Why the question about religion? Last Sunday and this Sunday, I am setting Sunday as a day to talk about how Christianity relates to the upcoming school board election. This is because in Caledonia, religion falls under the category of “elephant in the room.” Maybe we shouldn’t be talking about it. But we have to talk about it.
When I was a child, everyone knew there were two things you didn’t talk about: religion and politics.
Religion and politics were everywhere then, as they are now. Some people would not vote for JFK because he was Catholic. Black churches invited civil rights leaders and politicians to speak to their congregations. White evangelical churches (like the one I grew up in) didn’t invite politicians to speak, and if asked, they would tell you that they did not endorse politicians, but everyone knew that the Republican candidate was the Christian choice and the Democrat was for liberals and non-Christians, which were kind of the same thing.
In our day, the vast majority of evangelicals have dropped the pretense of indifference to or neutrality in politics. Religion and politics are everywhere, and they get mixed up with each other in ways that are complex, confused, confusing, and dangerous.
If you are going to understand one thing, and only one thing, about my candidacy for school board trustee, let it be this: I am determined that the Board of Education of Caledonia Community Schools must be a place where national- and state-level partisan politics is not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, does not become determinative of anything. But here is an almost equally important corollary: religion is also not up for discussion, is not allowed in the room, and is not determinative of anything.
Every time I say that we have to keep politics out of school board some people scoff. I understand why. It requires explaining. A person who has no politics is as undesirable, and as dangerous, as a person who has no ethics. I say that because (with Aristotle) I am understanding “ethics” to mean a deliberately worked-out understanding of how people ought to relate to each other individually, and “politics” to mean a deliberately worked-out understanding of how people ought to relate to each other in large groups. But in popular parlance these days, “politics” refers to partisan binaries: Republican vs. Democrat, Red vs. Blue, progressive vs. conservative.
When I say we have to keep politics out of school board, I mean that we have to keep these partisan binaries out of the room. Why? Because they make us stupid. They make it impossible for us to reason together to find the best solutions for our local problems. “You’re a Democrat!” and “You’re a Republican!” become quick and easy ways of dismissing what you have to say. We slip—no, we dive head-first—into assuming that “my side” (pronouns: “we” and “us”) is right about everything and “your side” (pronouns: “they,” “them,” and “you people”) is wrong about everything.
I say that pushing these binaries makes us stupid because in reality no side or party is inherently right about everything, and no party is inherently wrong about everything. Assuming otherwise is a shortcut that means you don’t have to think. In a setting like a school board, an individual might produce a proposal because they are grounded in a political philosophy that is mostly Republican, or Democrat, or conservative, or progressive. But that label must not be on the table for discussion, and that idea must be neither approved nor rejected because of the label. The proposal itself must be discussed on its own merits.
On the level of the school board, at least, understandings of current reality that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be false, and proposals for action that come straight out of partisan identities are likely to be unwise. We must insist on fact-based understandings of reality, and we must insist on proposals for action that are based on shared understandings of what is best for our students. This is what I mean by keeping politics out of school board.
But what about religion? Why insist that for school board, religion must not be on the table, must not be allowed in the room, must not be determinative of anything?
First, what I do not mean: I do not mean that people who have religious convictions should be excluded from school board. I do not mean that in thinking about what is best for our children and for our schools people should not be guided by their religious convictions. I mean, rather, that they cannot, must not, introduce their religious beliefs into the public conversation as reasons for approving their proposals. If you can’t see the difference: sorry, maybe I’ll try to explain what I mean at greater length sometime.
For today, I just want to recognize one large, two-fold reality and point to one large confusion.
The large, two-fold reality is this: (1) the population of our school district is predominantly Christian, and (2) the Christians, despite the apparent convictions and aspirations of some, do not form a united political bloc that agrees about everything pertaining to our schools; Christianity is a diverse phenomenon.
Just as it should be considered out of order in a school board meeting to argue for or against a description of reality or a proposal for action by labeling it as conservative, liberal, progressive, Democrat, or Republican, it should be considered out of order in a school board meeting to argue for or against a description of reality or a proposal for action by labeling it as Christian, anti-Christian, Muslim, atheist, Judaeo-Christian, or anything else.
The proper response to any breach of this rule is: Shut up about X (where X is any of the above religious or partisan-political labels) and show me the factual evidence for your description of reality. Shut up about X and show me how your proposal for action is the best we can do for our young people and our schools. Maybe you are in favor of this proposal because it concords with or grows out of your Christian, or Democrat, or Republican understanding of reality. Fine. But that’s not a reason for school board to consider. We are here to decide, without political or religious prejudice or partisanship, what is best for our young people within the framework of the Constitution and laws of the United States and the State of Michigan. Period.
To get very concrete by citing something that I have heard raised repeatedly: you cannot say in a school board meeting that Caledonia schools must not accommodate the needs of trans students because Christianity says that trans people do not exist, because (1) plenty of Christians will disagree with that statement, and the school board cannot adjudicate disputes between Christians about biblical interpretation and theology, and (2) decisions about the rights of minorities (racial, sexual, and otherwise) are determined by the Constitution and laws of the nation and the state and are not up for revision or violation by the trustees and administrators of Caledonia Community Schools.
And here is the one large confusion: From remarks I have heard during the public-comment period at school board meetings, and in conversations and insinuations outside the meetings, I hear this narrative: Christianity is under attack in our schools, and we must defend it. Or, more precisely: the liberals are attacking Christianity, and we Christians must defend it or get someone else to defend it for us.
Any Christian who has read the New Testament knows that there are texts throughout that warn about opposition, persecution, heresy, and apostasy. There are texts that describe the “spiritual warfare” in which Christians are caught up with the “powers and principalities.” Anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Christianity knows that it is based on the life and teachings of someone who was judicially murdered because of his deeds and his teachings. So, yes, the reality of opposition and the question of what to do about it are central to Christian life and thought. The New Testament canon closes with a book describing the final victory of the Lamb That Was Slain over all opposition.
But in our day, the easy identification of a particular brand of politicized white evangelicalism as Christianity, and the corresponding easy identification of opponents of that brand of religionized politics as agents of Satan, is a dangerous misunderstanding. As a Christian theologian, I will go further and say that it is idolatrous. But for that—and this is how I got started writing this little essay this morning—I will refer you to a post that I wrote for my personal blog during the Christmas season of 2021. Here’s the link: https://verbasparsa.org/2021/12/19/christmas-typology-and-antichrist/. I hope some of you will find it helpful.
In case it’s not clear to you after reading all of the above, my answer to the question posed in the title of this piece is: Christianity should be protected in the schools in the same way and to the same extent as any other religion or philosophy of life.
In case that’s still too many words for you, here’s the one-word answer: No. The point of the blog post that I just referenced is this: Jesus Christ has not requested, does not need, and will not accept protection from any politician. Any politician posing as the protector of Christianity is doing just that: posing.