(Note: This article appeared on the op-ed pages of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Schenectady (N.Y.) Gazette in December 1987.)
In the public schools of Philadelphia in the 1940s and '50s, as in much of the country, there was in fact an establishment of religion. The state legislature had mandated that ten verses of Scripture be read aloud every morning. Ecclesiastes, Psalms, and the Sermon on the Mount, as I recall, were big favorites of the teachers, though when it was my turn to read I often chose the Book of Ruth.
At Christmas time, we all learned about the Virgin birth and sang gloria in excelsis deo, peace on Earth and good will toward men. At Easter I don't think we got any more serious than bunnies and bonnets. Good Friday was however a school holiday, which was sufficient explanation to me of why it was such a good Friday.
None of this had anything to do with Christian devotion. I liked the music and learned the words, in Latin.
I knew somehow, from a very early age, that the school was an institution of Christian America and especially in the early grades I felt awkward and out of place, rather like Huck Finn feared of gittin' sivilized. All the same my soul would sometimes be seized with anguish that I was not a real American like Dick and Jane and Sally and Spot.
My immigrant parents sent me, after a full day of public school, to the school run by our synagogue, where I learned about Esther and Haman and Judas Maccabeus, among other heroes and villains. The teacher hit me when I wondered where those people east of Eden had come from and who begat them. Eventually I went through a crisis of faith and fell away. But I liked the music and learned the words, in Hebrew.
The point is that I learned a lot of words and a lot of music and a lot of things about Them and Us, and about America. I think I would not have learned such things, or not learned them so powerfully and quickly, had the public school not had its generic Christian veneer, and had my family not been so insistent on my religious training. And I think the conflicts I experienced sharpened my desire and ability to learn the ordinary curriculum as well, especially history and geography and literature.
Could it really be that the United States was the only nation in the world that had never done anything bad? That other people weren't as decent and peaceable as Americans? That somehow God had indeed set His hand upon this nation in preference to others? Why would He do such a thing? Mr. Hagerty, in the sixth grade, finally confessed. Our history lessons had been sugar-coated. Some day I would learn something nearer the truth, he said.
My ninth-grade history teacher skipped the first chapter of the textbook because it talked about cavemen and prehistoric times. John Wesley Rhoads, Ph.D., was a fundamentalist and a namesake of the founder of Methodism, and he believed there was no prehistory, that history began with the Creation and is recorded in the Bible. Once we got to the part of history that had to do with civilization he really knew his stuff.
Senior year, the president of our class went to the lectern during the weekly assembly to read the required ten verses of Scripture. It took a few minutes before the assistant principal -- honest, his name was John D. Christman -- realized that the Scripture being read from was not the Bible but the Bhagavad Gita, and hustled Stanley off the stage. Perhaps Mr. Christman confused it with the Kama Sutra. In any case, the matter passed; in those days you didn't go running to the ACLU with every little thing.
The following year I was at the University of Chicago, a Baptist-affiliated institution in which, it was said, atheist professors teach Thomas Aquinas to Jewish students. Which was more or less true. I was a teenage Trotskyite, but by the time I got out of Grant McConnell's year-long course on the problem of freedom and order I was a born-again and, as it's turned out, lifelong civil-libertarian. Now I do go running to the ACLU with every little thing.
But it may be that we've gone overboard trying to exorcise things like nativity scenes and Bible readings from the schools. Some non-Christian kids are going to feel left out or threatened or confused. Good. As long as teachers don't actively try to indoctrinate or convert them, they'll be better off for the experience of alienation.
On the other hand, those village-hall donneybrooks over creches and school prayers probably have a salutary effect on the faith of otherwise tepid Christians, who are thus made to contemplate the real religious significance of totems otherwise taken for granted.
Some years ago, after the first annual Do-It-Yourself Messiah in Chicago, where the audience becomes a 3,000-voice chorus for Handel's great oratorio, I was at a party talking with a Jewish woman who had helped organize the event and who had sung in the soprano section. "That was fun," she said, "even though I don't believe any of that stuff." Clearly, she hadn't sung it right. If you sing it right, you do believe, at least for the instant, that the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth. I like the music, and I've learned the words, which are in English.
It's a conundrum, this business of the sacred in the realm of the secular, but one way to begin to puzzle it out is to reflect on a Talmudic passage of Joseph Heller's Catch 22. Lieutenant Scheisskopf's wife, outraged at the atheist Yossarian's grotesque depiction of God's bungled handiwork on Earth, protests that while she's just as much an atheist as he is, "the God I don't believe in is a good God, a just God, a merciful God. He's not the mean and stupid God you make Him out to be."
Yossarian calmly urges religious freedom:
"You don't believe in the God you want to, and I won't believe in the God I want to. Is that a deal?"