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We Gotta Stand For Something... 

In light of recent national events, most schools are adopting a patriotic theme that can be seen on the marquees in front of the schools, not to mention posters, banners, artwork and writing. Some schools apparently have other ideas. A patriotic theme seems like a healthy response to the terrorist attack tragedy; after all, people, especially kids, have lots of emotions battling around inside them right now, and these excess emotions could easily lead to violence -- violence that could be manifested in brutality against people of Arabic descent or just general nastiness. In any case, it seems reasonable to head off this kind of violence by funneling energy into patriotism.

Patriotism is basically harmless, after all. Apparently it offends some people, but since none of them live here, that's OK. And heck, for all of us except our grandparents, The Greatest Generation, we've never really felt true patriotism before. This is like a new love affair for us: we're in the obsessive phase of the relationship, in which all we think about is how wonderful the other party is. Stay tuned next week when the jealousy phase sets in and we start rounding up Commies and Arabs (I'd like to think I'm joking here, but it could happen).

So anyway, at certain local schools, the children's patriotism got a bit out of hand, and they ended up writing smut like God Bless America in totally inappropriate places, such as banners. These are precisely the kinds of hooligans who don't belong in school, right?

Alert community members saw to it that filth such as God bless America banners didn't stay up on school walls for long. Although these same concerned community members didn't bother to scrape the word bitch off of any of the toilet paper dispensers located in all other schools. But it's OK. You've gotta pick your battles.

My initial reaction to this news story was P-tah! (I invoke the Egyptian god of artisans and metalworkers more often than the average 20-something, I know.) I really felt as though we had more things to worry about than whether a bunch of miscreants were going around writing God in front of perfectly legitimate sentence fragments. The nation was (and still is!) going through a sensitive time. I felt I had better things to worry about than banners. (And as many of you know I'm a separation of church and state nut, so that's saying a lot.)

My thinking was this: surely if some other group wanted to create a banner for display, it would have been allowed. They could have had God bless America joined by Allah bless America, Buddha bless America and There is no God, but bless America anyway. Just because kids who have those beliefs aren't into banner creation shouldn't keep the kids who want God to bless America from displaying their work.

That's what I thought. With much added reflection, however, I've come to believe that the school actually did the right thing in taking down the banner.

First of all, if the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC hadn't taken place, I would have been completely opposed to such a banner. As I mentioned, I'm strongly in favor of the separation of church and state. Particularly in schools, where there is an opportunity for authority figures to impress their religious beliefs upon malleable young people; this type of thing could be labeled evangelism, but when coming from a state-mandated activity such as education it could also be labeled propaganda and socialization.

So if I'm in favor of separation of church and state, I wondered, why am I more permissive about this particular banner? I guess patriotism has really blinded me, ironically, to the things that make this country a pretty swell place to live, as Beaver Cleaver would probably say.

Although the president and top religious leaders have gone out of their way to say that our retaliation against the terrorists is not motivated by the religious aspects of the attack, it's clear that religion is actually an important part of what's going on. The important thing, though, is to remember that it's not the Islamic faith we're reacting against, but rather the idea of state-mandated religion itself. In many countries in the world, you're not free to worship in whatever way that you want. Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims -- every religion is probably outlawed somewhere.

But in the United States, this isn't so. Certainly growing up in the rural South, it may have seemed that there is a state-mandated religion, but even those of us who are true backhills hicks eventually come to realize that what we mistook for state-mandated religion was actually momma-mandated religion. This may seem equally oppressive when you're 12 and you may eventually be disowned for becoming a Buddhist, but at least you can't be thrown in jail. (Although you may be prayed for incessantly, which is just as bad.)

So let's not get bogged down in some religious struggle that pits Christianity against Islam. I'm frustrated by the comments I continue to hear people making about Muslim beliefs and their practitioners. This is ridiculous. And it detracts from the true ideological struggle at hand, religious freedom versus mandatory religion.

Religious freedom is one of the things that makes the United States a good place to live. We're free to find our own ways to spirituality and religion, ways that are more meaningful and powerful than simply being told what we must believe. So what it comes down to is that, even considering our recent national tragedy, in fact, in light of the recent tragedy, that banner had to come down. It was the right thing to do. After all, you should feel free to have your kids produce a God Bless America banner and put it in your front yard. But let your kids know that you're choosing to do so. And let them know that thousands of Americans have given their lives for the freedom to choose in the past and more may be about to do so today.

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