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When Christians are the Religious Minority

This is old news, but it’s worth repeating. It’s a letter from a Christian Air Force officer written in 2005 — and written to, of all sites, the Worldnutdaily. And they published it. The officer recounted his experience of being stationed in Hawaii and living in an area that was dominated by Buddhist and Shinto believers, making him a member of a small religious minority.

When he went to a local high school football game, he was not surprised when someone came on the PA system before the game started and asked the audience to rise for an invocation. He was surprised when it turned out to be a Buddhist prayer. And he recounts how he felt at the time:

We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do? To continue to stand and observe this prayer would represent a betrayal of our own faith and imply the honoring of a pagan deity that was anathema to our beliefs. To sit would be an act of extreme rudeness and disrespect in the eyes of our Japanese hosts and neighbors, who value above all other things deference and respect in their social interactions. I am sorry to say that in the confusion of the moment we chose the easier path and elected to continue to stand in silence so as not to create a scene or ill will among those who were seated nearby…

Needless to say that was our first and last football game. Although many of the students we worked with continued to invite us to the games, we were forced to decline. We knew that if we were to attend again we would be forced to abstain from the pre-game activity. And not wanting to offend our Asiatic neighbors and colleagues, we simply refrained from attending.

And he then imagines how much more difficult it must be for a child to resist the enormous pressure to conform if they don’t belong to the dominant religion in their school:

The point is this. I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day. Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs, I became paralyzed with indecision and could not act decisively to defend and proclaim my own beliefs. I felt instantly ostracized and viewed myself as a foreigner in my own land.

We often advocate the practice of Judeo-Christian rituals in America’s public schools by hiding behind the excuse that they are voluntary and any student who doesn’t wish to participate can simply remained seated and silent. Oh that this were true. But if I, as a mature adult, would be so confounded and uncomfortable when faced with the decision of observing and standing on my own religious principals or run the risk of offending the majority crowd, I can only imagine what thoughts and confusion must run through the head of the typical child or teenager, for whom peer acceptance is one of the highest ideals.

He then pleads with his fellow Christians to stop supporting the insertion of religion in public schools, telling them that “unless you’re ready to endure the unwilling exposure of yourself and your children to those beliefs and practices that your own faith forswears, you have no right to insist that others sit in silence and complicity while you do the same to them.” Hear, hear.

Comments

  1. coragyps says

    I’ve been looking for that piece for about six years now – thanks for resurrecting it, Ed! There is some applicability this time of the year here in Texas.

  2. cptdoom says

    What bothers me about the letter (although the plea to fellow Christians not to shove their religion down our throats is welcome, if obviously ineffective)is the refusal to attend further games because merely showing respect for another’s religion is so profoundly bad that they could not risk it.

    Granted, the prayer should not be said before a public school game, but I simply cannot fathom a religious belief that so disrespects others in your community. This man is really stating that, say he were to make friends with the next-door neighbors, he would refuse to attend their child’s wedding because it was a Buddist rite. That simply showing respect for another and wanting to celebrate with them would be frowned on by his God and somehow indicate he accepted the validity of the beliefs of his neighbors, rather than merely respecting their right to make their own choices. I think that’s sad.

    I come from a mixed-religion marriage (although my father converted in order to marry my mother), and was shocked to learn my Protestant uncle, my Dad’s younger brother, was barred from being his best man because Protestants could not stand on a Catholic altar. Then years later this same uncle, now a Southern Baptist, insisted that Mother Theresa must be in Hell because, despite her good works, she had never been appropriately “saved.” Rigidity like that was one of the primary reasons I abandoned religous belief, because I simly cannot conceive of a deity that would be so petty as to condemn someone for attending the “wrong” church and praying in the “wrong” way.

  3. Chiroptera says

    What is mind boggling about this letter is that the writer actually learned the correct lesson from his experience.

    I thought that the usual response is, “I was terribly oppressed because of my Christian beliefs. The only answer is to increase the oppression of others!”

  4. Red-Green in Blue says

    As mikey said, “Wow,” indeed. Clear, insightful and concise writing which pretty much sums up why organisations catering to the public should steer clear of endorsing religion(s).

    And if ever in the heat of an argument, I am tempted to tar all Christians with the same brush, I hope that I will remember this letter and who wrote it, and pause before opening my mouth.

  5. Michael Heath says

    Gary Christenot (the guy quoted in Ed’s blog post) writes:

    We were frozen in shock and incredulity! What to do?
    [...]
    Needless to say that was our first and last football game. Although many of the students we worked with continued to invite us to the games, we were forced to decline. We knew that if we were to attend again we would be forced to abstain from the pre-game activity. And not wanting to offend our Asiatic neighbors and colleagues, we simply refrained from attending.

    I’m happy he’s arguing the benefits of a secularist state, but what a position. He’s basically arguing that the principled position is to cut ourselves off from people who exploit an opportunity to express religious beliefs with which we disagree where we’d be a captive audience. For many of us that’s a daily or weekly encounter. It’s an argument which effectively advocates we not just remain in the rhetorical closet, but physically remove oneself from such exposure all together.

