Thursday, May 15, 2008


I am so angry I'm about to explode: Boom! There's been a controversy in my small town lately about a middle school teacher at the public school both my kids attended/are attending. Years ago, I heard he gave handouts on how people and dinosaurs lived together but required his students to hand them back in at the end of class, lest a parent find out that he was teaching creationism again. This year, some parents filed suit against him for allegedly burning a cross into their child's arm. He has also been accused of faith healing at a meeting of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at the school. The school system has warned him not to teach his religion (some non-denominational type) in public school, but this year they asked him to take down the ten commandments from his classroom wall and remove the bible from his desk. He's tried to make the controversy all about removing the bible, but as the ACLU has pointed out, if he wants it for personal use, he could keep it IN the desk, rather than out where the students can see it (and, according to students, where he can read from it out loud during class).

Why am I so angry? Well, the teacher's supporters have been very vocal in the local newspaper, and I wanted to speak out in support of the school board. I wrote what I thought was a fairly civil letter. Here, judge for yourself:

I support the school board investigation into Mount Vernon Middle School teacher John Freshwater's advocacy of his religion in the classroom. I am the parent of a MVMS seventh-grader and a MVHS ninth-grader, and I can assure you that I would have protested had either of my children been assigned to Mr. Freshwater's classroom because I have been told he teaches creationism, rather than science.
I find it curious that most of the letters to the editor support Freshwater's position because most of the people I know do not support the teaching of a particular religion in public schools.
This case should not be about an individual; it is about one of the main ideas on which our country was founded: Freedom from state-sponsored religion.

So what happened after this letter appeared in the local newspaper? I got a religious pamphlet sent in the mail, anonymously. No return address. Certainly no signature. ("What's next," I asked. "A flaming cross on my front lawn?") Well, what came next is this letter:

I am writing in response to Jeanne's letter to the editor and her stated support of the school board. Jeanne found it curious that most of the letters supported Mr. Freshwater because "most of the people I know do not support the teaching of a particular religion in public schools."
Maybe, Jeanne, you have surrounded yourself with people that tend to think and believe as you do. I believe this issue is about teaching what some people believe to be the truth. I am not talking about the truth of God's word. I am talking about the way many people think the earth was created. There are those that believe the truth to be that the earth came by accident, it just happened. Those people believe in Darwinism.
Then there are those that believe the truth to be that the earth did not happen by accident, it was created. These people believe in creationism. Both "isms" have scientists that support these two theories. Most people that I know believe the way I do, that the earth was created, it was not an accident.
This issue is not about religion; it is about teaching the truth. Your truth, I assume, is Darwinism, my truth is Creationism. What is wrong with teaching both theories, which are both supported by scientists? Jeanne, it takes a lot of faith to believe in a creator, and it takes a lot of faith to believe that the earth came from nothing. If you are willing to keep the teaching of Creationism out of the public schools, then let's be fair and remove the religious teaching of Darwinism out of the public schools also.

The author of this comma-spliced and otherwise error-filled letter is James Fehrman. At least he signed his letter. I don't know him, and now I don't want to know him. What I want is for one of my friends, preferably a scientist, to write a letter telling him EXACTLY what is wrong with teaching both "theories."

I am absolutely through with civil discourse, at least for today. I am in the mood for Howard Nemerov, who wrote this poem the year I was born(1960):

Sees Boom in Religion, Too

Atlantic City, June 23, 1957 (AP) --President Eisenhower's pastor said tonight that Americans are living in a period of "unprecedented religious activity" caused partially by paid vacations, the eight-hour day and modern conveniences.
"These fruits of material progress," said the Rev. Edward L.R. Elson of the National Presbyterian Church, Washington, "have provided the leisure, the energy, and the means for a level of human and spiritual values never before reached."

