Last holiday season my wife and I shared a pair of recordings with our children; circa 1972 when we were members of the Highland Park Sr. High Choir. Although we had a great time reminiscing and comparing intergenerational musical abilities, we were struck with a sadness that went beyond the wistful melancholia of days gone by. We realized that these albums were a testament to an era when tolerance could be accomplished by sharing expressions of faith via the medium of music — all in a public school.
One album was a traditional collection of works performed by the high school choir. However, it contained secular and religious works sung in Latin, English, and Hebrew. The tracks flowed innocently from "Chichester Psalms" sung in Hebrew, to "Mass in G" sung in Latin. The second was a Hebrew Service containing the original works of a Highland graduate and sung by our choir. The composer, a Jewish woman, recorded the album as “a new experience in worship that emphasizes through song the importance of community involvement in worship. It enables those who are willing to join together as a community in contemporary songs of prayer.” (Emphasis in the original.)
As we listened to the scratchy recordings, we realized the lasting effect of these experiences. I recall being taught to speak Hebrew (some of which I still remember) by one of my Jewish classmates and performing the service in Temple on a Friday evening. Later, these public school experiences enabled me to be open to attending a Seder. I have heard the Shofar and tasted bitter herbs. As an Evangelical Christian, I have had numerous opportunities to share these experiences with my children and members of my congregation. I once played a track called “Sh’ Ma” (sung in Hebrew) to an Evangelical pastor and watched him weep. “Hear O Israel, the Lord thy God is One.”
On the back of the album is a picture of our choir in the recording studio. As I looked at our faces I saw black and white; man and women. But the photo, not unlike our contemporary classrooms, could only reflect race and gender. It failed to convey the rich diversity of our thought life and core beliefs. Only when I listened to the religious music was I able to realize the complexity of Christian, Jew, and atheist – all singing in an atmosphere of tolerance. It’s shameful to admit that this experience would be questionable in today’s hyper-sensitive environment.
We are living in denial. It’s doubtful we can learn to embrace diversity when we prohibit any exposure to our most fundamental differences. In fact, banning all reference to our religious heritage creates even greater ignorance and fear. Our schools are creating a generation of dysfunctional “religiophobes.” What ever happened to “critical thinking”?
There is a vast difference between learning about faith and teaching faith. Learning about the diversity of faith in the public square is no more an endorsement of religion than learning about Hitler’s “Final Solution” is an endorsement of the Holocaust. It is a dubious argument that postulates that the reading of "Mien Kampf" is not a state endorsement, yet the reading of the book of "Exodus" or the "Gospel of St. John" is.
I encourage people of all faiths — who take their faith seriously — to reclaim the lost ground of the last 50 years of secularism. The purging of diverse expressions of faith in our public schools and institutions gags our attempts to reach tolerance, and forces us to communicate with photographs depicting little more than sex, gender, and race.
Was there really a time when the arts, faith, and government coexisted in a peaceful environment? Were we too ignorant to know we were doing something “unconstitutional” — or were we simply too tolerant to care?