Sweet Home Ashland, Alabama (concluded)

Ashland, Alabama, where the spouse’s grandmother lived, felt like the South for many reasons. One was its number of churches. There were a lot, but I am used to that. Wherever I am in Brooklyn, I am almost always within three or four blocks of a church, but in Ashland, as far as I could tell, they were all Protestant ones, and probably more than half were some sort of Baptist or Methodist. I don’t remember seeing a Catholic church, and the nearest synagogue was a county or two away. Mom’s house was literally surrounded by churches. Out her front door and across the street was her Southern Baptist church. (Mom was clearly pleased that I, although not a Southern Baptist, was raised in the Baptist tradition. (See post of June 22, 2020.)) Out her side door and across the street was the Methodist Church.

One Sunday when we were visiting Ashland, that Methodist Church was welcoming its new pastor. The spouse and I were out and about that afternoon and cutting through the Methodist parking lot on our way to somewhere when we realized we had been spotted by the new minister and his wife. The couple looked like a caricature out of certain kind of movie. Neither seemed old enough to drive. Both were thin, and I expected to see acne on him as he approached with what appeared to be a brave smile. His white shirt might have had some cotton in it, but it was too big and gapped at the neck. His suit was also too big and looked as if it had been bought two days before from the southern equivalent of whatever was two steps down from Robert Hall. And if the tie was not a clip-on, it sure fooled me. The wife was tiny and retiring, but also had a brave smile fixed in place. They looked like a newlywed couple dedicated to the new path on which they had embarked. As he approached, he started to introduce himself, but we interrupted saying with big smiles, “We are from out of town. You don’t need to spend time with us.” It was as if a wave passed over them both, and in an instant they looked more relaxed but also incredibly tired. They thanked us and told us that he had performed his first service as the new pastor and had been meeting people all day. After a few moments of pleasantries, we parted. I had wanted to tell them, “You look like you need a drink.” But this was neither the right town nor the right couple for such a suggestion.

Perhaps we would have chatted with the new couple in town longer if their church had been Mom’s church, but on Sundays Mom headed out her front door. I only remember one time that the spouse and I went with her to the Baptist church across the street. The spouse’s sister and her husband were also in Ashland at the time. The brother-in-law is Jewish, although not religious, but he looked quite nervous as we all got ready for the morning service. I told him to relax, no one was going to know about his religious heritage, explaining that probably they all thought Jews had horns, and they would not see them on his head. I added, however, that perhaps his quite luxurious head of hair was hiding them and perhaps I ought to give him a trim first. He did not see the humor in my tremendously clever wit.

I remember little of that service, not the sermon or the Bible readings, but I do remember the hymns, or really the introduction to them. As we got to the point where we were to rise and rejoice in song, the minister announced that the usual choir director was away and was being replaced by “Shotgun Miller.” I was only half paying attention and was not sure that I had heard it correctly, but “Shotgun” just seemed to hang in the air. What looked like a solid Ashland citizen stood up and led us in song. At the second hymn, the minister merely said, “Shotgun,” and I could not help smiling. At the third hymn, when he said, “Shotgun,” I had to restrain myself from chuckling out loud, and I thought to myself, “Are they just messing with this northern boy, bringing out the clichés, and giving a good show?” But I knew they weren’t.

I shouldn’t mock Mom’s church, however. She was a wonderful person—warm, caring, amusing, charming, tolerant, accepting. She seemed at peace, and part of the reason for that was her religion. When I think on some of the bad aspects of religion, I think of the spouse’s grandmother and what her religion and her church gave to her. From her, I know that for some people religion is meaningful and life-supporting.

I don’t want to seem as if I am mocking Ashland, the South, or small-town life in general. Mom lived until she was 97, and at least in the last twenty years of that time, she resided about half the year with the spouse’s mother in Florida and the rest of the time by herself in Ashland until her final illness, which was short. She could live by herself in her house because she was not really alone. Every day people from the town would look in on her, make sure that she was all right, and ask if she needed some lemons from the grocery or aspirin from the pharmacy. Many people cared about her enough to make efforts on her behalf in ways that I do not expect will happen for me in Brooklyn. She could remain where she wanted to be in a place that held memories.

The visits to Ashland, however, did not make me want to give up my big city life. On the first day of our first visit to Ashland, the spouse and I were heading off to the town square. Without thinking Mom said, “Now y’all be careful. It’s Saturday. It’s market day. There’s a lot of traffic.” And then she stopped and smiled and said, “But you live in New York,” and laughed at herself.

After seeing the courthouse, we wandered around the square and went into a few shops. In each and every one, an owner or clerk said, “You aren’t from around here. Who are you visiting?” We would answer and explain our relationship to Ms. Herren. They would ask where we were from. Each one of them would comment on how far away, how big, and how foreign New York seemed, but how much they liked seeing it on the Today show. And when we were leaving, all of them said, “You all have a blessed day” or “You give Ms. Herren my best.” By the fourth or fifth exit, I started muttering expletives when I got to the sidewalk. Their sweetness, their niceness was getting under my skin. I knew I was a Big City boy. I was longing for some of New York City’s curt anonymity.

Conscience of a Baptist (continued)

          American Baptists were not alone in accepting the Supreme Court ruling about school prayers. Southern Baptists agreed. The Southern Baptists came into being in the1840s when they segregated themselves from other Baptists. It should come as no great surprise that race was the dividing factor. The specific issue, as I understand it, was whether slave holders could be missionaries.

