A Perfect Example of Christian Privilege

One of the cases I’m researching for my book is called Herdahl v. Pontotoc County School District, case involving prayer and Bible classes in Ecru, Mississippi. Lisa Herdahl and her husband had moved their family from Wisconsin to Mississippi to be closer to his family and immediately discovered that the local schools were flagrantly violating the Constitution.

For starters, every day began with a prayer said over the school’s PA system, and they often had vocal prayers in class during instructional time as well. Some of the teachers would designate a student to lead a prayer before lunch each day. Anyone who didn’t want to participate in the pre-lunch prayers could step outside into the hallway, immediately singling them out among their classmates for ridicule.

The school also had a Bible class, which was overseen by a “Bible committee” made up of leaders from the local Protestant churches. The class was taught by someone chosen by the Bible committee, not a school employee, but the school provided classroom space and paid for books and other materials for the class. The Mississippi State Department of Education had actually already warned the school about the class and refused to allow them to grant academic credit for it, but they had made some changes to get it approved. The district court ruling explains how it worked:

In the elementary grades at the Center (K-6), the course is taught as a “rotational class,” alternating once every four days with music, library, and physical education. The Bible teachers come into the students’ regular classrooms and replace the regular teachers, who generally leave the rooms. Although the other rotational classes are required classes, the District has made an exception for the Bible class. Students who do not wish to participate are excused and may get up in front of their classmates and leave the classroom. During this period, the only alternative instruction for them is to be sent to another rotational class for their grade, which merely duplicates a rotational class they have already taken or will take, so that the children end up taking the same class twice. The plaintiff’s children who are subject to the District’s rotational class program are now excused from participating in the Bible class and are escorted to and from another rotational class by the teacher or assistant. The plaintiff claims that being singled out in this manner has exposed and continues to expose her children to harassment and ridicule, and they have been accused of being atheists and devil worshippers.

The court’s ruling was absolutely obvious:

The Bible class clearly lacks a secular purpose. From its inception by the local Protestant churches, the aim of the instruction has been overtly religious in nature. The District’s profession of educational instruction in this relevant time period of world history is belied by the evidence presented to the court at trial. First, the fact that the District contracted out the teaching of this class indicates an attempt at avoiding the constitutional ramifications of this instruction. If the class were truly secular, there should be no necessity of disassociating itself (and thus the state) with such a practice. The District cannot accomplish through others what it is forbidden to establish itself. Second, the selection procedures for the Bible teachers indicate a religious agenda unquestioned by the District. As the acknowledged “sponsor” of the Bible classes, the Bible Committee seeks out prospective Bible teachers for the public schools, interviews and then selects them, using religious criteria that have resulted in a teaching staff of Christian teachers who teach the Bible, and are expected to teach the Bible, from a fundamentalist religious perspective as the inerrant word of God.

When a Bible teaching vacancy occurs, it is the Bible Committee, not the school district, that initiates the hiring process, and it does so not by an open job search or through advertisements, but by personally soliciting names of potential teachers from the present and former Bible teachers. The District is well aware of this religious testing, and has to date not turned away any selected Bible teacher. Prospective Bible teachers are interviewed by the Bible Committee, and their religious beliefs and “salvation experience” of the candidates and their “personal spiritual background [and] beliefs about the Bible” are routine topics during job interviews. The chairman of the Bible Committee, Mr. Olen White, stated at trial that he personally believed that it was important for the prospective teacher to consider the Bible as literally true. It is also his understanding that the teachers who are currently teaching the Bible class at the Center are teaching their classes from the perspective that the Bible is literally true and without error. According to White, the Bible classes involve “reaching children for the Lord.” In a thank you letter to participating local churches, White stated that “without the help of the churches, the Bible program could not exist. Continue to pray for this work with our young people. They need all the Christian influence that can be given.” Reverend William Sims, a pastor of a local church and member of the Bible Committee, testified that he expects that a teacher of a Bible course would teach the Bible as the inerrant word of God. He further stated that if it came to his attention that one of the Bible teachers was teaching the Bible as if it were capable of error or that one of the teachers was not of the Christian faith he would not want the Committee to continue to fund that person’s salary. This religious testing, plainly imposed on prospective Bible teachers, alone makes the practice an unlawful intrusion into the school curriculum.

