When Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician and philosopher, wrote an influential essay titled, “Why I Am Not a Christian,” back in 1927, he actually had to do the hard work of focusing his many thoughts and writing a persuasive piece.
Russell didn’t take the easy way out, which would have been to quote, accurately and in context, some folks who keep arguing that religious belief -- a particular religious belief – is necessary to live a good life.
Such a method, of course, was not easily available to a man who lived before Google and copy-and-paste. And it also wouldn’t have been acceptable to a trained mind such as Russell’s because, as the American journalist and poet Don Marquis wrote, “An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.”
Thus are good Christians everywhere allowed to honestly make the argument that not everyone who claims to speak for religion – specifically or in general – is the icon by which it deserves to be judged. Which is fortunate for the faithful among us, because their numbers are rapidly declining as it is.
One reason why is personified by Alisa Ellis, vice chairwoman of the Utah Board of Education. The other day she joined all of her colleagues to vote $1.8 million for a pilot program of counseling and education that is intended to be one more tool in our struggling kit aimed at stemming the worrying tide of youth suicides among the state’s public school students.
But not without expressing a reservation that the whole project is likely to fail because there is not enough God in it.
“One of the root causes is that we have ejected God from the public square in a lot of instances,” Ellis said. “We’re not allowed to talk openly about our belief in a higher power sometimes.”
Cleverly, by inserting such weasel words as, “in a lot of instances,” and “sometimes,” Ellis avoided making a statement that was empirically false.
Not that there’s anything wrong with weasel words. I use them. Sometimes. A lot. They are even found in such important documents as the Declaration of Independence (”In many cases,”) the Constitution (”other high crimes and misdemeanors”) and the Bill of Rights (”unreasonable searches and seizures,” “cruel and unusual punishments”).
In no way has religious faith been banished from the public square. Not in Utah, where a particular religious faith holds great legal and economic power. Not anywhere in the United States, where government, religious and civil liberties groups put their heads together way back in 1995 to come up with a wholly reasonable Statement of Principles on the subject.
It protects the rights of individual students to believe as they will, even express that belief in school settings, but rightly forbids those schools and their employees, as agents of the state, from imposing or promoting a religious agenda of any kind.
People who sit on school boards, state or local, should commit that document to memory.
For a public official to publicly promote, in the course of her official duties, the idea that young people who have taken their own lives have done so because they had insufficient faith in a deity, her deity, is way out of bounds.
Worse, Ellis responded to a report about a series of teenage suicides in the Jordan School District by saying that it was not government that would solve this problem, but faith and family.
Yes, she went there.
“We have got to stop looking to the government for solutions and make sure that we are going to the family to find help,” she said, “because that’s where solutions can really be found.”
In the context of that discussion, it is hard to read Ellis’ argument as saying other than the fact that the precious and, obviously, troubled young people who thought they could not make it one more day on this vale of tears might still be with us if they had gotten the help they needed from, not the school, not the county, but their families.
Now that’s cruel and unusual. People are burying their 14- and 15- and 16-year old sons and daughters, the souls who were more important to those parents and grandparents and siblings than their own lives, the promise of the future. And a person who holds an position of trust for the state of Utah basically says it is because their families failed them.
God may forgive Ellis for that statement. But, if I were a parent who had just lost a beloved child to suicide, I never would.
George Pyle, The Tribune’s editorial page editor, clings to the holy words, “Klatuu barada nikto.” firstname.lastname@example.org