Is intolerance causing kids to lose faith?

Published 10:11 am Friday, June 29, 2012

Column: Jeremy Corey-Gruenes, Paths to Peace

I emailed Bill O’Reilly recently. It’s the first time I’ve reached out to him. I don’t regularly watch his show, “The O’Reilly Factor,” but as I flipped through channels last week, I caught him and his two guests discussing the recent Pew Survey indicating that doubt in God’s existence is on the rise among young Americans.

Jeremy Corey-Gruenes

I find O’Reilly to be one of the more arrogant and narcissistic commentators on television, but there’s something about him I find irresistible — and it might just be his incredible arrogance and narcissism. It’s intoxicatingly unbelievable.

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At one point, O’Reilly — a proud Catholic — was lamenting a decline in weekly church attendance and a general movement away from religion. He claimed, “secularism has taken hold among young Americans” and “the public schools have a lot to do with this.”

Public schools? This was news to me, and I’ve been teaching in public schools for the past 14 years.

O’Reilly went on to add that educators have “wiped out spirituality” from “all of the curriculums” and that educators freak out at the very thought of religious discussion in their schools.

In my message to Mr. O’Reilly, I explained that this just hasn’t been true in my experience. Public high schools offer world religions courses, and it’s impossible to teach history or literature without exploring the religious belief systems of the people whose histories and works of art you’re studying. Student prayer groups even meet in our schools.

In my literature and writing classes, students are free to discuss their religious beliefs and reflect on them in their writing. Often students do this wonderfully and manage to make interesting connections between their faith and our course materials while also meeting the assignment’s objectives.

What public school teachers cannot do is proselytize and push their own faith or lack of faith onto students, nor can a school give religious instruction in the way a church or parochial school would prepare young people within their traditions.

Perhaps Bill O’Reilly simply doesn’t know much about what goes on in American public schools, which is understandable, I guess, considering he attended private schools. The danger in his ignorance, however, is that he has a highly rated television show from which to spread it, contributing to a false perception of reality and a false sense of impending danger.

But I hope that people — especially young people — eventually question statements like O’Reilly’s when comparing them with their own experiences. This is why I’m optimistic that in November voters will reject Minnesota’s proposed constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Like Bill O’Reilly, prominent voices pushing for the amendment tend to create a false sense of reality and impending danger in their propaganda. For example, a primary argument from those opposing same-sex marriage make is that “research shows” the best environment to raise children in is a stable marriage with biological parents of the opposite sex, implying that raising children in any other family structure is somehow inadequate or even harmful.

If we were to take the time to actually examine the scientific merits of this research and consider the larger picture of reality, we might draw different, more sophisticated conclusions. I don’t have space in this column to delve into the research, but here’s an itemized description of the larger reality I compare such findings to:

1. There is no expectation or requirement in a civil-marriage license for couples to one day reproduce or raise children.

2. If same-sex couples do choose to raise children, they can provide healthy, stable homes for these kids, just as opposite-sex couples who choose to adopt can, just as couples who remarry and raise children from previous marriages can, just as single mothers and single fathers can. In a perfect world all biological parents would be fit parents, but that’s just not our reality. In reality we have many kids in need of loving parents and stable homes, and those parents and homes do not have to come from a single mold.

3. Same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue — absolutely. To deny same-sex couples the right to marry, a right which our government has bestowed upon heterosexual couples, is a denial of civil rights, just as denying marriage rights to interracial couples was years ago.

4. Minnesota’s same-sex marriage amendment is primarily a civil issue, not a religious issue. Because of the separation of church and state, churches will never have to condone same-sex marriage. This issue is whether our government — not our churches — should recognize the validity of these committed relationships.

Ironically, the active political stances some churches are taking against same-sex marriage might actually be pushing some young people away from religion. It’s not difficult to imagine a bright young person struggling to reconcile the reality of a healthy, loving same-sex couple he or she may know with a church’s intolerant stance on same-sex marriage.

In my fantasy world this is a related topic Bill O’Reilly and I might explore together in a series of passionate, yet respectful email messages, but in my reality I’m still waiting for his first response.


Jeremy Corey-Gruenes teaches at Albert Lea High School. He lives in Albert Lea with his wife and two young daughters.