Thursday, October 4, 2012

Worship the Flagpole

There is a bit of a debate these days about whether the right to free speech should apply to religion. Actually, freedom of speech for religious leaders is firmly rooted in the First Amendment, the only limitation being that if churches choose to double as political organizations we may be entitled to collect taxes accordingly--though this is also a matter for debate. Rather, there is some question on whether the freedom of speech should apply to criticism of religion.

Uhm, yeah it should. While I will strenuously defend your right to worship as you choose, I will just as strenuously defend my right to analyze, critique, and to provide mockery where I deem appropriate. Except, of course, for Islam--they're perfectly fine in every way.

Last week, American high school students celebrated the annual Christian high feast day, See You at the Pole. I wouldn't be so much aware of this event if didn't conflict with my before-school chamber choir rehearsal. Depending on the reliability, fervor, and baseline punctuality of my students in a given year, this can have a significant effect on my day. You work through a rehearsal with a third of your group missing and you're going to have a thought or two.

I make no claim to know the individual motivations of the students involved, most of which I'll even assume are entirely righteous. I do, however, feel it is fair to analyze the ritual itself. Ritual is action infused with meaning, and the actions we see here tell us a lot (including some things they haven't set out to say):
  • It's public - If it were about prayer, it could be done anywhere. If it were about group prayer, it could be done anywhere large enough to contain all of the faithful. 
  • It's done as people are arriving for the day -  If it must be outside--as it must be for Pagans, Wiccans, and Druids--it could be done after school, when mostly everyone has left. 
  • It's done with their backs turned toward the infidels - Positioning matters. Pre-Vatican II the Eucharistic Prayer was said with the priest turned away from the congregation. Though the official spin on this was that the priest should be on the same side of the altar as everyone else, the inevitable sensation from the pews must have been that the priest was turning his back on the unworthy to get down to the serious work of Consecration. In the end, the Council rearranged the furniture to correct the optics.
  • It's done at school, and not at church - It's not as if there aren't any faith communities for students to indulge religious impulses--the town where school district is has so many houses of worship that there are two just for Lutherans.
Given this, I think it's safe to say that it isn't about worship, which can be done at home or in church, and it isn't about a faith-based fellowship with schoolmates, which can be done at weekly meetings of the FCA
(where they gather the rest of the year within the shelter of the school). Therefore, the real purpose of the Sacrament of the Pole must be either grandstanding, or protest.

For the most part, I see nothing wrong with grandstanding in religion. My church built a little turret on top of its bell tower so that it would be the highest structure in town at the time. We also have no drywall or plaster in the sanctuary--just ornate stone and elaborately carved wood. We have some stained glass windows that are larger than even the biggest TVs at Best Buy. As a professional choral musician, amateur artisan, and dedicated epicurean I am thrilled with the ways in which churches have always tried to out-sing, out-build, and out-cook all of the others. Churches remain one of the best patrons of the arts in an era when the state and the wealthy are no longer interested in doing their share. At times, we miss the Holy Roman Empire, the Esterhazys, and the Medicis.

It's not that kind of grandstanding, though is it? They're not commissioning multi-movement cantatas for chorus and orchestra, they don't raise funds for the building of organs, or hire stone masons and wood carvers at union scale. They don't even dispense doughnuts at the end. It's more like tramping through the flower beds to play the role of Luke's Pharisee, thanking God that they're not like other men. Maybe, then, it's actually better if they're protesting the lack of prayer in schools.

I have no objection to prayer in the schools. I'm a Slacker; prayer, along with some moderate levels of superstition, made up a significant portion of my test preparation. I don't object to organized prayer either. I went to Catholic school, and we prayed all the time--heck, for a while they had us say the Angelus every day at noon. At some point in elementary school they took us through the little passageway to the convent, to the nuns' chapel for Benediction and Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We used to go over to the church on Fridays during Lent for Stations. We set up hundreds of chairs in the gym and learned special trumpet descants for hymns every time the Bishop came to say mass.

Organized prayer in public schools? Okay, now we have a problem.

A number of problems:
  1. Christian? - Advocates of putting prayer in school are assuming, I guess, Christian prayers. Given that they're already comfortable ignoring the rights of non-believers and agnostics, they just want a little Lord's Prayer from everyone, be they Christian, Jew, or Miscellaneous.
  2. Still, whose prayers? - Catholics stop at "evil," protestants go on to "for Thine is the kingdom," and that's in a prayer Christians mostly agree on. What about the Confeteor ("I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin...") or BCP, pg 370 ("...and this fragile earth, our island home") or an old prayer from Good Friday for conversion of the "perfidious Jews"? There really isn't any such thing as non-denominational.
  3. Sweat the small stuff? - Linus had to choose from "peace to men on whom his favor rests" vs. "and on earth peace, good will toward men," and this is one of the nicer verses. The differences are subtle, and yet entirely change what we learn about the "appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. " If you don't see a difference, you could probably found a faith system all your own based on that.
  4. To what end? - Changing hearts takes more than forced recitation. Geoff Nunberg says of the Pledge of Allegiance (a profession of faith that we permit because the holy relic involved represents freedom--in other words, a mandated pledge to a device that objectifies freedom): "In theory, the pledge could do most of the same work if we had children say it in Anglo-Saxon or Arapaho, or if we replaced it with the lyrics to 'Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.' They're going to turn the words into jabberwocky anyway: 'I led a pigeon to the flag,' 'one Asian under guard.'" The same process could easily apply to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and that might be just as well.
All of this ranting about prayer in schools may be somewhat confusing to anyone who knows that I spend my days teaching Elijah Rock, O Vos Omnes, and By the Waters of Babylon to public school kids. I have a 2000-word defense of this that I may share in the future, but it boils down to engaging in scholarship rather than worship. In fact, I would be entirely in favor of a comparative religions or church history course--provided it didn't shy away from Henry the VIIIth, the Inquisition, or Islamic extremists. I would even offer to teach it, except that the rest of my day is spent teaching Margaritaville, so I'm pretty swamped.

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