The “Merry Christmas” Bully

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Last month, when I emailed my regular contribution to Jonathan, I said, “OK, here’s this month’s rant.” I don’t really think what I wrote for this site last month was a rant. But be warned—this month’s is.

This morning my wife found posted on Facebook a story about a nine-year-old boy in San Francisco who had been suspended from school because he wished his teacher, “Merry Christmas.” Often I discount such stories, but the reportage on this one was from CNN so it would seem to be true. According to the story the boy’s teacher, Mr. Paul Horner, is a militant atheist and had warned his students not to mention anything religious in his classroom. When the boy committed his dreadful perfidy, Horner hauled him off to the office where higher school officials suspended him until after the unmentionable December holiday.

This story raises several issues. Some of them are constitutional. Some have to do with things we assume to be true. But there is at least one that is intensely personal and poses a question each of us must answer. First, let’s look at the constitutional issue.

By forbidding any mention of religion in his classroom, right down to the word “Christmas,” Mr. Horner is violating the free speech rights of every student in his class. If we are so bold as to actually grant free speech, then there are bound to be times when we will hear things we do not want to hear, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The public schools are just that—public. Mr. Horner ought to realize that in public situations he cannot control everything he hears. The boy should be immediately readmitted to school (with a sincere apology) and Mr. Horner, if he lacks tenure should be fired and if he has tenure should be reassigned to teaching something safe, like study hall.

Second there is Mr. Horner’s assumption that the classroom is his. The classroom actually belongs primarily to the taxpaying citizens of San Francisco. It is they who have the primary right to declare what can be said in that room. But the room belongs, secondarily, to every taxpaying citizen in this country because so much of the money schools spend these days comes from the federal government. Mr. Horner does not seem to have noticed that the vast majority of those citizens, who own his classroom, believe in God and are church members while a large minority of them continue to attend church weekly. That classroom is ours.

I’ve wondered for a long time what gets into some people when they stand before a classroom. When I was in 11th grade we got a new homeroom teacher, a young woman just out of college. Our first day of school she declared that the homeroom,”is my ship and I intend to run it.” How does anyone get the arrogance (chutzpah? pomposity?) to think they need to make such a statement to a group of students who meet daily to listen to the announcements over the PA system and do each other’s homework?

To move away from the circumstances of this particular case, it does, thirdly, raise the issue of who gets to say what is right and what is wrong. There are those, notably Sam Harris, who say that science has now progressed to the point where it can define morality for us. If this is an example of that, then perhaps we’d better think twice before we surrender to these atheists the right to be our moral arbiters. The Constitution of the old Soviet Union provided a right of free speech, but anyone who dared claim it wound up in the Gulag. That’s because the leaders of the country were bullies at heart, and so is anyone who denies a nine-year-old the right to wish him “Merry Christmas.” Whenever I hear claims that modern scientists or atheists are able to define morality better than God’s Law and the Christian Church I recall a line from the old Moody Blues song, “How Is It We Are Here?” that goes, “Descending from the ape, the scientist-priests all think. Will they save us in the end? We’re trembling on the brink.”

Fourthly, and most personally, there is the question of when each of us decides we’ve had enough. Historians speak of something they call the “Protestant Hegemony.” This was the period in American history when Protestant ideas dominated our national life. The traditional churches; Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, and Lutheran, defined national morals. Their leaders helped shape national opinion. Their ideas dominated public discourse. This period ended in about 1920. I think it was Ferenc Morton Szasz, in a book I read when I was working on my dissertation, who remarked that no group in human history ever surrendered its hegemony more graciously than did the Protestant Christians in America.

The result has been a more pluralistic society where many different groups have a voice in government and society. Many groups, including the atheists, have seized this opportunity with both hands, growing ever more strident in their determination to bar all religious expression from public life. If they prevail, the Church building will be the only safe place to speak about our faith.

There are some—I am one of them—who hope the American Center for Law and Justice will sue the pants off the San Francisco school district because of this. There are others, though, who urge us to follow the example of the early Church and not to protest until we are being thrown to the lions. Granted the Bible does tell us to submit to the authorities. But there are these three little words at the beginning of out Constitution, “We the people,” that tell us that it is we who are the authorities. We live not in an empire, but in a republic whose governing officials are elected by popular vote. We have, historically, given even atheists the right to contend for their beliefs. We must contend for ours just as fervently. Not to do so is to surrender our responsibilities as citizens.

We surely must contend with love and reason, but we must contend nonetheless. Each of us is faced, in some cases daily, with the decision of what we will stand for in public. If you haven’t been yet (because you have always gone to a Christian school and are now attending a Christian college) you will be. So now is the time to decide how strongly you will stand for your Christian faith.

I have stood on the pro-life picket lines. I put my career on the line to stand for sexual purity in the Church. As theologian Donald Bloesch once remarked, “It’s not hard to see that at some point an issue will arise on which neither side can back down.” If we Christians back down now, the time will come soon when Christians must either renounce their faith or die (it is already happening in some places). So I will stand for Jesus and against the atheist bullies who want to shut me up. Oh, and since I can’t be suspended (yet) from the internet, Mr. Horner, Merry Christmas.

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