I was reading this piece over the weekend on home schooling and the author struck me with her use of identifications:
From its inception, the movement included both religious homeschoolers who sought to remove secular influences from their children’s lives, and secular homeschoolers whose motivations were based on beliefs about child development. After the Supreme Court ended state-sponsored prayer in schools in the early 1960s, Calvinist theologian R.J. Rushdoony began to urge parents to consider homeschooling as a means of protecting their children from the secular school environment. Ray Moore, a Seventh-day Adventist who had worked in higher education, began to promote homeschooling for a combination of religious and developmental reasons. Moore argued that homeschooling cultivated children’s natural curiosity and allowed them to learn at an individual pace, an argument that appealed to parents across religious lines. Education theorist John Holt echoed the developmental case for homeschooling in his magazine Growing Without Schooling, founded in 1977. Holt believed that the concept of school was inherently flawed: it created an artificial environment that isolated children from natural learning experiences.
The author’s point about homeschooling may or may not have merit, but why would she not identify Rushdoony as an Armenian-American, an Orthodox Presbyterian, or a Californian? Why Calvinist? And why is John Holt only an “education theorist”? Which extends to the questions of why journalists labeled the Charlie Hebdo killers Muslim or why President Obama refuses to. Why not call them Arab-French? In other words, how do you decide what someone is? What is their primary identity? If you choose to identify someone by an adjective that your readers find odd or unappealing, haven’t you signaled to readers that they need to beware?
These questions are a further reminder that everyone carries around multiple identities. A reporter or scholar may mention one of the markers that identify someone, but it is only a part of who the person is (and perhaps a caricature). The Christian Right has not helped on this. Thanks to neo-Calvinism’s logic of every square inch, the notion that I am anything less than 100% Christian is a betrayal of Christ’s lordship. But if a reporter talks to me about Muslims in America, does it make more sense to identify me as a scholar of religion in the United States than as an elder in the OPC? And when I go to the ballot box, do I go as a Calvinist, a Phillies fan, or an American citizen? Last I checked, Calvinists in Scotland and the Netherlands can’t vote here in Michigan. Is the reason because the U.S. denies Christ’s lordship or immigration officials are wary of Calvinism? Or is it that temporal criteria like residency and citizenship trump belief and church membership? Think “duh.”
A related question is how does a scholar or journalist judge whether a subject qualifies as Calvinist, Roman Catholic, or Muslim? Who gets to determine religious identity? Is it the subject’s own judgment, as in President Obama’s account of his conversion?
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called “The Audacity of Hope.” And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn’t fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn’t magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn’t suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God’s spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
Or do church, parish, Vatican, or imams decide whether the labels that persons self-apply are valid? David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network said of Obama’s account, “That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience.” I’m not sure Jonathan Edwards would agree. And as clerk of session, I am definitely not going to trust the judgments of a broadcasting network executive about genuine faith. Heck, I wonder if networks can be Christian (remember, no corporate salvation).
And what if churches inflate their numbers? Terry Mattingly, who quoted the president’s conversion account, indicates that Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago did not record President Obama’s membership. (Are the birthers asking for Obama’s certificate of good standing?) I suspect that many churches don’t scrutinize potential members very carefully and don’t keep accurate records of members.
What is the solution? We need a government agency to keep track of religious identity and to issue religious passports. Someone wants to know if I’m a Christian, I flash my government authorized paperwork. It works for voting, health care, banking. Why not church or mosque or synagogue life?