Saturday, December 15, 2012

Religion in Schools Wouldn't Prevent Mass Shootings

Yesterday, Fox News commentator, Rev. Mike Huckabee channeled his inner jackass on national television, blaming yesterday's mass shooting of kindergarden students in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, on the removal of God from the classroom.  Among other things, Huckabee used the tragedy to assert that, "We've made it a place where we don't want to talk about eternity, life, what responsibility means, accountability -- that we're not just going to have be accountable to the police if they catch us, but one day we stand before, you know, a holy God in judgment. If we don't believe that, then we don't fear that."

You can see him spew his nonsense here:

Huckabee is hampered in his understanding of this tragedy by his own biases, but also from his selective understanding of the history of violence in the United States, both in and out of schools.  He is correct that we have seen more mass shootings since U.S. Supreme Court rulings banned prayer in the classroom starting in 1962 (Engel v Vitale) & 1963 (Abington School District v Schempp), which was followed in 1971 by establishing a test for determining unacceptable endorsements of religion (Lemon v Kurtzman).  According to this Mother Jones article, 61 mass shootings have occurred in the United States during the last 30 years, an average of around two per year, with 24 mass shootings just since 2006.  In just 2012 there have been six mass shootings with more than 110 casualties. At least twelve of the shootings after 1991 have occurred at schools. The thirty-year period covered by Mother Jones leaves out some important events: Edward Charles Alloway's July 1976 rampage at CSU-Fullerton, and Charles Whitman's deadly massacre at the University of Texas in 1966.

The United States also witnessed an increase in violent crime generally after 1960, peaking around 1980, but dropping precipitously after that. According to Duke sociologist Kieran Healy, American violent crime rates per capita are nearing the 1960 levels, or those before the ban on prayer in public schools.  Healy's research shows that the United States is a violent place, far exceeding other advanced economies in that regard.  Despite the general decline in overall violent crime, we're experiencing more of these horrific mass shootings, though.  Clearly something is going on. 

I don't think lack of prayer in schools is the issue.  I'm in my early 40s, and was educated in public schools in which there was no prayer. Indeed, mine was the first generation of Americans to go to school entirely in an era in which the schools did not impinge directly on our religious beliefs.  That doesn't mean we didn't study religion, but that we weren't preached at. I, and my classmates, didn't need a daily dose of religion to keep us from massacring people. As an Air Force dependent, I went to schools in the South, Midwest, Mountain West, Hawaii and Germany, so I've been exposed to a good cross-section of the schools in this country.  We went to church every Sunday, and my sister and I attended weekly CCD classes while in school.  None of us needed religious instruction to keep us from murdering people.

The problem I see with Huckabee and others (including one of my cousins) making this particular argument is that not only do they have a sentimental and inaccurate notion of the past, especially the 1950s, but that they completely discount the value of non-Christian, or non-religious, moral codes.  Let's look at some of the practices that the folks educated in a more religious public school environment thought were perfectly acceptable:

  • Violent protests against the integration of Little Rock's Central High School.  Not only did some white students attempt to intimidate the African American students that joined them in class using physical and verbal abuse, but adult African Americans were attacked in the streets

  • Violent behavior related to integration was not limited to the South.  Many Americans have forgotten the violent protests against school integration in South Boston, but that doesn't mean that adults and students there welcome African American students.  Southie residents protesting desegregation through forced busing took their frustrations out on African Americans, and sometimes included white mothers screaming epithets and throwing rocks at buses. In an extreme example, teenagers attacked civil rights activist Ted Landsmark using an American flag as a lance.

  • The United States has a rather depressing history of violence by the products of schools with a significant religious component against minorities. This lynching occurred in Marion, Indian in 1930.  The two men were accused of raping a white teen, but never stood trial.

  • Native Americans were similarly victimized by people with the supposed benefits of schooling that relied on religious books and primers.  Perhaps we've forgotten little incidents like President Andrew Jackson's forcible removal of the Cherokee and Choctaw from much of Georgia in order to allow mining of their lands, despite a Supreme Court order to stop?  Trail of Tears, anyone?  U.S. troops didn't even allow may of the families time to pack cooking utensils

  • Wounded Knee was also the product of people with the so-called benefits of an education founded firmly in the dominant Protestant Christian religious tradition.  The troopers of the 7th Cavalry reacted to a scuffle over a single rifle by massacring 150 men, women, and children, wounding another 51 (including 47 women and children).  The United States awarded twenty of the troopers involved the Medal of Honor.

  • It wasn't just uppity minorities and Native Americans that felt the brunt of the rage of the products of a religiously-informed education.  Workers suffered and died due to the indifference of businessmen who received this same type of education.  I'm sure we all remember the March 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, in which the women working in the factory couldn't escape the fire because the doors were locked.  One hundred forty-six people died because managers were more concerned about the slim potential of theft or unauthorized breaks than safety.

My point with this is not to say that religion or Christianity are inherently bad, but to remind people that the use of prayer, the Bible, or religious tracts as a form of moral instruction are not a panacea to reduce horrors.  Huckabee wants us to believe that if only we forced his version of Christianity on our schools that everything will be just fine.  All of the violence, crime, and other disturbing aspects of modern life will just go away. We just have to trample to rights and beliefs of other people to get there.  I'm certain that he wouldn't accept a Catholic-oriented religious education in our public schools any more than he would a Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, or Zoroastrian base for moral instruction.  Can you imagine the good Reverend accepting a Confucian or Shinto orientation in our schools?  None of those faiths and philosophies teach people to be mass murderers, and they all promote humility, charity, obedience, etc...  So what would the problem be?

There are clearly serious social and legal issues at play in the mass shootings that afflict America.  What the solution is will not be nearly so simple as reintroducing school prayer.  We had horrific violence in this country long before 1963.  I have a nasty feeling it will be with us long into the future.  We just need to figure out rational and positive ways to minimize the violence.

Update: Slate has an important reminder about the worst school killing in U.S. History, which occurred May 18, 1927.  That's long before the ban on prayer in classrooms. School board member Andrew Kehoe was upset about a local property tax, so he dynamited the school killing 45 people, including 38 kids. In a community of just 300 people. Yep.  That prayer in school sure did prevent senseless mayhem.

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