The essays with a religious bent began in the North during
this academic year. Two community college students whom I worked with were
slavish in their constant references to God in their writing. One student
insisted on using Biblical references for papers that she completed for an
upper-level English course, while another student rationalized every bad event
that had happened in his life with a religious interpretation.
Over the past several years, I have moved further and
further away from any religious affiliation. As religious fundamentalism grew
in the U.S., I was drawn to a completely secular belief and value system. After
reading Bertrand Russell�s �Why I Am Not A Christian,� (While Russell wrote his
essay with Christianity in mind, it applies equally to all religions.) I came
to view the residual effects that religion had in my life through the
perspective of what Russell identifies as superstition. I was left with no
firmer belief in some all-knowing deity than I was with the tooth fairy. That�s
not to say that there isn�t anything that can be gained from religion. I look
to one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, Jr., and I can see how his sense of a
religious interpretation of justice can be both a solace and a driving force
for action. Still, the effects of religious dogma and extremism have left a
trail of dead bodies from Iraq and Afghanistan to the Palestine Territories and
back to the World Trade Center. I want nothing to do with such blind extremism!
When I returned to the South in the New Year, I knew that
the expressions of religious fervor would dwarf anything I had experienced in
the North. Again, I began editing students� writing in a community college
setting. The expressions of religious sentiments came fast and furious as
students began coming into the learning lab where I work seeking to help with
their writing. Remaining neutral in the face of points of view that a person
vehemently and diametrically rejected was no easy task. I corrected grammar and
syntax and content without trodding onto the hallowed fields of the religious
expression of students.
It seems that at the community college where I work in
Florida a great many students who write from a religious perspective do so
because their lives have been tested by extreme deprivation. This is especially
so for some of the students who have emigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. I cannot
imagine the economic and political environment from which they come, but see
the expression of religious fundamentalism in essay after essay that they bring
to me for editing. On a given day I see numerous examples of the latter in
students� work. One student, a native of the U.S., was writing a paper that
interpreted Biblical psalms, asked me during our work together what my
religious affiliation was. Again, her paper reflected a fundamentalist view of
the Biblical literature with which she was dealing, and when I responded that I
was a Jew, she said, �My husband is Palestinian and he hates Jews!� I didn�t
bother to respond that I was a secular Jew, if indeed she could understand that
concept, or that I have long favored the establishment of a Palestinian state.
In Florida, it is not only students who feel free to flaunt
their religion. One of my supervisors sometimes wears a scarf that reads: �I
Love Jesus.� In a classroom building adjacent to where I work there is an
entire bulletin board given to the use of a campus group called Faith Walkers
for Christ. Slogans on the board read: �Encounter Faith: Explore Answers to
Life�s Questions,� and �Surrender Our Lives to His Honor.� There are also
advertisements on the board for a nearby fundamentalist church and a student
pastor available to advise students.
I�m not surprised by any of this since, after all, I am
working in the Bible Belt. What did surprise me, however, was a fellow worker I
ran into while taking a break in the lunchroom at this college. She had
completed copying a huge pile of packets for the supervisor whom I mentioned
above. The cover of each packet was topped with a picture of the supervisor�s
church in a nearby community.
In the single positive note at semester�s end, a professor
rejected a student�s essay on marriage that railed against gays. He simply
returned the essay with the note that �this is the Bible, not writing.� In a
sea of intolerance at least one open mind exists.
However, the worst example of religious intolerance came
unexpectedly from an acquaintance. I asked her opinion about the establishment
of a Palestinian state. Her response, in the form of a tirade, seemed endless. �You�re
not one of those people?� she asked angrily, probably meaning that she viewed
me as a liberal Jew, making my point of view toward Israel and the Palestinian
Territories immediately suspect. She continued, �And how about the rockets
fired from the Gaza Strip?� The latter being a standard response for any
challenge to Israel�s occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and the
recent war in Gaza.
For those of a liberal bent, don�t wager on the fact that
the religious right has been defeated in the November elections. And don�t
think that the wall between church and state will be rebuilt anytime soon.
Those on the religious right are just biding their time.
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He can be
reached at email@example.com.