“There’s Still Christianity in the Public Schools?”

Heck Yea!

As a whole, we, Americans, live in a Christian-based culture. Our calendar alone demonstrates that fact. If this were a Jewish culture, we could shop at Wal-Mart on Dec 25th. If this were a Pagan culture, the 12,000 lb Times Square crystal ball would drop on Oct 31st – not Dec 31st. And the festivities would end with a mass scrying led by Ryan Seacrest himself. However, for better or worse, the framework of our culture is, at its very core, Christian.

While this Christian cultural-bias manifests differently in varying regions, it is most definitely pronounced in the South Eastern U.S. – the area studied in the Jews on First article that prompted the original question. It ain’t called the Bible Belt for nothing. Many of the most memorable evangelical icons are from the Southern U.S. such as Jerry Falwell, the Southern Baptist Convention, and Bible Man. But, if you need statistical proof, look no further than the Pew Forum demographics maps.

Until moving South, I had never felt the “otherness” that comes with being a religious minority – not Jewish or Pagan. I was raised in the relative comfort of New York’s cultural heterogeneity in which religion is a private family matter isolated from secular life. Even when God was mentioned in public school, nobody noticed. We could have been saying, “One Nation under Goats” and it would have had the same spiritual impact.

Tour BusHowever, Southern culture is very different. The South has been marinating in evangelical Christianity for so long that it permeates all aspects of southern life, even the secular. As expressed by native Georgian, Amy Ray, of the Indigo Girls, “…once you get raised on Jesus, it is kind of always a part of you even if you are a pagan.” (WNYC, 2012) In other words, in the South, goats are never confused with Gods.

Why? Historically-speaking, the South was an agrarian-based society that was founded on small towns, city squares and Friday night football. At its very center was the Church acting as both the town’s religious and social foundation. This idea is summed up in the Southern Baptist Convention’s “faith and message” statement:

“All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society.”

And, this is how religious doctrine seeped into secular Christian culture. These small towns were, and still are, a living Venn diagram in which religion, culture and government merge at the walls of the Church.

If everyone in town is Christian, nobody minds – a scenario common to these rural areas. For example, in Alabama, the Jackson County School Board openly supported the on-campus preaching of Horace Turner, a.k.a Bible Man. Local State Senator Shradack McQuill remarked, “We need God in the public schools” adding that unhappy parents should just home-school. Clearly, this educational program is unconstitutional. However, when the Board voted, there was nobody to object. Therefore, today, Jackson County’s Bible Man continues to …do whatever a Bible Man does.

Even in the larger cities, this Church-centered mentality remains ingrained within the collective culture. In the South, you are not asked, “What is your religion?” You are asked, “What Church do you attend?” That alone speaks volumes. So, taking this Christian-infused secular tradition and adding it to the aggressive “outreach” policy of the dominant Southern Baptist church, you have a society in which Jesus sits on every street and attends every event.

One World Spiritual CenterTo better illustrate, let me refer back to the Jews on First article that focused on children living in two adjacent suburbs of Atlanta: East Cobb and Roswell. Roughly, within a 5 mile radius, there are four synagogues and a Jewish Community Center. Within that area, you will also find a large representation of Christian sects, including Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Korean, Chinese, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian, Coptic, and more. There’s an Islamic Center and a New Age store. Moreover, East Cobb boasts the One World Spiritual Center – a Church that embraces alternative faiths such as New Thought Christians, Pagans, Hindus, and Baha’i.

Without a doubt, East Cobb is one of the most religiously diverse suburbs of Atlanta. The interfaith love is so strong there that the Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and Temple Etz Chaim, who share a parking lot, periodically use their marquis’ to offer holiday blessings to each other. “Shana Tova,” reads the Lutheran marquis. “Happy Easter,” reads the Temple’s. In December, it’s like a tennis match of marquis well-wishes.

Despite all of that diversity, local students’ are still faced with the frustrating experiences illustrated by Jews on First. Yes, Cobb County did put “creationism” stickers in the science texts. Yes, the student-run Fellowship of Christian Athletes is allowed to paper school walls with advertising. Yes, the Sojourn Church uses a public middle school for Sunday worship. And, yes, the Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a so-called megachurch, dominates East Cobb’s landscape, aggressively seeking to convert the “unchurched” with its youth and school outreach programs.

(An aside: I will omit my comments on the Boy Scouts’ and Girl Scouts’ presence within the elementary school classrooms. That particular subject would require a soap box, a microphone and sedative.)

