Education historian Jonathan Zimmerman has a provocative piece on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News today proposing that people in general and liberals in particular should support the right of cheerleaders in Kountze, Texas, to display religious banners at public school football games.
Zimmerman, author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory, thinks liberals should see the Kountze controversy as a free speech issue. I guess I don't get why he thinks free speech is a liberal thing, but what if we were to look at the Kountze case still another way, as a theological issue?
And, if we did, then would we not have to agree with Zimmerman that people need to be able to talk it out? Please correct me if you feel that I err, but for me the religious banners held up by high school cheerleaders Kountze belong in the same theological department with remarks by Indiana Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock to the effect that God wills every single thing that happens including rape.
Three mutually contradictory qualities are essential to all of these versions of God. One is the belief that life itself and human experience are aspects of a clockwork universe in which every event, including the outcomes of high school football games and every rape in the world, is invented by God.
A second piece is the belief that we can get God to change his mind and switch to our team by holding up banners. By this doctrine, shouldn't we all carry banners saying, "Dear God, please don't rape me?"
The third -- for me the truly blasphemous one I must admit -- is the belief that we can get to know God as easily as we know people. God is just this dude, this guy, lives down the street, wrote a book, real easy to get to know, great guy, a sweetheart, maybe not the one you want to coach your kid's Pop Warner team but definitely somebody to have over for dinner.
Taken all together, these mutually contradictory beliefs form what theologian John Shelby Spong has so aptly described as a fundamental heresy central to the moral and religious decline of America. The first thing people do when they decide God is a guy, Spong explains, is decide that he probably forgives them for everything from illegal holding in football to rape.
Doesn't even want to hear about it. All God wants is for you not to feel bad about anything. He's a therapist. Just come on down, and don't forget to put some money in the plate.
This is my own version. I may not have it exactly right. Everything I know about theology, I learned as a reporter for The Ingham County News. That's why I had to leave.
But here's the deal. What if our issues in this country really are moral and theological? Then isn't Zimmerman right? We should all err on the side of free speech in order to get this worked out.
If the Kountze cheerleaders made their own banners and held them up of their own free will, then why should their speech be banned? In fact isn't the banning of religious speech just about the last thing we need at this moment?