Surprising Leaders

World Religion SymbolsThe December 28th edition of the New York Times carried a fascinating article about how the manner in which President Obama celebrated Christmas this year reflects some of the larger trends to be found in the United States regarding religious attitudes and practices. Unlike what has been common in the past, the President and his family observed the religious dimension of Christmas privately. They did not attend Christmas services, nor do they commonly attend church services at all. As Ashley Parker wrote in this article:

Historically, watching the nation’s first family head to church dressed in their Sunday best, especially around the holiday season, was something of a ritual. Yet Mr. Obama’s faith is a more complicated, more private, and perhaps—religious and presidential historians say—a more inclusive affair. And his religious habits appear to be in step with a changing America.

Ms. Parker goes on to mention how the lack of the President’s churchgoing is no reflection on the depth of his spiritual life, perhaps reminding us of the increasing number of Americans who would both identify themselves as “none of the above” when it comes to affiliating with religious institutions while at the same time holding to a belief—sometimes a very strong and active belief—in God. She does not mention in the article something that may also play a key role in the President’s decision not to attend church on any regular basis: the sheer number of Secret Service agents it takes to move the President at any given time, even across the street from the White House to St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square. Staying at home with the family on Christmas may allow more agents to be able to observe the holiday, just as more agents may be allowed to be with their families on Sundays when the President elects not to go church. Like many Americans, it may well be that the President and his family have many things to consider when it comes to deciding whether or not to go to church on any given day.

The article also mentions that attention was initially drawn to the President’s religious beliefs and practices during the 2008 campaign, in conjunction with the controversy surrounding the pastor of his home church in Chicago, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Pastor Wright’s occasional inflammatory remarks complicated both Mr. Obama’s election bid as well as clouded national attitudes toward his religious beliefs. Here, again, the President shares something with a great many Americans who either continue or no longer practice their religious beliefs: a bad experience with a religious institution lurking in their past.

There is no doubt that the President’s combination of strong belief with the infrequency of attending church services, along with his frequent mentioning of the wide variety of religious traditions (or no tradition at all) when speaking of America, can be confusing to many citizens. As one observer put it in the New York Times article, “I would argue that (President) Obama’s faith has been one of the most misunderstood of any president out there.” For many, this is new territory as the nation as a whole comes to grips with a fluctuating and sometimes bafflingly diverse religious landscape.

It is not, however, new territory for those of us who work in schools, be they strongly religious schools or not.

Increasingly, I would maintain that private schools—particularly those with a religious affiliation—are one of the primary places in our culture where the changing nature of religious belief can be both captured and comprehended. We are a laboratory where these new trends and the interchange of varieties of belief and non-belief are being tested out, worked on, and more fully understood. Our schools are serving as a prism through which we can view how an institution with a defined religious tradition and affiliation interacts with an increasing number of those who come from other traditions, affiliate with no tradition at all, or may well identify themselves as a “combination of all of the above.” This interaction need not necessitate, as some might initially assume, the abandonment of the prevailing religious tradition of the school. As my—hopefully!—forthcoming book argues*, if individuals wish to understand better what is happening in religious life in the United States, private schools—even those that are assumed to be highly homogenous in religious makeup—can tell us a great deal about the trends and patterns that now characterize American religious life.

These schools may seem, to an outsider, confusing places religiously. After all, for example, how can a school be an Episcopal school if only 10% of its students come from an Episcopal background? That confusion may bear somewhat of a resemblance to those who wonder how our current President can be Christian if he is prone to mentioning Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and nonbelievers when describing America’s religious identity.

It may be hard to view ourselves in any way as leaders in the development of institutional responses to a changing religious landscape, given how confusing it can be, but leaders we are. Our schools are increasingly serving as both a religious home to a great many people as well as a safe place where religious identities intermingle and can be more fully understood. We still have much to work out in this regard, but—surprising as it may be—we are among those institutions leading the way in shedding light on the place of belief and practice in contemporary America. For we not only reflect what is going on religiously in our country, we are deliberately working on what it all means. Hence, we will have much to teach our country as it navigates this unchartered territory.

* What Schools Teach Us About Religious Life is scheduled to be published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2014.