Conversation, Courtesy And Cupcakes

Talking With Opponents Can Lead To Some Surprising Results

I was sitting in the window seat on my flight from Baltimore to Phoenix, where I was scheduled to take part in a debate on school vouchers and other matters at the Arizona School Boards Association Law Conference.

The flight was announced as “completely full,” so I knew that middle seat was going to have someone in it. It wasn’t long before a gentleman who looked to be in his 70s sat down. Almost immediately came the potentially ominous question: “Are you on your way to a television appearance?”

This means he knows who I am. As I often do under such circumstances, I inquired, “So, do you love me or hate me?” I received a unique reply: “Christian charity prevents me from answering that question.” It was clever, but it is still a five-hour flight.

We did begin chatting, and it turned out that he was a very conservative fellow who had a doctorate in the philosophy of religion and a keen interest in the dialogue between religion and science. Unlike other seatmates in the past who have viewed sitting next to me as a golden evangelistic opportunity, he was courteous, and when I said I needed to work he left me alone.

But we did occasionally spend some time talking. (As I said, it’s a five-hour flight.) At one point, when I mentioned the tendency of many on the Religious Right to think that the Bible provided all the answers to every policy issue, he indicated that was an improper use of scripture and that we must rely on “faith and reason” to reach good conclusions. That was a good answer.

Pressing my luck, I told a story about an appearance I had on Fox News Channel about the National Day of Prayer where the host suggested that prayer isn’t necessarily religious. My seatmate chuckled about that.

Then I said, “Call me a conservative, but I don’t pray to random deities; I don’t believe in generic appeals to the divine which is usually what ‘official’ prayers are.”

He replied that he had never thought about it that way and, after another work break as the coffee and peanuts were being distributed, he announced that I had convinced him that National Day of Prayer was a bad idea.

I’d love to say that by the end of the trip he had become an Americans United member, but things didn’t get that far. However, as I was walking out, he said, “Now I’m going to have to listen to you more carefully whenever you pop up on the screen.” I’ll take that.

The next day’s debate with longtime voucher proponent from Arizona, Clint Bolick, went pretty well, since Clint, who is a libertarian non-believer, didn’t disagree much when it came to religion in public schools (although I’m sure if every public school disappeared he wouldn’t weep over it).

We also did experience disagreement over whether teachers could discuss or display religious sentiments during school hours. (Clint was much more open to this than I am.) At one point, after Clint said he agreed with everything I had said about possibly unconstitutional “sweetheart deals” involving the rental of schools to churches, I chimed in, “So, since you agree about that, what’s your favorite football team?” That got a big laugh from the Arizona Cardinals crowd who could safely assume a Washington denizen was a Redskins fan.

Lots of the attendees came up to me after the event and were really impressed that there was a great deal of settled law, and that in the gray areas, reasonable people could actually work out many things – not all – in consultation instead of litigation.

The next day I went to Chattanooga, Tenn., (which, as a practical matter, is nearly impossible to do by air but can be accomplished by going to Nashville and driving for a few hours).

I had been invited by Pastor David Brown of Pilgrim Congregational Church to do a community forum on a number of religion-in-school controversies in the state. The turnout was quite good in spite of competition from televised NFL games and the CNN-Tea Party debate.

Chattanooga has had plenty of religious disputes lately. School districts have run into trouble for allowing cheerleaders to dash onto football fields by breaking through banners containing biblical quotations, for allowing Gideon Bible distributions and for using an “objective” Bible curriculum that included memorization of the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me.” Earlier this year, one house of the legislature passed a bill that would have allowed biology teachers to supplement evolution study with “intelligent design” and other dubious claims.

One of the last questions, before adjourning to a reception with fruit salad and red velvet cupcakes (what a mix!), was how to get school board members more familiar with the law and their responsibilities to protect all students’ rights. I mentioned that there are some formal training programs for this and that the model of reasoned debate like I had just experienced at the Arizona convention is one way to start.

I also thought to myself, maybe you could just make sure an AU member sits next to a school board official on every airplane flight.

Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.