But even with the split, Southern Baptists maintained the same doctrinal positions as other Baptists. They maintained that the Bible only authorized two sacraments—adult baptism by immersion and the Lord’s Supper. They also were without a hierarchy. There was a Southern Baptist Convention to which churches sent “messengers,” but the pronouncements of the SBC did not bind anyone; they were just recommendations or urgings or food for thought. As with American Baptists, the church was congregation-based with the congregants selecting a minister. And Southern Baptists also believed in the strict separation of church and state. Shortly after the Supreme Court held that public school prayers were unconstitutional, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, praising the decision, said that it was “one of the most powerful blows in our lifetime, maybe since the Constitution was adopted, for the freedom of religion in our lifetime.”

          Soon thereafter, however, Southern Baptists started changing their positions. In 1982, the SBC supported a constitutional amendment that would have allowed individual or group prayer in public schools as long as the government did not require participation in the prayer. (This was a curious proposal. Individual prayer was never outlawed, and of course, a silent prayer could not be. Surely, I am not the only one who reached out to the Almighty before a calculus exam. A spoken prayer might run into troubles with school authorities, not because it was a prayer, but because any vocalization in a classroom might be disruptive to school order. Part of the power of prayer, it seems to me, is that at least silent ones can be said anywhere, including in ,government facilities.)

When I was young American Baptists opposed government aid to parochial schools on the grounds that it forced people, through taxes, to support religious practices, and no one should be forced to support religion. Southern Baptists also opposed government aid to religious schools. Thus, in 1971, when a voucher system was proposed to allow public money to go to parochial schools, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that said, “We reaffirm our belief that the use of public funds for education in church-controlled schools, regardless of the manner in which these funds are channeled to church schools, is contrary to the principle of religious liberty.” The Convention went on to “reaffirm its commitment to our system of public education.”

          But times change, and, apparently, so do religious principles. That adamant opposition to state support for parochial schools has shifted. The Convention passed a resolution in 2014 entitled “On the Importance of Christ-Centered Education.” The SBC now encourages lawmakers to enact policies and laws that maximize “parental choice.” It goes on to say, “We affirm and encourage support for existing Christ-centered K-12 schools as they engage in Kingdom work.”

          What, you might ask, accounts for this change? Although religiously tolerant, Baptists were quite opposed to Roman Catholics, who were not seen as real followers of Christ. (A Sunday School teacher of mine once announced that the United States had three major religions: Christians, Jews, and Catholics.) A generation or two ago, the term “parochial schools” was often seen as a coded term for “Catholic schools,” even though other denominations also had religious schools. (My father and a nephew went to Lutheran schools.) The adamant opposition for aid to parochial schools that then existed could have sprung from opposition to Catholicism, but, in fact, the position was consistent with long-held Baptist views that go back to Roger Williams.

          So, why the changes? A generation or two ago, Baptists had few K-12 schools. (A fair number of colleges and universities have Baptist roots, including, for example, Wake Forest and the University of Chicago.) However, then came the school desegregation movement. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in 1954, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that meaningful desegregation got underway. And, surprise, surprise, Christian Academies started springing up in places–coincidentally, I am sure—where opposition to desegregation was strong. Non-Catholic Christian Schools doubled their enrollment between 1961 and 1971. And while there were few Baptist K-12 schools before Brown v. Board of Education, they became more numerous just at the time when public schools were being desegregated.

          Many of the Christian Academies were originally unabashedly segregated. We tend to forget all the preaching that said the separation of the races was commanded by the Bible, and Brown did not apply to private schools These schools, however, could get back-door government help in the tax code. In the 1960s, donations to the schools were tax-exempt, but that changed through a series of Supreme Court decisions into the 1970s that declared racially discriminatory private schools ineligible for the tax break.

          After these legal decisions, most, if not all, of the schools no longer claimed to be all-white, but not many became truly integrated. The schools increasingly said they existed to fight secular humanism and to oppose liberalism. That message and the costs of the schools attracted few non-whites. The schools no longer touted segregation, but that remained the implicit draw of many of them.

          Funding of a Christian Academy education, however, is difficult for many who desire it no matter what their reasons. Therefore, many of those seeking a religious education today support school vouchers. These vouchers are public moneys given to the parents for the education of their schoolchildren. Thus, parents, not the state, decide which school will get the government money. Conservative economists promoted the vouchers in the 1950s as a way to improve education. The claim was that allowing free market principles, under the slogan “school choice,” would work wonders for educational quality, but the vouchers raise questions about the separation of church and state.

          Because the voucher can be used at any private school including parochial ones, public money is used for religious purposes. The Supreme Court had earlier made it clear that governments could not directly aid religious schools, but vouchers, by giving parents control over the state money, is an indirect aid to religious schools. In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court in 2002 held that a school voucher did not violate the federal Constitution.

          In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention, espousing its traditional religious view, took a strong stand against vouchers as an improper state aid of religion. The Supreme Court, of course, cannot change the religious principles of Baptists, but since that strong stand against vouchers, many Baptist schools have been created, and, for whatever the reason, that adamant opposition by Southern Baptists has disappeared. Apparently, theological opposition to public moneys for religious schools wavers when those schools might be Baptist institutions.

(concluded July 1)