    Me? I tolerate it silently. Where if I were to object or respond I’d be unfairly labeled the trouble-maker who isn’t respectful or tolerant of others’ beliefs.

    Gary Christenot writes:

    I am a professional, educated and responsible man who is strong in his faith and is quite comfortable debating the social and political issues of the day.

    I’m confident that includes only those he can bully or agree with him. I doubt he’d withstand legitimate scrutiny, especially someone who flees from encounters with rituals he rejects.

  6. Michael Heath says

    cptdoom writes:

    What bothers me about the letter (although the plea to fellow Christians not to shove their religion down our throats is welcome, if obviously ineffective)is the refusal to attend further games because merely showing respect for another’s religion is so profoundly bad that they could not risk it.

    I don’t think ‘respect’ is the right word to use for what you advocate here. Instead I think ‘tolerate’ is a better fit. We tolerate the expressions of others, sometimes even when we don’t respect those expressions.

  7. Michael Heath says

    Red-Green writes:

    And if ever in the heat of an argument, I am tempted to tar all Christians with the same brush, I hope that I will remember this letter and who wrote it, and pause before opening my mouth.

    Than you’d be defectively conflating an outlier with the general population. We need to describe the attributes of a population in order to promote optimal policy, in spite of the fact outliers frequently exist. Without doing so would have using a defective set of premises which could very well prevent one from developing a cogent workable conclusion.

  8. eric says

    cptdoom:

    What bothers me about the letter (although the plea to fellow Christians not to shove their religion down our throats is welcome, if obviously ineffective)is the refusal to attend further games because merely showing respect for another’s religion is so profoundly bad that they could not risk it.

    I really disagree with that interpretation. I haven’t read the letter, just Ed’s excerpt, but it sounds like he would’ve been perfectly happy to attend other games and sit if it had been socially acceptable to do so. The key point being that it wasn’t socially acceptable. Government endorsement of this religion had the effect of excluding from regular, ‘polite’ society any minority view that disagreed with that endorsement.

    This is exactly the sort of problem the first amendment is intended to avoid: public prayer leading to ostracism of those who don’t want to say it.

    So no, I don’t think its really a sign of disrepect (for buddhist beliefs, by him) to not show up. I think in not showing up, he is recognizing that a “mere ceremonial” government-endorsed prayer is not merely ceremonial at all; it has a significant social impact.

  9. Alverant says

    An interesting article, but it still smacks of christian elitism and privilige. Take this line, “Yet when placed in a setting where the majority culture proved hostile to my faith and beliefs”. In his world it was hostile to his beliefs by merely not being his beliefs. AFAIK Buddhist prayers don’t mention christianity much less say anything bad about it so saying it was hostile is a bit of a stretch.

  10. mikey says

    Alverant @10- I did also note the “hostile” bit. But I was really impressed at what Chiroptera nails at #4- “the writer actually learned the correct lesson from his experience.”

    I guess the lesson here for me is that I don’t expect much from people that would write to WND.

  11. lclane2 says

    Being a minority is something that white Christian males rarely experience. I suspect that Joseph Farah is sufficiently hardened that a series of similar experiences would have no effect on him.

  12. raven says

    I’m baffled by how he thinks standing during a Buddhist prayer is going to, well, do something.

    It isn’t going to make him an instant Buddhist.

    And why is the xian god going to care? Presumably as the all knowning mind reading god of mythology, he knows the guy is just standing up. Period. To fit in and not offend his neighbors.

    Even when I was a xian, I went to Hindu, Buddhist, or Pagan services for one reason or another without a second thought.

    These days as a non believer, I still end up in a xian church on rare occasions for weddings and funerals. I make it a point to not tell everyone that they are all pretending to talk to an imaginary Sky Fairy.

  13. bmiller says

    “I make it a point to not tell everyone that they are all pretending to talk to an imaginary Sky Fairy.”

    Horrors. You are sinning against Darwin aand all of the Atheist saints and gods! You should think of this as an opportunity to spread the glorious Big A.

    Seriously…I foolishly bought one of those FM-radio based CD plug ins and was happily listening to a black metal album when a relgious station cut in. “How many times have you gone to a McDonalds and NOT handed out Bible tracks? have you no shame? You are helping to codemn two billion people to hell.”

  14. oranje says

    The part that still hurts my brain is the cross between the tenets of Buddhism and the violence of football. No OT deity to draw upon for wrath, tribalism, or ire.

  15. iknklast says

    Are we sure this isn’t just apocryphal? I saw this a few years ago (I think in the American’s United newsletter), and some people wrote in afterward to state that they don’t have Buddhist prayers before football games in Hawaii. While the sentiment may be something we’ve been hoping for, if the whole thing is a fake, we should be careful about citing it.

  16. BradC says

    What bothers me about the letter (although the plea to fellow Christians not to shove their religion down our throats is welcome, if obviously ineffective) is the refusal to attend further games because merely showing respect for another’s religion is so profoundly bad that they could not risk it.