Here at the Vespasian-Carlton, it's just one
religious activity after another; the sky
is constantly being crossed by cruciform
airplanes, in which nobody disbelieves
for a second and the tide, the tide
of spiritual progress and prosperity
miraculously keeps rising, to a level
never before attained. The churches are full,
the beaches are full, and the filling-stations
are full, God's great ocean is full
of paid vacationers praying an eight-hour day
to the human and spiritual values, the fruits,
the leisure, the energy, and the means, Lord,
the means for the level, the unprecedented level,
and the modern conveniences, which also are full.
Never before, O Lord, have the prayers and praises
from belfry and phonebooth, from ballpark and barbecue
the sacrifices, so endlessly ascended.

It was not thus when Job in Palestine
sat in the dust and cried, cried bitterly;
when Damiem kissed the lepers on their wounds
it was not thus; it was not thus
when Francis worked a fourteen-hour day
strictly for the birds; when Dante took
a week's vacation without pay and it rained
part of the time, O Lord, it was not thus.

But now the gears mesh and the tires burn
and the ice chatters in the shaker and the priest
in the pulpit and Thy Name, O Lord,
is kept before the public, while the fruits
ripen and religion booms and the level rises
and every modern convenience runneth over,
that it may never be with us as it hath been
with Athens and Karnack and Nagasaki,
nor Thy sun for one instant refrain from shining
on the rainbow Buick by the breezeway
or the Chris Craft with the uplift life raft;
that we may continue to be the just folks we are,
plain people with ordinary superliners and
disposable diaperliners, people of the stop'n'shop
n'pray as you go, of hotel, motel, boatel,
the humble pilgrims of no deposit no return
and please adjust thy clothing, who will give to Thee,
if Thee will keep us going, our annual
Miss Universe, for Thy Name's Sake, Amen.

The poem has an even greater effect if you read it out loud. I hope that at the end of it, you are not trembling with anger, as I am. It's a hard way to begin the day, but evidently somebody has to do it. I guess this is the main reason I endure the underemployed adjunct life--because I hate ignorance. I hate it with every fiber of my being. "What else could she have done, being what she was?"

But since my local paper only allows one letter to the editor every 30 days, I will have to endure this latest example of ignorance in silence. Where are the other people in this school district who hate it???


lemming said...

When the Scopes Trial came up in class, I pretty much threw out my notes for the rest of the day, as the students couldn't stop discussing it, their experiences in school, etc. At teh end of class, they reached the following conclusions:

1) It is perfectly acceptable to say that evolution is a theory. There is evidence to support it, but not everyne believes it.

2) There are other theories as to how life began.

3) You may hold any belief you like about how life began, but you, as an educated person, really should at least know the theory of evolution.

4) Teaching creationism is on a par with the state sponsored efforts to convert Irish Catholic children to Protestantism in teh public school system.

Hang tough!

Jeanne said...

Lemming, that sounds like a good discussion. One of the things that frustrates me, though, is that there are people who don't know the difference between a scientific theory and any other kind of theory.

Anonymous said...

I've been following this case with interest also. But what I'm seeing as I read the local newspaper blogs is that Freshwater's supporters are drifting away leaving only his core group. People were immediately turned off because Freshwater chose as advisers men who are well-known in Central Ohio as religious rabble rousers/troublemakers. The alleged burning of a student also repulsed a lot of people.

Freshwater should have put his Bible away and then filed a complaint with his union. Instead he chose to play the Hero for Jesus and he may lose his job over it. Of course then he'll probably start a ministry based on his 15 minutes of fame and become a Panhandler for Jesus like his evil genii "Coach". "Coach" is encouraging Freshwater to sue. If he does sue, he'll lose his case, he'll lose his job, his benefits, and a good bit of money.

I get the impression that John Freshwater is a nice guy and a decent teacher who accidently allowed a student to get burned (nothing religious about it). He definately needed to be reprimanded for overstepping his bounds though. But I think the guy is getting swept up in a maelstrom that will leave him wondering what the hell happened. I think "Coach" will use Freshwater to serve his own agenda.


