dialogue. In discussing the constitutional question, Van Biema refers to the words of Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson who wrote, “One can hardly respect a system of education that would leave the student wholly ignorant of the currents of religious thought that move the world society for…which he is being prepared.” He added that a policy that puts off all references to God would leave pubic education “in shreds.”
Nonetheless, one can imagine the dabbling of schools in religious literature and music as a policy primed for abuse. A concert choir singing from The Messiah, for instance, is different, in my mind, from a full school community singalong; a curriculum in which the Bible is sandwiched between readings in Plato and Aristotle is different than the reading of a psalm at the opening of a school event. In the 1971 case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, the Supreme Court declared what is commonly known as the “Lemon Test”: in order to pass constitutional muster, the conduct in question must have a secular purpose, its primary goal cannot be the promotion of religion and it must not result in an “excessive government entanglement with religion.”
You might call that the old “if it quacks like a duck, it is a duck” test. As PJP faculty member Harold Schramm, teaching at Western Connecticut State University, used to say to his students: “If you sneeze and I interrupt my lecture to say ‘God bless you,’ you can reasonably surmise that I am not initiating a divine intervention. But if you sneeze and I say ‘kneel down, my child, and ask the heavens for forgiveness as all power resides in the almighty god,’ why then I hope you will take me to court.”