Or, Notes from a modern theocracy
Continuing the periodic series on Holiday Envy, November 11 is St. Martin’s Day. Martin was a fourth-century convert to Christianity who is best known for splitting his own coat in two and giving half to a beggar who had none. In Germany, St. Martin’s is a children’s holiday celebrated in the evening by kindergartens and elementary schools. The pattern for celebrating St. Martin’s Day seems to be: Tell the story of St. Martin and sing Martin’s Day songs, hang paper lanterns on sticks, light the candles inside, and then (after a quick pater noster and benediction) let a couple hundred kids march down the street and back with their candle lanterns while their parents eat braided yeast rolls and drink spiced wine back at school. A good time was had by all. It also looked like a good Family Home Evening activity, except for the spiced wine part. No one takes the exact date too seriously here; I saw lanterns yesterday evening, but some schools won’t get around to it until next week, so you don’t have to feel inauthentic if you wait until Monday.
On the way home tonight, we tried to count the ways that the school’s St. Martin’s celebration could never work in the United States: Selling wine at an elementary school. Entrusting 6-10 year old children with paper candle lanterns. Celebrating a saint’s feast day. The pater noster. The benediction. (In addition, crosses hang at the front of every classroom, and there is regular cooperation with the nearby Lutheran congregation.) In the United States, the first amendment lawyers would eat these people for lunch, and the liability lawyers would strip the bones. And that is as it should be.
On the separation of church and state in school, I am an absolutist. The idea of school prayer has appalled me ever since I heard about it in the third grade. Call me childish, but I am still viscerally opposed to beginning each day with a teacher-directed prayer or even a moment of silence.
If I enjoy St. Martin’s Day, should I change my mind about school prayer? Maybe so. As a guest in a foreign country, I’m more willing to accept local conditions on their own terms; maybe I should open my mind to an expanded religious sphere in American schools, too. As much as Americans like to treat Europe as the epitome of post-Christian godlessness, the truth is not so simple. For all its problems, the church as institution plays a greater role in European society than in the United States, and it is far more present in public discourse. If a little theocracy works well in Bavaria, couldn’t it work in Michigan, too?
Ultimately, I don’t think it could, and I don’t think it should. The relationship between church and state is different in the US because the American state is different. We draw different boundaries between those things that should be determined by social norms, and what should be controlled by legal liability. Maybe the lanterns and the pater noster are connected: if you’ve known the other kids in your child’s class since they started Kindergarten together at three, you have a better sense of who can be trusted with a flame-lit lantern, and who can’t (and which of their parents really should stop after the second cup of spiced wine); perhaps that gives you more tolerance to listen to a benediction from your neighbor’s clergyman without complaint than you would have in a crowd of strangers.
The relationship of church and state in the US is also different because the American church is different. The identification of region and religion has not existed in the US outside of Deseret for a long time, and even there it is laden with anxiety. Our religious geography is too new, and too diverse, and too contentious. If I’m trying to convert my neighbor from his misguided ways, and he thinks I’m going to hell for mine, any expression of religion in the public sphere becomes charged with tension (and thus a bad occasion for a cup or two of spiced wine).
Finally, Viva la difference! The United States should not adopt European-style religion, and Bavaria should not strip the crosses from its schools. Each system exists for a reason, and they work well in their particular contexts. But I would guess that my sons’ school-wide St. Martin’s celebration is not so very different from what my parents experienced in rural southern Idaho fifty years ago. Sometimes it’s nice to pay a visit.