Ron Griggs said...

Teaching creationism is on a par with the state sponsored efforts to convert Irish Catholic children to Protestantism in the public school system.

I'd go further than that. Teaching creationism is on par with teaching Atlantis, the flat earth, healing with crystals, phrenology, or sharpening razor blades by placing them under pyramids.

It is dismaying and bizarre to me that something so obviously a product of magical thinking like young earth creationism should have
attached itself to Christianity like a barnacle.

In the early centuries of the Christian era, Christians had to navigate through a world of magic, necromancy, hieroscopy, and other occultist nonsense. I suppose today's Christians have to bear creationism in a similar way.

lemming said...

Ron - I think my students were approaching the issue from a religious standpoint in this particular instance rather than a scientific one. They were floored to learn that so many Catholic schools exist because public education was being used to change someone's faith and, good Protestants all, agreed that this was and is wrong.

Alison said...

It will be interesting to see how many turn up on the square tomorrow to support Mr. Freshwater. M, you may be right that only the core supporters are sticking around, but those core supporters look pretty numerous and are very loud.

One element of this that I have found intensely frustrating is that, as Jeanne has learned, before one is even allowed to weigh in on the issue, one must evidently first present ones religious bona fides. It's the main reason why I haven't written a letter yet - I am exactly who these people are trying to save their kids from.

Anonymous said...

They are trying to save their kids from the problems of modern life. As a parent, I don't want my kids involved drugs, alcohol, teen sex, etc. either but I'm smart enough to realize that heavy indoctrination of Christianity is not a cure-all. Life is a lot more complex than that.

Has anyone read "UnChristian: What a New Generation Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters" by David Kinnaman? Kinnaman's research studies showed that the
16 - 24 age group has very negative attitudes toward Christians. Their perception is that Christians are intolerant, homophobic, narrow-minded Bible thumpers. Fundamentalists who are trying to save people are actually repulsing most of them. Very interesting read.


Joe said...

The thing is, Ron, precious few Flat Earthers have ever blown up homes or schools to make their point. While I agree with your theological point, I think we have to get back to the fact that the Establishment Clause is about the blood that filled the streets of Europe for 400 years... and that wasn't about atheists vs. Christians, it was about Christian sects vying for political power.

Like the right to control the curriculum.

What I want is a button that says "Freshwater = Taliban". It really is that simple.

I continue my campaign to take back the word Theory. Do your part! Correct people who say "theory" when they mean "hypothesis".

Ron Griggs said...

Joe, it is hard to disagree with the equation "Freshwater = Taliban" but I think I might, just a bit.

The Taliban strike me as a group purely motivated by religion--a relative rarity. Even in the worst of the "religious" troubles of Europe during the last 400 years, religious fervor was often an excuse for more wordly motivations, especially political dominance.

For example: while it is convenient to see the Irish troubles as Catholic vs. Protestant, the conflict is essentially a political one--the freedom of a people and the right to self-determination--in which religion was used to legitimize hatred and/or solidarity.

In C. S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, the devil Screwtape writes:

What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.

This was in my mind when I tried to characterize Creationism as fashionable magical balderdash glommed onto Christianity. So ultimately, I think Mr. Freshwater is a "Christian And" who has allowed Creationism in the driver's seat.

Ben said...

I find myself disagreeing with both Joe and Ron, a circumstance so rare as to require comment. First of all, Joe, the equation "Freshwater = Taliban" might look fine on a button, but it seems over the top as real thinking. Rhetorical hyperinflation makes us stupid. I don't particularly agree with this Freshwater character, but distinctions can be made.

But not, I think, the one that Ron makes. If Freshwater is a "Christianity-and-creationism" guy, why aren't the Taliban "Islam-and-barbaric-culture" people? To say that they are "purely motivated by religion" is simply buying their rhetoric about themselves -- and why on Earth should I do that?