Cobb County Creationism Disclaimer

Setting aside blatant proselytizing, the Southern tradition of a Church-based culture persists even within the diversity-rich suburbs of East Cobb and Roswell. The local churches run many of the community programs such as sports leagues, music conservatories, gymnastics programs, art classes, day-care centers and summer camps. Every church has a pumpkin patch in October and an evergreen forest in December.

“Why don’t you join the Church’s league? It’s just basketball. There isn’t any religious teaching.” But, it’s not just basketball. It means something more. Why? Because it means something here in this Southern environment. Because in that Church, even without a pre-game prayer, we, the non-Christians, are the aliens.

Fortunately, in the Southern cities, religious minorities do have the benefit of secular entertainment options. However, that’s not the case everywhere. Having worked on several Lady Liberty League cases, I have witnessed the pressures placed on Pagan families living in rural areas. There, in that small town, that Venn diagram, boundaries are still blurred. And, while problems often arise from direct attacks, they also flare up simply due to the town’s tradition, a.k.a. “the way it’s done.” In these rural battles, the stakes can be very high and the damage can be devastating.

With that said, the U.S. Constitution still reigns supreme. The First Amendment states:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..”

This includes public schools. If a government school supports the presence of one religion, it must do the same for every religion. If it disallows the presence of one religion, it must disallow all.

Unfortunately for religious minorities living in the Southern rural landscape, the battle is on-going; especially if the town is controlled by the evangelical Southern Baptist Church. This organization has a different interpretation of the First Amendment:

Church and state should be separate. The state owes to every church protection and full freedom in the pursuit of its spiritual ends.……. and this implies the right of free and unhindered access to God on the part of all men, and the right to form and propagate opinions in the sphere of religion without interference by the civil power. (The Baptist Faith & Message: Religious Liberty)

Must Ministries Collection BinThere are profound questions left open, only to be answered privately by every Southerner practicing a minority faith. When do you stay quiet and blend in? When do you re-locate? When do you fight back? The answers should be considered carefully. Just this morning, I saw a Must Ministries collection bin in a school lobby. Should I say something? Should I let it go? Or, should I ask to put a Pagan Assistance Fund bucket alongside it? Legally, the school would have to accept my collection bin or reject both.

Of course, I let the collection bin issue go. Must Ministries does positive community work. And, frankly, I don’t mind Christianity’s presence provided it is kept within the private sector where I have the choice to reject or absorb what is offered. For example, I can avoid the local karate school where a child, quite literally, earns a “Bible Belt.” And, I can choose to only visit the doctors who don’t hang Bible verses in their examination rooms. Just as private businesses have a right to promote, within their walls, their religious beliefs, I have a right not to purchase their products. As Pagans, we must choose our battles wisely because the fight for liberty, while worth it, can be very ugly.

Karate School in Georgia

In the end, the South is what it is – a place of phenomenal beauty and vibrant, unique cultural traditions. But with that comes its historical religious baggage. If you want to live here, you must get used to it. Just like in marriage, you enjoy the good, tolerate the bad… and laugh about the rest.

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33 thoughts on ““There’s Still Christianity in the Public Schools?”

  1. I find a good way to gauge a town’s tolerance level for non-Christians is to not the presence or absence of a Unitarian congregation. These seem to tend towards educated areas (a college nearby, that is). Even the most Bible-belty regions (not just restricted to the South proper) will have a good college town that is a oasis of more free thought.

  2. I had one of those reminders that I live in the South this past week when, while working out at the gym, a woman approached me and tried to offer me a Christian pamphlet. When I politely declined to accept it, she looked quite surprised and offended.

  3. “If this were a Pagan culture, the 12,000 lb Times Square crystal ball would drop on Oct 31st – not Dec 31st”

    I’m going to assume this is because Britain was the dominating colonizing force for much of North America, and not just an assumption that all of us celebrate a New Year on October 31st.

    • I was going to mention something along those lines. I typically consider that the year begins around Jan. 1st, after the twelfth night of Yule (or it begins on the first night of Yule; I’m of two minds). I imagine that Roman Pagans going by the Julian calendar would also end their year on Dec. 31st; it’s not like our calendar was invented by Christians.

      • It’s interesting that the traditional Finnish calendar is usually so similar to that of their Scandinavian neighbors, and yet, the traditional Finnish new year was celebrated at Kekri, around this time of year.

        • Fascinating! I’ve only ever heard of Celts beginning and ending their year around this time, otherwise. Most European peoples (and Indo-Europeans outside of Europe) seem to begin their year either around the Winter solstice or the Spring equinox. I wonder if there’s a connection between the Celtic and the Finnish year-end, and what it might be.

