The New Yorker probes a curse word — "proselytizing"

Washington-icon.jpgI have been on the road again, doing a seminar or two at the National College Media Convention in New York City (home of Brendan’s Bar & Grill). As usual, I munched my way through a stack of newspapers and magazines while stalled in airports, etc.

This led me to the March 21 issue of The New Yorker, pulled to the news rack by the big headline: “Jesus in the classroom.” I wish I could link to Peter J. Boyer’s story, but that is not up on the site. I think there are times when we forget there is valid content out there in the MSM to which we cannot link. Blogs are amazing things, but we cannot — at this point — link to everything.

However, The New Yorker‘s crew has backed up the piece with an online Q&A that offers insights into some of the strengths of the piece. The feature focuses on the church-state war inside the ultra-elite Cupertino, Calif., public schools, which focused on all of those headlines that screamed “DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE BANNED AT CALIFORNIA SCHOOL!” The man at the center of the fight was born-again elementary school teacher Stephen Williams, backed by a legal team from the Alliance Defense Fund.

This could have been one of those Religious Right vandals sacking Blue State Paradise stories, but Boyer digs in deeper than that.

Yes, there is ample evidence that some conservative Christians still want to turn the Founding Fathers (and Mothers, I suppose) into megachurch Sunday school teachers. The story also mentions a few bobbles by school officials and times when supposedly tolerant parents lose their cool.

But more than anything else, this is a very nuanced, complicated look at one of GetReligion’s pet subjects — offensive free speech and the tensions inside the First Amendment. It certainly does appear that the teacher in this case was attempting to follow the guidelines in the state laws about religious content.

But was he being too fervent? Were his motives bad?

Boyer talks about this in that Q&A, noting that the nuclear weapon in all of this is the dreaded term “proselytizing”:

Was Stephen Williams proselytizing in the classroom — which is strictly forbidden, all sides agree — or was he merely misunderstood to be proselytizing because he had openly expressed his own born-again Christianity? It’s a terribly difficult matter to work out. One of the complaining parents told me that the problem with Stephen Williams is that he made it known that he was a Christian, that his faith mattered more to him than anything in his life. And that reality sort of changed the dynamic in the classroom. When Stephen Williams, Christian, was teaching about the faith of the Founders, did it have the effect on an eleven-year-old’s mind of proselytizing? Perhaps, but how do you stop a teacher from being open about his own faith, outside the classroom, without infringing upon his right of free expression?

What if some of the people on the right do want to bend the rules? What if people on the left really do want to practice viewpoint discrimination? What if folks on both sides have visions of fundraising letters dancing in their heads?

What if media hotheads on both sides want to blow the whole thing up for the sales and ratings?

This is tricky stuff. One of my favorite sections of Boyer’s piece notes that the natives did not grow restless and start hurling the P-word when Williams had his students dig into primary sources on Hanukkah, Ramadan or the Hindu festival of lights. But his discussion of the origins and history of Easter sent some students scampering home to their parents.

Once again, we see people in positions of power hitting the wall on free speech, which is always a story worth covering. I’ve seen major stories in big-city Bible Belt newspapers that were not as balanced as this feature in, of all places, one of the holy texts of the blue elites. Check it out.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Gillimer

    “Prosleytize”, like “cult”, is one of those funny words which, by DEFINITION, can only apply to the other guy.
    We share, you preach, they proseleytize.

  • ECJ


    proselytize. verb. To convert (a person) from one belief, doctrine, cause, or faith to another.

    The word is generally given a religious connotation, but it in fact has a much broader definition. Religion becomes the third rail not so much because schools aren’t supposed to proselytize – there are. The primary purpose of a public school system is to instill the reigning world view of the society it serves. That is why there is so much contention regarding public education. People aren’t fighting over how to teach math. They are fighting over which world view should form the basis of the ciriculum.

    The public school system is decidedly and aggressively secular. And secularists see religion as a dangerous actor in the public square. Therefore, the school system sees a big part of its purpose to be the delegitimization of religion as such an actor. In this effort, Christianity is singled out for special treatment because the US is residually a Christian culture. Christianity therefore has a privilegded position that some (many) would like to displace. To secularize this culture, one must first take down the previous foundation. Thus, the culture war. And schools are on the front line.

    That is the rail that Mr Williams touched. He didn’t just talk about religion. He legitimized it. In the secular world, that is an unpardonable sin.


  • pjb

    Terry, I’m delighted that you followed that headline into the story, and that you picked up on what is one of my abiding interests, too — the inherent tensions in the First Amendment. You’re right, it’s tricky stuff, even within the bounds of case law. Thanks awfully for the kind remarks — and for this very valuable blog.