It seemed somehow fitting that the landslide school referenda in Shelby County towns and Chick-fil-A appreciation day happened in a 24-hour news cycle.

They both were about the power of fear, bias, and stereotypes to drive action by a large segment of people these days.

None of this was unexpected of course.  It was pretty obvious that sanctimony, intolerance, pharisaism, and feelings of superiority would carry the day.  Both also shared lapses in logic and convenient rationalizations based on cherry-picked information that validate their demonizing of people different from them.

The Chick-fil-A anti-gay marriage demonstration had the clearest disconnect since it was said to be rooted in “Christian beliefs” and gave hyper-right wing people an opportunity to once again to play the victims. As usual, these people dependably summoned up Bible verses to support their bigotry and to suggest that Christians (when they say it, they only mean conservative ones, not people in mainstream Protestant denominations) are somehow under siege.

Playing the Victim

It’s a staple of these skirmishes in our culture wars that the Sharia Christians forget that Americans are arguably the most religious people in human history and live in a nation where Christians account for 78.4% of all Americans.  This of course means that now that a majority of Americans support gay marriage, a large number of Christians (notably Catholics – 52-37% and white mainline Protestants – 54-34%) are on the other side of the Chick-fil-A’ters.

Interestingly, despite the venom and vitriol in the attacks by these hyper-conservative Christians, most LGBT people are in fact Christians, not animists worshiping plants and rocks in the forest.

Frankly, we don’t care what the CEO of the company believes (or imagines that he cares that we won’t ever eat there again).  We have a friend who describes it this way: “People like the CEO use the OId Testament to judge everyone else but always want to use the New Testament when it comes to themselves.”

Maybe it wasn’t precisely hate that drove people to show up for their chicken strips (or at the polls in the towns), but it certainly wasn’t to follow the mandate of one of the main commandments: love your neighbor.

Selective Reading

It’s a decidedly curious form of Christianity since the states with the strongest Religious Right tendencies also are the ones with the poorer health care, higher poverty, lower educational attainment, and the most frayed social nets. There seems to be no part of America more Darwinian than the believers of this brand of Christianity.

Whether the poultry provocateurs last week were not motivated strictly speaking by hate, they certainly were not motivated by love and a large group of people – our gay friends, family members, and neighbors – definitely felt hated and despised. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, the ultimate scoundrel is the patriot wielding a Bible to beat up other Americans.

We have a friend who says that he has no problem with civil unions but just can’t support gay marriage, but for us, if this decision is based strictly about protecting the sanctity of marriage, we’re thinking that it’s the heterosexuals who should be limited to civil unions, because, God knows, no one has done more damage to marriage.

Theology of Tolerance

Two of our favorite local theologians, Idlewild Presyterian’s Steve Montgomery and Temple Israel’s Micah Greenstein sum it well. Rev. Montgomery: “And so we turn to scripture for guidance. That sounds easy, doesn’t it? And for some it is easy. Take the five or six verses in a cursory reading of the entire Bible that seem to speak to homosexuality and one could conclude that it condemns homosexuality unequivocally. End of discussion. But it is a mistake to look to the Bible to close a discussion; the Bible seeks to open one. You see, the Bible is violated whenever it is used as a catalogue of proof texts to support my own prejudice. Everybody knows, I assume, that there are passages of scripture which can be, and often have been, used in support of slavery, of brutal war, of women keeping their heads covered and their mouths shut in church. Now, it is no more legitimate to pick and choose those passages of scripture which seem to point to an anti-homosexual bias than it is to pick and choose those passages which seem to support an anti-woman or pro-slavery bias.”

Rabbi Greenstein said: “After all, isn’t this what the faith of Jesus and all good religions teach? Isn’t this the meaning of the prophet’s plea: ‘Have we not all one Father? Hath not one God created us? Why then do some deal treacherously every man against his brother?’ Whether gay or straight, black or white, Jew or Gentile, all are children of God, created in the divine image. That is why I subscribe to Jesus the Jew’s central idea – not Jesus the Baptist – but Jesus the Jew’s central idea to love one another, especially those different than me. The shameful demonization of people who happen to be gay or lesbian underscores what must happen now. We must all take a stand for non-discrimination and basic human dignity in the public square or be labeled a pious fraud. People of all faiths need to remember that we forfeit the right to worship God whenever we denigrate the image of God in other human beings.”

Separate but Equal

The same sort of rejection of people who are different took place the day after the Chick-Fil-A anti-gayathon when the referenda in the six small towns in Shelby County saw an overwhelming vote in favor of their separate but equal school districts.  More to the point, it was a vote in favor of a diminished view of what we can become as a united community.

Back in January, speaking about the Transition Planning Commission and its mission to develop a plan for a unified district, Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy said she was looking for “hopefully a very rational, reasonable group of people figuring out how to do this and hopefully they would be receptive to all sorts of creative ideas about how schools might advance in Shelby County.”

The Transition Planning Commission has now issued its final, impressive report, and it surpassed any of Mayor Goldsworthy’s hopes for it.  Not that it mattered, since the mayors of the towns weren’t really keeping an open mind at all.  They already had made up their minds, and they never practiced what they preached.

That same reasonableness that the mayor urged for others never applied to the suburban school advocates themselves, as the towns rushed headlong toward a future of municipal districts with a lot of talk about excellent schools but without a real academic analysis or detailed plan.

Now For the Hard Part

Collierville Mayor Stan Joyner repeatedly said that his town wanted to “get education right” but his rhetoric has been more about politics than academic performance, teacher excellence, classroom size, and other dominant issues affecting student success. From the beginning, the mayors were all about driving the results to a preordained conclusion, and as a result, the emphasis was on getting out the vote instead of getting out all the information and creating an informed electorate.

The town mayors have insisted that smaller districts are better and have cited 6,000 as the best size of all.  Of course, the newfound obsession with district size never surfaced while they were part of the 50,000-student county school district, but came into full bloom, replete with code words about Memphis schools and students and Memphis itself.

But under the heading of “be careful what you wish for,” the county towns are about to learn what it’s like to pay their own way after a history of their schools being paid for by county government. After decades of justifications for why Memphians should pay twice for schools, town taxpayers are about to find out what that feels like.

Like City of Memphis before them, they will now struggle to find the money to continue investment in parks, theaters, and athletic clubs.  In the future, it will be the schools that drive the towns’ budgets and eclipse all other priorities if the municipal districts are truly to be in the league with the high-quality ones visited by town officials when they were looking for what their district should aspire to be.

The towns do not have an actual plan to reach those standards and pressed to deliver on the unrealistic promises about taxes, they are trapped between the best the schools could be and the amount of taxes that their constituents are willing to accept.  In this way, the biggest education in the towns won’t take place in their new school districts, but in the towns themselves and their elected officials who have now won their political battle but face a severe learning curve to produce what they said they could.