When I was in eighth grade, I went on my first winter retreat. I had been attending my church for less than a year, and this was only my second out-of-town trip with my church’s youth group, the first being a canoe trip the previous summer. I didn’t even know exactly what a retreat was, but it sounded like a lot of fun.
My youth group, as well as the youth groups of three or four other churches, traveled 45 minutes east to a church camp in Brown County, Indiana. The area, popularized by early-2oth-century painters who established an artists’ colony, is most famous for the “Little Smokies”, its rolling hills that turn brilliant red come autumn, attracting a million visitors a year, mostly in October. Tucked in these wooded hills was the church camp. Here, young people could get away, have fun, and learn about God.
The featured speakers of this trip were a foursome from Wichita, ranging in age from 18 to 23. They performed music (which I remember best because they insisted that we not applaud their performances, as “the praise should only go to God”), acted out goofy sketches, and most importantly, informed us of their most important mission: to assist youth in establishing Bible-study clubs in our public schools.
We learnt all the ins and outs of the Equal Access Act of 1984, under which we were permitted to start the Bible studies. There were stipulations, of course. A club had to have a faculty sponsor but could not actually participate in the meeting. We had to approach the school administration about starting the club, and the Kansans equipped us with all the documents necessary to do so. We could not publicize the Bible study with fliers, relying solely on word of mouth.
The most important matter they impressed upon us was that, if a public school allowed one club, by law, they had to allow for all clubs. If the school had a chess club, it had to allow a Bible study as well, as long as it abided by the law. Conversely, if a school allowed a Bible study, it had to allow any other club, even, as they told us, a Satanist club. (Why folks back then thought there were Satanists around every corner I have no idea, since I could see no evidence of it in my school. But t-shirts featuring heavy-metal bands like Metallica were supposedly a sign.)
My, how times have changed. The movement in recent years, in light of prominent cases of bullying and suicides, has been to start GSA’s–Gay-Straight Alliances–in public schools. These spaces are intended simply to provide moral support to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and other sexual- and gender-minority students, a respite from the taunts and violence they face. But it seems good evangelicals will not allow for this because, apparently, gays are worse than Satanists, and have been putting a stop to GSA’s at every turn.
The law looks a little different now, too. In her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children, Katherine Stewart details the impact of the 2001 Supreme Court decision Good News Club v. Milford Central School, which now gives broader permissions to religious groups in public schools, including (as Stewart details in the book) faculty-sponsored evangelism and the ability for churches to meet in public schools rent-free (and thus paid for by tax dollars, as the churches will use electricity, water, etc. paid with tax dollars). As to that last point, I bear in mind to point out that this is not the same as, say, when church caught fire when I was a senior and we rented from my high school until we could build and move into a new building a couple of years later. These are churches meeting in schools with no plans to vacate or pay rent.
But back to my earlier point, about “the gays” supposedly being worse than Satanists. This whole toxic mentality is so far removed from the Jesus I was taught about from the Bible. Matthew 5:44: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (New International Version). I see little love from many evangelicals towards lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. Instead, I see vitriol, bitterness, and explicit moves to undercut any attempt to be treated equally under the law. (For instance, this article describes well the state of affairs with regard to same-sex civil marriage.) And I don’t see prayers for “enemies” being the most common response to the day. The ballot box and the lobbyist have replaced prayer.
I’m not a Christian anymore, but I’d be a fool to claim that some of the ideals I learnt as a Christian haven’t stuck with me. Unfortunately, the values I most cherish and live by–love, equality, compassion–are becoming harder and harder to find in those who bear the name of the one who taught those values. I’m fortunate to know Christians who break this mold, and to them I say, live boldly, defy your leaders when they replace the pulpit with the political party, and may you continue to live graciously and compassionately.
Advance in love. Do not retreat.
Last night I indulged in a carton of Ben & Jerry’s–perhaps not the smartest thing for a man trying to lose weight, but it’s not like an everyday thing. As I decided on my flavour (“Late Night Snack”, fantastic), I noticed that one new fluffernutter-inspired concoction was rechristened, from “Cluster Fluff” to “What A Cluster”. This did not surprise me. The company had recently been pressured by conservative activist group One Million Moms to change the name of their latest flavour, “Schweddy Balls”, inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch. However, as of today on the Ben & Jerry’s website, that name remains (though, personally, I think the idea of putting chocolate and rum together sounds kind of disgusting). Even so, though the company has used salacious flavour names in the past*, they apparently felt compelled to change the name of “Cluster Fluff”.
This censorious behaviour echoed an online conversation I’d had earlier in the day with a good friend in Canada. He had recommended a website for me to check out, and though I was certain it would include no “graphic” imagery, I figured it would still be blocked on library computers. I told him such, to his shock and consternation. After all, this was a library, a purveyor of information to the masses, and a cultural institution which has a long history of standing against censorship. If Canada doesn’t censor public internet use in this way, surely the United States wouldn’t, either. I then explained that in the United States, the federal government can reduce a public library’s federal funding if they do not install “nannyware” filters in their computer labs. (Some American libraries have simply chosen to forego the federal funding, on principle.) I illustrated this attitude in American culture with the catchphrase of Helen Lovejoy, the pastor’s wife on The Simpsons: “Will somebody please think of the children?!” My friend replied that people should focus on raising their own children, not other people’s.
I’m undecided on how I feel about his statement. On one hand, as they say, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Children grow up, not in the bubble of their parents’ watch, but in society at large, and we fool ourselves if we think our actions have no influence at all on the next generation. On the other hand, how one chooses to parent, how one chooses the values to inculcate into their children–we consider these sorts of choices as a hallmark of a free society, and, so the argument goes, if someone wants to raise their child more “precociously” than another, then so be it. And yet, this view is also used to enforce attitudes that really do harm society: “I’m raising my child to stand against homosexuality, and rules that say ‘gay’ students get ‘special protection’ from bullying is undercutting my right to raise my child as I want.”
What I am sure of is that it is absurd to believe one can raise a child in a protective bubble in perpetuity. There is a difference between, say, giving your twelve-year-old pornography (ignoring the fact that some of the Bible is quite pornographic), and that twelve-year-old discovering it just by being a member of society. Children are going to find out about the real world no matter how much they protect their children. It is the job of the parents to first build up values such that their children can handle “the real world” when–not if– they encounter it, and then, to discuss issues in an age-appropriate manner when–not if–they come up.
The challenge comes when a segment of society believes it is (literally) their God-given responsibility to act as God’s mouthpiece in any and all situations, to hand out the judgements and punishments in God’s place. To this, I can only reply that, in a great many situations–from the woman about to be stoned for adultery, to his many encounters with the Pharisees, Jesus told people to mind their own business when it came to others’ morality, and to focus on their own.
As an aside, just to make my personal statement about censorship, allow me to say that, if you were not aware of what “Cluster Fluff” refers to, it’s a play off the phrase “clusterfuck”, which generally refers to a complex and intractable situation.
*”The company has had other controversially named flavors as well — Karmel Sutra and Hubby Hubby (in support of gay marriage) — for example. But Schweddy Balls has received much publicity-generating attention.” Read more here.