          • The only thing I’ve found as to a reason for kekri being the end of the year is because it marked the end of the work year (this was, of course, the time by which all crops had been harvested and the animals were brought in). When Christianity came, however, the new year gradually transitioned over to Jan 1st, and many of the traditions associated with Kekri transferred to Joulu (Christmas/ Yule).
            It’s interesting that Kekri and Samhain share a lot of similarities; both are centered on honoring ancestors, for instance. I can’t really think of any way to draw any concrete connections between them, though. Maybe a Fall new year was once more common, but it gave way to a later date through all of the migrations and conquests across Europe, leaving these two disparate peoples on opposite corners of Europe keeping the Fall date.

          • It makes a certain amount of sense for the end of the year to be at the end of the agricultural cycle; in Germanic languages, the word “year” can also mean “harvest”. Was the year considered to *begin* at the same time, though, or was there an “intercalary” period before the beginning of the year, i.e. until the beginning of the agricultural cycle?

            Also, I think it’s pretty typical for ancestors and the dead to be venerated at end-of-year holidays, whenever they happen to occur.

          • There is an intercalary period of 10-12 days from Kekri (on November 1st) to the actual start of the new year. As I understand, the word Kekri itself means something that is last, so it marks the end of the year specifically; this is followed by the 10-12 days of partition between the years, during which folk belief said that deceased ancestors would visit the home. I suppose that technically this means that the new year starts on November 10/11th, which is Martinmas in the Christian tradition, but the books I’m reading say that nothing was really done to mark this day.

          • Ah, of course. Out of curiosity, would you or anyone else happen to know when the Canaanite New Year was celebrated? Anyone from Natib Qadish out there? How about Sumerian or Akkadian?

          • Akkadian and Sumerian, from what I’ve read, had their New Year start in the spring (possibly near the Spring Equinox?). I believe (don’t have my books here) that the Canaanite New Year was celebrated around the first harvest, so late August/early September.

    • That is, of course, utter nonsense. The ball would be dropped at midnight on the Calends of March because that is when the good, Pagan, Romans celebrated the new year. And any other pagans who disagreed would be fed to the lions.

    • ::OR:: We could go the Hellenic route and celebrate New Year the first new moon after the Summer Solstice. We have options.

    • Thank you for mentioning this. As for me, I celebrate the new year on the winter solstice. The return of more light to the world is, for me, the first signal of new beginnings.

  4. Moving to the South was a bit of a shock for me as well. Growing up in California and Arizona, I never had much exposure to church outside of, well church. Down here in this small city, there are more churches than gas stations. Heck, the other day when I was walking into the store, a church group was outside taked donations and the girl started to ask me when she stopped halfway and stared at my Mjolnir pendant. I think she thought it was an inverted cross.

  5. I also had culture shock when moving to the South. I had grown up in Michigan. I was part of an active Pagan student group in college (Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, to be specific)., I moved to Georgia right before I turned 30. And wow – huge culture shock. And not just on matters of religion.

    As an aside – I lived in East Cobb. Directly across from the biggest baptist church in the area. It was also the staffing company that I worked for which had the job of sending people to remove the stickers from the Cobb county text books. Go us.

  6. In some ways it hard not to envy established Christianity. They have a very deep community spirit. As you said, there are Christian basketball teams, athletic teams, outreach programmes and lots of events.

    Sure, I may not agree with their theology, but I can’t knock that sense of community. I’ve never seen a ‘Pagan bake sale’ advertised, after all.

    The Bible Belt of the USA south is renowned as a bastion of Christianity, it makes sense to expect it to live up to that on a daily basis. It is ‘their territory’. I know I wouldn’t be comfortable in it, so I will avoid ever going there. I’ll stick to my own territory.

    • I think that’s an opportunity. There are Wiccan, Pagan, and Heathen groups in the south– just look at Witchvox. I think that we should be more assertive in the face of such hegemony. Get the Pagan Assistance Fund box there along side the Must Ministries. When someone stares at your Thor’s Hammer in horror, thinking that it’s an inverted cross, take 30 seconds to explain what it really is.

      As the author says, a large part of the attitude is based on the perception that everyone in a given town is (relatively) the same. The way to combat that perception is to point out, whenever appropriate and politely, that the town isn’t as monolithic as some might believe (or desire).

      • As the author says, a large part of the attitude is based on the perception that everyone in a given town is (relatively) the same.

        Hell, that’s true even for my hometown (which isn’t so small, these days). Folks I’ve reconnected with from high school seem genuinely shocked that non-Christians a) exist, b) are American citizens, c) expect equal rights with Christians, d) have children that they want to pass their own religious beliefs to, and most importantly (in my experience), e) disagree with them on the insertion of Christianity into the public schools.