But here’s why I bring all this up. As often happens, there was a huge rally to defend this clearly unconstitutional behavior. A local Baptist minister organized the rally and 1500 people showed up. One of the speakers was Rep. Roger Wicker, now a U.S. Senator from Mississippi. Among the other things he said at the rally was this:

“Now I want to say this to the plaintiffs in this lawsuit: You could not have inflicted a deeper wound upon the souls, upon the very core of this community, than to do what you’ve done.”

Expecting the government-funded public schools to follow the Constitution is a deep “wound upon the souls” of the community. Forcing kids to listen to prayers they may not agree with, that’s perfectly fine. Singling out young children to be ostracized and called devil worshipers, that’s perfectly fine. But filing this suit is a deep wound. This is the essence of Christian privilege and Christian hegemony, which often ruthlessly imposes itself on everyone else and then takes terrible offense at the mere suggestion that no one should have to put up with it.

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  • tbp1

    I grew up in a similar atmosphere. To this day it is astonishing to me that self-proclaimed “law and order” types are so quick to break the law.

  • tbp1:

    Or, as I like to say, “Obey and honor the Constitution! Except the parts I don’t like.”

    Of course, you could substitute “Bible” for “Constitution,” and it’d all be the same. Getting your values handed to you by writ and authority rather than rational thought and discourse allows you to pick and choose* your values to match your desires, rather than what is right and wrong, and just ignore the rest.

    It does make for a certain kind of self-righteous smugness.


    * Usually from a limited menu of very nasty, very authoritarian values.

  • To this day it is astonishing to me that self-proclaimed “law and order” types are so quick to break the law.

    I’ve gone through phases where I’ve called them anarchists. They just have no respect for the rule of law, and only care that they’re in a big enough mob to intimidate anyone who dares challenge their depravity. When they are challenged, they cite the size of their mob as the reason for why they should be allowed to persecute whoever they don’t like.

  • eric

    If secular education is a wound to the community, let the community create a private school.

  • oranje

    Ha! About half of my class would have gotten up and left if it meant they could go to another gym class.

    Stories like this are hard to read, though, as it feels like it will take so much to change this mindset. the faux history running rampant about our national religious heritage doesn’t help, either.

  • abb3w

    There’s apparently a PBS documentary on this one (“School Prayer: A Community at War”), $30 for home use DVD. The store looks a little old, so I’d be inclined to order using the phone number. Or, of course, try for interlibrary loan to borrow one for a bit.

  • Ecru is a pretty stinky colour too!

  • fastlane

    Wow, there isn’t a single thing about that that isn’t unconstitutional.

    On the plus side, at least one of the violators didn’t know he should lie, couldn’t keep his religion to himself, even under oath, or (and I consider this least likely) actually considers the ‘thall shalt not lie’ bit at least moderately important.

    It does make the judge’s job easier.

  • leonardschneider

    Like George Carlin pointed out, the South is a great place to visit when you’re in the mood for a trip to the twelfth century.

    Bleagh. It’s too early in the day, and I’m too under-slept, to come up with anything more constructive than, “It’s fuckin’ Mississippi, what do you expect?”

    … Although I do take perverse comfort in knowing that no matter where on my personal spiritual timeline (Unitarian, militant agnostic, constructive Deist, Universalist, progressive Episcopal) I may have met these troglodytes, they would have absolutely hated me.

    “But Lenny,” you say, “you live in California. When would you ever have to deal with linear-thinking, vicious Evangelicals?”

    The answer is, Let’s take a drive through the Central Valley: start on Hwy. 99 in, say, Galt and work our way south to the Grapevine. I can show you people who escaped straight out of a William Faulkner story. Bible in one hand, pump-action shotgun in the other.

  • Sastra

    Apparently, democracy = majority rules. If you’re a minority, then being in a “community” is like being in someone else’s home.

    The plaintiff claims that being singled out in this manner has exposed and continues to expose her children to harassment and ridicule, and they have been accused of being atheists and devil worshippers.

    Oh no! “Accused of being atheists!” What’s next — being “accused” of being Jewish? Being “accused” of being from Wisconsin? Being “accused” of being gay? Being “accused” of being black passin’ for white? The horror.

    Ok, I know — it’s a minor point and I’m nitpicking. But these casual usages of “atheist” as recognized insult signify an underlying problem. And it especially bothers me when it comes from people who are otherwise on our side.

