Holiday concert leads to discussion of religion in schools
By Lexie Yearly
There is no simple answer when it comes to discussing religion and the implications it has on students, parents, teachers and administration in a public setting.
But there is, many local clergy say, a proper way that the subject should be discussed—and it doesn’t include making hateful statements and attacking others’ beliefs.
Over the course of the last month, Bordentown residents have learned this the hard way, as a seemingly simple issue of a 4th grade winter concert exploded into national media reports of the school district’s “War on Christmas.”
In early October, a now infamous Facebook post started the controversy by stating that two families had forced the removal of Christmas songs from the annual MacFarland Intermediate School concert by threatening a lawsuit against the school district.
Though the truth later came out that those events were false—a lawsuit was never brought up, the three songs in question were overtly religious (not just Christmas-themed), and the school district had followed the proper chain of command in addressing the issue—the topic raged on overnight on social media, accruing more than 800 heated comments before being deleted from Facebook. But as the topic kept appearing more frequently online—first in a local editorial and additional social media posts, then spreading daily to larger and more visible media—an angry Facebook mob vilified the people it deemed involved, calling for certain complainers to stop causing trouble or even to leave town.
Many events might best depict the height of the controversy, including a petition circling online not to renew superintendent Constance Bauer’s contract, the placement of religious statues on a family’s private property, and a last-minute write-in school board campaign by a candidate who supported restoring the songs. But the moment the rest of the United States can reference is the factually inaccurate Bill O’Reilly segment on Fox News Oct. 31 that splashed Bauer’s photo across the screen and identified her as a “pinhead” for refusing to allow Christmas in Bordentown schools.
The songs in question were “Bring the Torch,” “We Sing Gloria” and “Los Reyes de Oriente,” which all feature overtly Christian religious references to worshipping Jesus as the Messiah. When the concern was brought forward by the families, the matter went from the MIS principal to Bauer, who consulted the district’s law firm Parker McCay. The firm advised Bauer that, based on previous case law, the most sensible legal solution would be to simply remove the songs.
The Nov. 13 school board meeting was the first opportunity for many concerned residents to speak their minds in front of an audience instead of typing their thoughts from behind a computer screen. And while countless individuals came forward at the event to make passionate pleas for both sides of the argument, the meeting also gave some local clergy members a chance to express their thoughts on the issue itself as well as the hateful attacks it incited.
The Rev. Robin Lostetter, the pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Bordentown, implored that the people voicing a Christian agenda start acting as Christians.
“No matter how you feel about that issue, what we really need to say as Christians is that our two main commandments are the same as those as the Jews: to love God, and to love neighbor,” Lostetter said to the school board. “And what I have experienced in the last two weeks or three weeks has been very unloving. And my greatest concern is that whatever you do as a board, is something that can help relieve the hatred, the name-calling, the isolation, the exclusion. It has become something that we really need to stop.”
Part of the problem in debating the issue, Lostetter said in a later interview, was that many people weren’t able to take a step back to examine and question the longstanding tradition of singing religious songs in a secular school environment.
The disputed winter concert songs depict Christian salvation history, a much different story than Jewish salvation history, and a subject matter that many people might not feel comfortable singing about. Lostetter encouraged people to think about the impact of their words, and to consider how they might feel if the situation were reversed. She differentiated between cultural holiday songs, which don’t refer to the specific spiritual beliefs about the holiday, and liturgical songs, which profess aspects of faith. Those liturgical songs, she cautioned, should be sung in the religious sanctuary, like a church or synagogue.
To have non-Christians sing about Jesus as the Messiah would be the equivalent of having a child from a Christian home sing praise to Allah, the deity worshipped in the Muslim faith, she continued.
“It’s very easy to say, ‘Oh, I won’t be bothered by that,’” Lostetter said. “But frankly, until that happens, they really don’t know how they’ll react, and I don’t think they’ll react well.”
Critics who believe that religious songs have no place in the school argue that the songs are the same as prayer.
That was one of the explanations addressed by Rabbi Julie Pfau of Temple B’nai Abraham in Bordentown, who noted that asking anyone to declare that belief through song is a spiritual violation.
“Music is one of the most powerful vehicles for prayer, and it is used in many traditions and in a variety of forms for this very reason,” Pfau said at the school board meeting. “In perhaps countless churches around the world, singing hymns and songs praising Jesus is an act of worship and religious devotion … proclaiming Christ as Messiah, in song or otherwise, is a profound statement of faith.”
Pfau spoke not only as a rabbi but also from her experience as a Ph.D. candidate and instructor in the Department of Religion at Temple University. She argued that teaching about religion is very different than requiring students to participate in the rituals—students can learn about the foods, texts, art, history and even observe the rituals, but are never made to participate in them.
For people who have claimed that singing liturgical songs is not a meaningful way of proclaiming faith, Pfau questioned why a Christian would want to demean the significance of the song’s religious message.
“Doing so is a hollowing out of the Christian faith and the Christian message,” she said at the meeting. “It devalues it, it belittles it. I can’t even understand why a Christian would want to hollow out the beautiful meaning of a song that exists to deliver the power of their gospel.”
