We witness this every year in December when public schools awkwardly attempt to navigate the holidays without mentioning the reasons they exist. Last year, a school in Wisconsin disbanded its Master Singers choir group and canceled its holiday concert after the district issued an edict banning music with religious themes. The year before, administrators at a middle school in California canceled a production of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol—a play that has very little to do with the Christian holiday—because they thought it might offend Jewish students celebrating Hanukkah. The year before that, the Fort Worth Independent School District in Texas banned students from exchanging holiday gifts or cards; and a 16-year-old New Jersey boy was given the thankless task by his school of compiling a playlist for a holiday breakfast without any songs alluding to Christmas or Hanukkah. Amazingly, he was able to find nine songs that met that criteria.
This has not only sharpened the resolve of religious conservatives, but it has also obscured the important place of religion in the liberal tradition. From the birth of the Reformation to the dawn of Civil Rights, the best and worst of our common cultural and political heritage have been grounded either directly or tangentially in a narrative of religious faith. If you don’t believe that, try engaging in even a basic scholarly analysis of Western art, philosophy, history or languages without a working knowledge of the Bible and see how far you get.
Yet our fear of indoctrination has consigned discussions of religion and its societal impact to the supper table, the church pew and Fox News – three places where it is least likely to be subjected to open and inquisitive scrutiny.