        Bear in mind, that particular town had a Buddhist temple founded in the mid-80’s (after the arrival of Laotian immigrants), and had a fair number of Muslims in the early 80’s (exodus from Iran after the Ayatollah took over, and from the Iran/Iraq war.) Yet Christian inhabitants are still acting like they’re the only people in the room…and actively hostile to others reminding them that they’re not. (Google: Murfreesboro Mosque. My hometown: continuing to embarrass me, decades after I left.)

        • Cheers from a fellow Murfreesboroan. One of the best things to come out of the difficulty our Muslim neighbors have had with building their masjid (which is now built and occupied!) is the Women of Faith group we formed to help show our community that persons of different faiths can come together for the common good. Yes, there continue to be ignorant rednecks about, but LOTS of excellent interfaith work also came out of this.
          One of the founding members of Women of Faith just so happens to be Pagan. (That would be me.)
          Just yesterday I went to Cracker Barrel with Pagan friends and a Catholic friend visiting from abroad and saw one of my Muslim friends (another WoF founder) and gave her a big hug. It was kind of grand.

    • I have no problem conceding that Bible Belt culture is what it is. That said, that’s no reason to tolerate actual abuses of religious liberty or state-sanctioned religion. Unless and until the South successfully secedes from the union, the Constitution still holds there.

  7. Sorry, just got to share this story: I was visiting friends in Asheville, NC, a couple of years ago, when I noticed this building advertising itself as “the Lord’s Gym” (so not making this up). Well, I figured that they meant, by “the Lord’s,” you know, Jesus. But I so wanted to purchase a day pass, to go in, and start blessing the exercise equipment by the Most Sacred Mantra “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” (I’m a bit of what I call a “Hare Krishna Pagan,” on account of the establishment of the Hindu Hare Krishna Movement where I live). If challenged on this, I was going to (with all wide-eyed sincerity) protest that, by “the Lord’s Gym,” I presumed that they meant Lord Krishna, Avatar of the Divine Transcendental Enlightenment of Krishna Consciousness acquired through the chanting of the Most Sacred Mantra, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna.” Finally, as I was visiting friends, it didn’t seem worth it- but I so wanted to, just to do it.

    • In Asheville, you could probably get away with it. It’s an odd mix of tourist town, southern city, retirement destination and – since the 80s – new age center.

  8. I’ve lived in SW Virginia for most of my life and I have envied those who don’t live in the culture I’ve been raised in. It’s suffocating at times, both as a Pagan and as a genderqueer lesbian. I am told again and again that I’m not right and that I should hide who I am, and it just gets /tiring/. Despite my hatred of winter and colder climates, I’m moving north to live and raise a family. I can’t do that here.

  9. Welcome th The Wild Hunt, Heather!

    In this post you have articulated very clearly the cultural challenges that are reasons I would not consider moving my family to the SE U.S. I don’t want to subject my children to these pressures and other-izing forces.

  10. Being born and raised in East Cobb, sounds pretty much about right to me. I think that it being such a melting pot of people moving into the Atlanta area from other parts of the country contributes to it being a much more tolerant area to live in, at least for the South.

  11. It occurs to me that for those of you who moved to the South from another area that there might be some culture shock regardless of the religion thing. The pervasiveness of Evangelical Christianity does add to it, but there are significant differences in so many other parts of life (language, foodways, mannerisms) that surely religion can’t be the only thing that was shocking.
    Having lived in Tennessee my entire life, I can easily say that it’s gotten much, much better in the past 10-15 years. It is still difficult to be a Southern Pagan and I, too, have to pick my battles. I do choose to go to several local businesses that are overtly Christian because the quality of service is good and they don’t treat me any different than any other customer. As long as there’s not actual preaching while I’m in the dentist’s chair (for example), we’ll get along fine.
    However, I do worry about religion in my daughter’s school. I know what it’s like and I’m not afraid to (very politely) point out any inconsistencies in policy to the administrators. We’ve yet to have any problems, but I’m here as a parent, priestess, and citizen if there are.

    • Yes. I’ve actually encountered more problems with being a “Yankee” then being non-Christian. But the non-religious culture shock is all fun and games. I have written many fun articles about the adjustment from North to South. But the religious issue conflict can be more serious. Perhaps the only other subject that can bring up as much direct aggression is College Football.

  12. Living in the southeastern United States myself, I appreciate this perspective. I can only add that I’m glad I live in New Orleans. It’s a little bit different here! — but many of the challenges still apply.