“Who Went to Church?”
A kook grows up among the believers
August 24, 1979
The personal is political, it is said. For me, growing up in Springfield, the personal was religious too. Or rather it wasn’t religious. As an unbeliever surrounded by citizens who would like to turn every public school classroom and every town meeting hall into a church, I grew up fearing the godly as much as some of my pals feared god, the difference being that I expected my punishment to come in this life rather than the next. It has not yet come, I am happy and relieved to say, but not because religious chauvinists haven’t wished it.
I was to write about these experiences in 1984, in "Orthodoxy."
I also addressed the public dimensions of religion several times over the years. See "Religion" on the topic page Society, etc.
“Plaintiffs do not shed their religious freedoms when they enter the public school house door." That ringing endorsement of the constitution's First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion was contained in an August 14 decision by U.S. Circuit Judge J. Waldo Ackerman. The case involved two McLean County schoolchildren, who are members of the United Pentecostal Church. The Pentecostals ban the wearing of what they consider immodest attire—a category that includes gym and swimming suits—in mixed company. Last year the students refused to take part in coed gym classes on the grounds that it would violate this churchly prohibition. They were suspended, and threatened with the loss of physical education credit that the State of Illinois insists its children must have to be able to graduate.
The kids' parents sued, an action which concluded with Judge Ackerman issuing his recent permanent injunction barring their suspension. "I . . . hold that the state of Illinois' daily physical education requirement cannot be construed in such a way that persons have to participate in violation of religious teaching or beliefs or be subject to sanctions," Ackerman observed. "This is a situation which the First Amendment cannot tolerate.”
It was not too many years ago that this principle was honored more than it was practiced. This was due in no small part to the influence of the General Assembly. Lawmakers always seem to be pushing God; indeed, he may be said to have his own lobby. This enthusiasm ebbs and flows with the times. We are riding a rising tide at the moment. There is agitation in the statehouse to build a denominational chapel in the Illinois House. (This while the state works to buy, then raze two churches within 150 feet of the legislative offices in the Stratton Building, by the way.) According to a Park Ridge Democrat quoted in the State Journal-Register, "This would convey a message . . . that we do recognize, as part of our way of life, that there is in fact a God.”
I am all for our lawmakers making their peace with their maker, but I am troubled by this insistence that the existence of God is a matter of fact. There is opportunity for endless mischief in that assumption. The First Amendment guarantees the free exercise of religion, which I interpret to include the freedom to not exercise religion, and I am not calmed by remarks like those attributed to an Aurora Democrat who characterized possible objectors to the chapel idea as "kooks.”
This conflict manifests itself most worrisomely in the public schools, however. There children, not having yet had much experience with lawmakers and their like, do not realize that what looks like a kook to one person looks to another like a citizen insisting on his rights under the the Illinois and U.S. constitutions. When I was a boy, for example, most of my teachers assumed that a little god was good for kids. They were not above invoking his name when threats to turn us over to parents or the principal failed. Teachers took care not to identify their gods with any particular sect, though when I was very young I did infer from various clues that he must be white, that he probably looked like Mr. McFadden, our principal, that his shoes were perfectly clean even on the muddiest days, and that he lived in a big house above the clouds.
The question of religion weighed especially heavily on me. My family were not churchgoers. This was due not to any lack of piety on my parents' part, but to what I like to think of as doctrinal generosity; these sensible ecumenists decided to honor all gods by honoring no one god in particular. In this respect our family resembled that of E. B. White, whose faith, he noted in his 1939 essay, Sabbath Morn, is of “a secret and unconsecrated sort ill at ease in church.” Church to me remained that place where all my friends went every Sunday morning, and though I was occasionally curious about what went on there, I was never sorry I didn't go, because their reports were so unflattering.
Our churchlessness caused me pain only in school. For example, one of the teachers at Matheny School on Springfield's east side was Miss R. The terrible Miss R. She was a hulking giant of a woman who derived inspiration from a large photo of Gen. Douglas MacArthur that hung on a wall behind her desk. Her convictions on matters of importance were as stern and uncompromising as she was.
Miss R. taught only older kids at Matheny, but I began hearing things about her as early as my second year there. Every Monday morning she would subject each of her classes to a group interrogation. "Who took a bath this week?" she would demand, asking for hands. "Who washed his hair?" and so on through teeth brushed, coffee drunk, cigarettes smoked, until, as my friend puts it, she arrived at the metaphysical issues. "Who went to Sunday school?" she wanted to know, and then, devastatingly, "Who went to church?"
As early as the fourth grade, I had resolved (as many of my predecessors no doubt had) to raise my hand and risk the wrath of God for lying rather than to keep my hand down and risk the wrath of Miss R. She was the Awful Presence, Doom itself in the flesh. I spent six months in a cold sweat worrying that I might be assigned to her class. I was not, and so was spared the inquisition. (One of my sisters, I am sad to report. was not so lucky.)
What made me so afraid then today only makes me angry. Miss R.'s arrogant and wayward nosiness served no end other than filling countless defenseless children with a dread and guilt they didn't deserve. I worry that with the budding religious revival (which tends to vary in intensity proportionately with its promoters' distance from God), pressures to reinstall God in the public schools are building. Such pressures always do build, as people who have run out of ideas to solve the intractable dilemmas that surround them and so drop the whole mess into the capacious lap of the Almighty and his handmaidens like Miss R. Keeping church and state separate is a task to which we will have to turn again and again in coming years, I expect. It is one of the recurring chores of our free society, like digging the weeds out of one's radishes. □