  • NitricAcid

    Sastra- considering that these kids probably don’t know the difference between “atheists” and “devil worshippers”, I’d rather not be accused of such in that place, either.

  • imthegenieicandoanything

    Xians, like all today’s “conservatives,” believe that the law is whatever they want it to be at any particular moment. Not only that but, as Scalia and Barton and dozens of others have shown, whatever their current desires may be, the only possible interpretation of the Constitution is an exact fit, and history itself immediately ajusts so as to prove that George Washington believed firmly that Obamacare was a crime against the nation and freedom, while Jefferson wrote repeatedly about how Jesus Christ was the Lord and Savior and both the inspiration and literal foundation for the Constitution and the Republic.

    These people are dangerous shits who would, save for the larger society they live within, brutally oppress others who differ from themselves.

    There are plenty of bad “Libs,” but the USA of this age shows ALL “conservatives” to be open to harming those who disagree with them.

    They make me want to, like Gulliver after his final voyage, frequent the stables so that the stench of humans is less offending.

  • bmiller

    Interestingly enough, Ecru appears to be a posh little village. Not hardscrabble at all. I Google mapped it and it looks plush. Furniture manufacturing

  • comfychair

    Clearly, the Satan worshiping Liberals and their moral relativism cannot understand that it’s OK to break the law if it’s done for a really good reason, like Jesus. /s

    Funny how the self-proclaimed Party of Personal Responsibility never misses a chance to point out that all their failings are somebody else’s fault.

  • Hugo


    I can’t wait for the book to come out. I can’t help but feel this would work so much better as a documentary, though, speaking as an aspiring filmmaker myself. Other than you not being a filmmaker, what made you change your mind? I’m sure your could have found a good team to help you assemble a documentary.

    Leaving aside the idea of a feature length film, it would be neat if you could set up a companion website with video or just audio interviews with some of the people involved in these cases, much like you’ve done on your podcasts before. I know you think words are your forte, but you are a very skilled interviewer as well. Think if a story like Jesus Camp would have had the same impact as it did if it had just been released as a book.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    The Herdahl case broke when I was living in Mississippi (though far from Ecru).

    People for the American Way put it on the front page of their quarterly newsletter, with serious emphasis on the physical threats faced by the Herdahl family, and iirc a pitch to send PFAW money to aid them.

    The next season’s newsletter had not one word about what had happened. I continued to worry about the Herdahls, but threw all renewal letters from PFAW into the burn pile.

  • brianwestley

    Here’s another good example:


    For 60 years, Christians were given the exclusive right to put up xmas displays in a public park. When atheists sued for equal treatment, they tried a lottery (which was won mostly by atheists). The next year, the city decided to just end displays.

    So, of course, some Christians think that the city MUST allow them to promote their religion…

  • grimlock

    I just recalled an anagram for Evangelist: Evil’s Agent. Though I find most of them ill informed and misguided rather than evil. I’ve only met a small number of evangelists for whom I’d use stronger descriptive words.

  • Hugo wrote:

    Other than you not being a filmmaker, what made you change your mind? I’m sure your could have found a good team to help you assemble a documentary.

    The team was the easy part; the money was the tough part. It costs a lot of money to put a documentary together. It costs very little to write a book about it. I agree with you, I think it would make a great documentary. But I don’t think it’s all that doable. Perhaps after the book is done, someone will decide to fund a documentary to expand on it.

  • Pieter B, FCD

    One word, Ed: Kickstarter.

  • I recently read somewhere that the essence of privilege is that it’s invisible to the privileged. The truly privileged see their favorable treatment as simply the way things work, and thus see themselves as the victims when anyone proposes taking it away. I’m not sure what you can do about that. Obviously, careful explanation by a judge outlining precisely what they were doing wrong did not help.

  • John Horstman

    @21: You are quite correct – privilege is invisible to those accorded it until it’s pointed out to them (or us – my culture ascribes me gads of social and a few legal privileges). Education, particularly on the viewpoints/circumstances of others, is the only way to address it, and it requires a subject who is willing to consider that the viewpoints of others, even when in conflict with hir own, might be valid (i.e. is willing to grant that ze is not omniscient and could, in fact, be wrong). Analogy and Socratic method can be good ways to approach the problem. Even if the person doesn’t accept the alternate position right away, exposure to other viewpoints can plant the seeds of doubt, and if ze’s truly dedicated to knowing true things, then it could be the first domino.

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