Public education: Using the bully(ing) pulpit

Most Christians don’t mean to bully with their religion nor do they think of themselves as bullies. After all, they’ve been taught to believe that their religion is gentle and loving, the very model of “good will toward men.” On a person-to-person basis, most are commendably just that. However, in this post I’m focusing on group bullying inspired by or excused by religion.

Christians understand that Islam, as practiced in a frightening proportion of the world, does a lot of bullying—aggressively and violently. Christians have a similar history. But enlightenment in Europe, then America opposed and overcame much of Christians’ horrid, immoral behavior. But violent, dictatorial Christianity didn’t go down without a fight. We are immeasurably indebted to heretics willing for centuries to endure Christian atrocities. “Oh, but those weren’t real Christians,” modern apologists will say. No time to address that dodge here, but I refer you to an earlier post titled “Only in the name

Happily, though, Christian bullying now rarely reaches the physical abuse level. But it still exists. Separation of church (synagogue, mosque, coven,
etc.) and state in America—arguably our founders’ greatest gift to civilization—moved religion off to the side of civic affairs and the power of the state, a merciful repositioning that benefitted the integrity of both religion and civil government. True believers’ drive to control others, however, didn’t go away; they turned to misappropriating civil power whenever possible to support their evangelism. I am not speaking in the abstract; I mean it is going on today all over the country.

Christians have always been quite certain how everyone should believe and act. After all, their God was known to destroy a whole city due to a few disbelievers. I can understand the need to be religious control freaks with a God like that. So unsatisfied with attending just to their own salvation, they’ve been their God’s plenipotentiaries in a raft of civic issues: Ten Commandments in the courthouse, alcohol sales on Sunday, tax breaks for pastors’ housing, pledges to country attached to pledging to their God, rules of marriage and reproduction, treating church contributions as charity, the “Christian nation” myth, sectarian prayer in city councils, and a long list of anti-democratic issues, including actions that have effects tantamount to blasphemy laws.

The bullying aspect of these issues is as invisible to well-meaning Christians as water is to fish. Instances of governmental religious bullying—or rather Christian bullying using government resources—are legion. Christians have much to be ashamed about, though almost all either take no notice of their bullying or fail to see what’s wrong with it. It is amazing that our founders were sufficiently clear-sighted to bequeath us a godless Constitution. Christians of various stripes have done their best to undo that work for over two centuries.

Of the countless instances of this shameful bullying, I’d like to tell here about a single example. One of America’s largest school systems, Orange County Public Schools (Orlando, Florida) this year allowed Bible distribution on May 2 (the Christian “National Day of Prayer” declared by President
Obama) to high school students. The Freedom from Religion Foundation submitted free-thought literature with which the OCPS could augment the one-sided choices available to students. The OCPS response was to disallow most of the non-Christian material, though it had no problem allowing all the Christian literature, even invitations to worship at the Orlando Wesleyan Church! Keep in mind these were kids of parents with various faiths and no faith, kids required by law to attend, kids not equipped to question either the dogma or the bullying religionists’ use of state power.

Board-censored material included Sam Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation, Robert Ingersoll’s Jesus is Dead, and Ibn Warraq’s Why I Am Not a Muslim. (These banned books totaled 1,184 pages, less than the average Bible’s almost 2,000, so volume wasn’t the issue.) One of OCPS’s excuses: It is “age inappropriate for . . .
students in high school” to hear the opinion that Jesus did not rise from the dead. Apparently, the gorier Biblical stories are OK.

Such Christian misappropriation of civic power is not rare, but an everyday occurrence. (With no more than five minutes research I can find at least twenty such events in the past couple of months.) Christians fail to understand that not everyone is convinced by their stories of devils, miracle cures, crying statues, ghosts, and an inextinguishable hell.

The upshot is that churches and Christians use the formidable power of the state to proselytize, to silence opposing views, and in the OCPS case to indoctrinate a captured, impressionable audience. Only a weak argument needs that kind of governmental support, as Ben Franklin pointed out. It is only slightly encouraging that public schools’ determination to select which religious faith to endorse seems a little less now than when I was in school. Jewish kids then were regularly segregated from Gentile kids during class time Bible lessons. Yes, that was in public schools, with their minor Jewish ghettos in the hallway. Because one couldn’t count on the vaunted Christian sense of morality, it took court cases to curtail the worst abuses because reasoning and appeals to their better nature were insufficient.

If the Orange County matter is like other instances of religious fervor spread or facilitated by schools, at some point someone will advance the ridiculous argument that teachers should not have their freedom of speech and religion curtailed. Of course, as individuals they should retain those rights (and nonbelievers should support their free exercise). But teachers or administrators using their positions to preach (or invite others in to preach) are acting not as individuals, but as instruments of the state. The state does not have freedom of religion; individuals do.

Lest my harangue be dismissed as merely taking offense at the expression of something I don’t like, let me add one last thought: I am not offended and I have no right not to be offended. No, being offended is far too feeble a term. I am enraged at bullying of all sorts, but most of all by people who claim the moral high ground based on their fantasies of divine instruction.

About John Bruce Carver

I am a U. S. citizen living in Atlanta, Georgia, having grown up in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and graduating from Chattanooga High School. I served in the Electronic Security Command of the U. S. Air Force before receiving a B.S. degree in business/economics and an M.Ed. in educational psychology, both at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. I then completed a Ph.D. in clinical (and research) psychology at Emory University. I have two daughters and three granddaughters. An ardent international traveller, I have been in over 70 countries for business and pleasure. My reading, other than novels, tends to be in history, philosophy, government, and light science. I identify philosophically as a secular humanist, in complete awe of the universe including my fellows and myself. I am married to my best friend, Miriam, formerly of the United Kingdom and Canada.
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