We watched Akeelah and the Bee for family movie night tonight. It was a good story. On one level it was depressing: we (society and our schools) expect so little of our kids when they are capable of so much.

The movie, ostensibly about a girl from difficult circumstances working to win the national spelling bee, was really about overcoming fear. Akeelah, the title character, had to overcome a number of fears. But so did her mother, her brother, and her coach. By the end of the movie they had faced their fears – and overcome.

Have you ever noticed how many things we Christians fear? I’ve heard/read an endless stream warning us of the onslaught of secularism & liberalism. If we let down our guard one moment (like we did in the early 1960’s, it’s suggested), the barbarian hordes will finally conquer us. We fight to get prayer back in school (we all know scores of people currently rotting away in penal institutions for praying school, don’t we?). We fight to get the bible back in school (we can’t possible offer enough courses in our churches to meet the huge demand). We’re out to take (back) our culture for God. And we’re afraid that all the powers of the Judiciary, Academia and the ACLU will prevail.

This past weekend I was at the annual meeting of the AAR (American Academy of Religion). While the AAR & SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) focus on religion, their take on religion is quite different from those hungering to take back the culture from the godless hordes. I heard fear at the meeting. Some of my fellow scholars are afraid of those who want to “take back the culture.” Whether they’re afraid of incipient theocracy or that we conservatives will force them all to become United Methodists, I’m not sure. But there was real fear. They see the organized political movements, the networks of lobbyists, the lawyers, and the rich businessmen lurking in the shadows bankrolling it all. How can a few helpless academics possible stand against the hordes? Sure the ACLU is out there, but they can’t do it all. What can we do?

I don’t know if these two groups understand the mutuality of their fears. They take their version of and approach to truth so seriously that the only options are victory or capitulation. With those terms, only victory is acceptable. How did we get to be ruled by fear? What can we do about it?

As to the “how,” I think the organization and power of our educational system has played a major role. Academics tend not to be very cognizant of the intentionality of educational elites in the secularization of American education (see the essays in The Secular Revolution, edited by Christian Smith). While not all academics have consciously intended to secularize national education (on all levels) over the past century, the outcome has been exactly that. Regardless of community mores or spiritual habits, it is essential to the secular ideology that all education be designed using a national template, a “one size fits all” when it comes to how religion is handled. At the same time, the leaders insist that all young people must attend these government schools (unless they’re rich enough to opt out). This enculturation – and it is an enculturation, not a mere learning of facts, acquisition of skills, or preparation for the workforce – powerful because it is the single largest block of time for most children during the year. Is this enculturation compatible with the teachings of the churches & religions? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, the churches & religions cannot compete. After all, we say, after going to school 30-40 hours a week, what kind of energy do kids have left for serious attention to anything? better to let them unwind in front of the TV, computer or video games. Or go play baseball if they don’t want to be obese. If a movement fails to win the next generation, it ceases to be a movement. Soon it will only be an odd relect for scholars to pick over and write obscure papers about.

But would it be better if the churches were in charge? Well, sure it would be! After all, the churches are full of honest, good people. we’ll make sure all the kids are praying and studying their bibles. Since all the churches and religions agree on all the important stuff, everyone would get along just fine. Education would be restored to its golden days.

Then again, maybe not. Not only are we “religious” folks not very good at agreeing with each other, we find that we have tremendously different goals for our kids. When it comes to scholarship, some folks think scholarship of any kind is hopelessly “liberal” and to be avoided. Others laud scholarship with their words but ignore it in practice – sometimes because it says things we don’t like, or because it’s simply too demanding.

So what can we do?

In the long run, we need to find ways to pluralize American education. We need to be tolerant of communities and groups educating their children in ways that fit with their vision of the Good. This will cause pain – not only will we (whether the “we” of academia or the “we” of the churches) have to give up power, but we’ll also have to allow some things we think are evil (or at least bad).

I realize this is horribly unrealistic, so here’s another idea.

Let’s up the standards in our government schools. Let’s have kids learn about religion(s) and the bible in as non-sectarian a way as possible. At the same time, let’s make the curriculum completely accessible to the public(s). The churches – at least those that aren’t content with secularism or a LCD religiosity – will then develop a parallel curriculum of their own, training their people (young and old) to interact with the school’s material intelligently and in line with their own tradition. It’d be hard work, It’d be worth it.

In the meantime, I think it would help if more folks would develop a sense of humor. Perhaps bridge people like myself – people with a foot in both worlds – can play a role. At least until we’re branded as traitors (by both sides).

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