    I can see your perspective on this, but I can say from my own experience that many evangelical Christians would be really fearful of being perceived (by God, not by observers) as “participating in idolatry” or “bowing down to false gods” in this kind of a scenario. The idea of respecting the beliefs of others is trumped in this case by specific biblical commands (the first and most important of the 10 Commandments, in fact: “you shall have no other gods before me”).

    There’s even a popular old testament story with this lesson (Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace).

  17. otrame says

    if ever in the heat of an argument, I am tempted to tar all Christians with the same brush

    It is really important not to do that. I know a number of Christians who are decent, thoughtful, liberal (in both the political and non-political sense), people who support human rights, including marriage equality (as one told me, “God does the judging–not my business”).

    An on-line example most of Ed’s reader probably know is Fred Clark, whom I agree with on almost everything except the existence of a god.

    Thanks for posting that, Ed. What a great rhetorical tool that will be for me in the future. The man gets it exactly right.

  18. grumpyoldfart says

    Needless to say that was our first and last football game.

    Oh yeah. Heaps of Christian love and tolerance wrapped up in that sentence.
    `

    I wonder what he’s doing now? Probably teaching his children that if they deviate from the teachings of his church they will burn in hell for eternity.

  19. Alverant says

    So what would happen if he got stationed there for a few years and had to have his son enroll in the local school? Then what if his son made the football team? Would he support his son and go to the games or forbid his son from joining because of the “pagans” there?

  20. says

    Bmiller: “Religion is like a penis: it’s fine to have one, but don’t wave it around in public or brandish it under my nose and don’t shove it down my children’s throats.”

    I fail to see how getting up and sitting down with the rest of the audience is much of an imposition. He didn’t have to pray, bow, kiss anything, clap, sing, or give money.

  21. jeannieinpa says

    So in this story this is a guy who cannot just stand while others around him pray.

    Then there is me. I have no trouble politely waiting while others pray, while I think about the food on my plate getting cold.

    I do have trouble with holding hands around the table while others pray. It feels wrong. It feels like I am being phony. It feels like coercion too. I wish someone could someday tell me something so it would not feel so bad. I gotta hold hands to keep peace in the family.

  22. Alverant says

    #23 When did that happen? (Not doubting, just would like to know more.)

    Someone has to mention this, so it might as well be me. The school should NOT be doing pre-game prayers for any religion. While it is amusing to see a christian be on the receiving end for a change, the school should stop it. Why hasn’t someone complained yet?

  23. kermit. says

    While I am pleased that someone could learn a lesson about fairness from life, I am disappointed that so many believers need to experience something like this in order to see how it feels to be on the other side.

    I remember another, a woman who, in the 1980s, had been part of the “AIDS was God’s punishment for being Gay” crowd, until her own son was diagnosed. I also remember being glad at her newer, more tolerant attitude, but do we have to subject all of these folks to terrible luck or exotic environments before they learn to treat others decently? (And yes, I know that many of them are immune to learning such lessons.)

  24. eoraptor013 says

    I’d love to know exactly which school this was. I attended the University of Hawaii. I found it fascinating to be caucasian, and nominally, a christian in a society where I was the minority. In any event, since football is the way of life in Hawaii, I went to all the university home games, and several HS games. At no time did anyone offer up an invocation, or ask anyone to stand, except for the Anthem.

    Besides, Buddhists playing football? Isn’t there just something fundamentally wrong about that?

  25. dingojack says

    oranje (#16) = “The part that still hurts my brain is the cross between the tenets of Buddhism and the violence of football.”
    eoraptor013 (#27) – “Besides, Buddhists playing football? Isn’t there just something fundamentally wrong about that?”

    You have heard of Shaolin monks, right?

    :) Dingo

  26. eric says

    Raven:

    I’m baffled by how he thinks standing during a Buddhist prayer is going to, well, do something.

    As I said in @9, the relevant point is that he thinks sitting down is going to do something. And he was probably correct about that.

    Look, you don’t have to buy into a belief in some metaphysical punishment for idolatry to get the concept here, do you? Standing or sitting for a government-endorsed prayer should not be used as a litmus test for social acceptance. He shouldn’t have to stand for it if he doesn’t want to, even if standing for it is a trivial act. And we should support his right to not be subjected to such a litmus test by the government, even if its a very small litmus test.

    The proper response is pretty well captured by Eric Rothchild’s closing statement in Kitzmiller vs. Dover. Quoting one of Dover’s citizens:

    “What am I supposed to tolerate? A small encroachment on my First Amendment rights? Well, I’m not going to. I think this is clear what these people have done, and it outrages me.”

  27. Pieter B, FCD says

    @Dan J:

    Thanks for that link. I’ll add it to my bookmark for the original article. I’ve frequently linked to the original, and it amazes me that it’s still up on WND. It’s possibly the only thing there worth reading for other than comic effect.

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