Tuesday’s Humanities Colloquium was presented by Postdoctoral Fellow in Religion Jenna Reinbold. In limited time, Reinbold introduced the broad topic of “teaching religion in the time of the culture wars;” structured it into separate components (context, compassion and complexity); and provided a comprehensive summary of how the United States of America developed into such a religion-sensitive community.
According to Reinbold, over the past century, the interpretation and application of America’s “legal language” has challenged the justification of formerly ordinary occurrences such as saluting the flag, opening prayers and religious monuments in public areas. It was impossible, Reinbold contended, for the founding fathers to have foreseen the issue of public and private spheres influencing each other.
“People regularly read the Constitution in ways that make it applicable [to the 21st century] that were not on the minds of the founding fathers,” Reinbold said.
Using examples of several contradicting court cases concerning the aforementioned legal issues, Reinbold, in so many words, proved that interpreting the Constitution won’t always produce consistent judgements.
Reinbold began by informing her audience that, the ongoing issue of separation of church and state is actually a relatively recent concern.
According to Reinbold, the first and foremost component of defining religion from law is context. Although the Bill of Rights was passed in 1789, Reinbold claimed that it wasn’t necessary for the Supreme Court to examine it until just prior to 1940, during Reynolds v. the United States, a polygamy case, which is also the first instance of the court re-interpreting the constitution. Although it seemed constitutional to allow Reynolds to continue practicing polygamy as “free exercise,” which was his “religious duty as a Mormon,” the court ruled against his practice as an attempt to maintain a general orderliness of society. If the court allowed a religion to practice polygamy, then an array of religions with extraordinary practices could potentially develop.
Reinbold then presented an interesting pair of cases that were three years apart, Minersville School District v. Gobitis and W. Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. They both dealt with the question of whether children should be forced to salute the flag. In the first case decided in 1940, Minersville School District v. Gobitis, the Court found that they should be forced to salute. This is an instance in which the historical context influenced interpretation of the constitution. Reinbold explained that there was a priority placed on social cohesion and a huge emphasis on patriotism, as the nation was on the brink of World War II.
Three years later, however, the same issue was raised in Gobitis and W. Virginia BOE vs. Barnette, yet this time the Court claimed that it was their duty to protect minorities.
Reinbold proceeded to explain legal secularism, which came into the vernacular in the 1960s. In addition to the Bill of Rights, new documentation evolved, in the form of the Lemon Test, which was meant to create an easy boundary between church and state. The Lemon Test has not been referred to for some time because it has been seen as too draconian. If the Lemon Test were adhered to, citizens would not be allowed to publicly display religious house decorations, display the Ten Commandments in front of our courthouses or see “In God We Trust” written on our currency.
At this point, Reinbold introduced “acknowledging versus endorsing.” The government decided that it can acknowledge religious practices, but it cannot endorse them in any way.
Reinbold concluded her “context” section with analysis of the period from the late 1990s to the present times. The focus during this era, according to Reinbold, became giving equal opportunities to both religious and secular organizations. For example, if scholarship money is given to a student, that fund should be equally acceptable for a private or public school.
Reinbold then quickly transitioned to the “compassion” component of her lecture, explaining how she teaches religion in the time of culture wars, hence the theme of her lecture. Reinbold explained that students need to be able to embrace all manner of religious theory and custom, and everyone needs to appreciate different opinions of abortion, evolution or intelligent design. Contradictions exist, within life, court cases and the classroom. However, we accept these contradictions and should be empathetic towards the people who are passionate about certain ideas.
“Teachers in religion classes are forced to presume that different types of religions don’t resonate with most students,” Reinbold said. “Language of law does not encourage this type of compassionate engagement.”
The idea of asserting the benefits of open-mindedness at a liberal arts institution such as Colgate brought Reinbold to the last component of her talk: complexity.
Despite Reinbold’s brevity on the complexity component, her argument was clear. In liberal arts institutions, it is easy to sway the opinions of students who had previously committed themselves to prior beliefs. It is easy for a student to drop traditions and beliefs that they grew up with and their family cherished in order to “think outside the box” and to be more empathetic to other religions. However, if too many people fall into this category, a paradox emerges: as communities become more homogeneous, there will be fewer cultures, religions and customs for humans to be empathetic towards.
“The reality of a good humanities education is that the world becomes more complex,” Reinbold said.