And, even if the inclusion of all gods in the repertoire may make the class more equal, Pfau said that doesn’t make it any more comfortable.
“Saying, ‘Well, let’s have everyone pray to everyone’s god,’ that’s fine for some people,” Pfau said in a later interview. “Some people are OK with that, but I know a lot of people of different faiths that wouldn’t be OK with that. So I don’t think having equality of discomfort is quite the answer we’re looking for.”
Rabbi Eric Wisnia, of Congregation Beth Chaim in West Windsor, spoke at the school board meeting to say that no religion should be taught in the public school system at all, because it often leads to a “watering down” of religion.
“What I have found from listening to many Christmas songs is that they are usually incoherent about the theology they’re professing,” Wisnia said. “We speak in some of them about the ‘virgin Mary,’ which of course is a Catholic concept, and my Protestant colleagues usually wince when they hear that. “My fear is that if we put religion in any of our assemblies, we are going to be making decisions about which religion we are going to profess. As a Jew, I do not want the schools teaching Hanukkah. I will do that in my synagogue.”
While Lostetter, Pfau and Wisnia were the only clergy to attend and speak at the school board meeting, several other local religious leaders have been following the debate.
The Rev. Jefferson Pool, a Catholic priest at Divine Word Missionaries in Bordentown, said that religion should not be banned when celebrating a religious holiday.
“To say that you cannot sing a traditional Christmas carol because it might contain a religious message is to try to divorce a holiday from its roots,” Pool said.
That doesn’t mean Christianity should be preached in schools, Pool continued, but Christianity itself shouldn’t necessarily be outlawed in schools, either.
“I do think we need to be able to recognize that Christianity is not only a religion, it’s part of our culture, certainly when we come to Christmas or some of the major holidays,” he said.
The Rev. Addae Ama Kraba, of the Dorothea Dix Unitarian Universalist Community said there is no simple answer when it comes to discussing religion in schools, particularly in deciding the issue at hand.
“The whole situation is so complex, it needs so much unpacking,” Kraba said. “It’s just not that easy to say, should it or should it not be. Because it’s too intricately tied to who we are, or who the profession is that we are, as citizens of this country. So there’s this whole notion that we are a Christian nation.”
Though the Unitarian Universalist community does not operate under a specific dogma, nor does it have certain stipulations for members to be accepted into its community, its roots are based in Christianity, Kraba said. And yet, it’s considered an outlier, especially because much of the religious education is centered on modern Christianity, Kraba continued; one needs to proactively seek other sources to learn about non-Christian religions.
One thing that’s important to note, she continued, is that the end goal of encouraging any kind of diversity should not be to achieve “tolerance.”
“I don’t even like to use the word ‘tolerant’ when you’re talking about other people and their ways of life, because if you’re simply tolerating me, particularly coming from someone who is a person of color, I object to the fact that there’s this tolerance around certain issues, that the key would be to find some way to accept, not necessarily tolerate,” she said.
One way to facilitate that tolerance is to encourage a world religions course in public schools, especially beginning with the younger students. A lack of knowledge or understanding is often evident, she said, in people who have grown up without exposure and education about other religious customs and beliefs of groups from around the world.
“It’s part of what creates the confusion and dissonance between people,” Kraba said. “I think world religion needs to be in the school system, all together, it should be part of the curriculum. Just as you learn about other parts of the world, in the agriculture, you should learn about how these people worship. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it or like it or even participate in it, but just be informed about it.”
The blatant intolerance displayed in Bordentown, though, was a disheartening sight for clergy, said the Rev. Tom Miller of Trinity United Methodist Church. These hateful messages were the core issue of the debate, he said, and those who engaged in that kind of disrespect essentially resulted in tarnishing their own projection of their faith.
“You were so passionate about witnessing to your faith in God and how you see God and worship God, that your witness for that God is essentially ruined by your own immature behaviors and uninformed or blatantly ignorant behaviors towards others that believe differently,” Miller said.
While American culture was largely founded and influenced by Christian beliefs, that culture has changed, Miller said, as the nation continues to grow more and more diverse.
“All you have to do is sit in a parking lot for 45 minutes waiting for your wife to come out of the supermarket, and you’ve seen such a cross section of humanity that it just spins your head if you’re older than 50,” Miller said.
Though he didn’t commit to either side of the concert debate in Bordentown, Miller did offer a suggestion as a way the school district could avoid future controversy.
If the school won’t even refer to the concert as a Christmas or Hanukkah or holiday concert, he said, why not schedule it in January or February to avoid attracting inevitable scrutiny during the holiday months?
“Why have it during the traditional holy holiday season, and open it, make it so vulnerable to false charges of religious intolerance or religious one-sidedness?” he questioned.
“That’s the last thing you want to see happen to your holy sacred celebrations, whatever faith system you belong to. You don’t want it tarnished with the political arena.”
As of press time, the show was still scheduled for Tuesday, Dec. 3 at 7 p.m.
The updated song list includes: Let It Snow, Jingle Bell Rock, Silent Night, Santa Claus is Coming to Town, Winter Wonderland, Go Tell it on the Mountain, Hanukkah Song, Deck the Halls, and In this House Tonight.