Wichita school’s five pillars incident shows confusion and prejudice

Minneha Core Knowledge Magnet Elementary School in Wichita, KS is the center of an uproar last week after a photo taken on the first day of school showing a large “5 Pillars of Islam” display was shared online. The Wichita Eagle reports that the display, which was part of a larger school curriculum, has since been taken down. State Rep. Dennis Hedke, R-Wichita, said he was “appalled” when he first heard of the display. The original person posting the photo reportedly said, “This cannot stand.” It’s been the subject of many social media posts suggesting that there is something egregiously un-American about it.

Several important facts were conveniently left out. No one apparently captured photos from other parts of the school that include displays from other religious traditions, including Christianity (there was a painting of the Last Supper elsewhere in the hallways). A spokeswoman said that the unit of study, which is part of a core knowledge curriculum in place at the school for years, has students “study Islam, as well as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Buddhism in the historical and geographical context of understanding the development of civilizations.”

Rep. Hedke and other parents who are in opposition to the display have accused the school of “glossing over some of the more unsavory aspects of the religion, such as Jihad and the annihilation of Israel.” They joined the loud chorus of many who go around talking about how Islam is a “violent religion,” apparently not aware of the fact that the Bible contains more numerous and more graphic stories of divinely-commanded violence than the Qur’an does.

Incidents like these, which are not uncommon in this country, always disturb me for two major reasons.

First, there is a clear lack of understanding about the role of religion in public schools. In 2007, The First Amendment Center published a handbook called Finding Common Ground: A First Amendment Guide to Religion and Public Schools. It was compiled by two experts, one a scholar and one a Constitutional lawyer, and was sponsored/endorsed by more than two dozen organizations as diverse as the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Evangelicals. It should be required reading for all school administrators, teachers, and concerned parents. Chapter 9 explains, in essence, that a public school can teach about religion, but cannot tell students what to believe and cannot favor one religion over another. In Abington School District v. Schempp, the 1963 case that struck down teacher-led, devotional Bible reading in public schools, Justice Tom Clark wrote:

It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization…Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

Other commenters on this Wichita story have cried, “There should be no religion in school!” That is a very careless statement that begs to be fleshed out. Religion as an informational subject should be no more absent from public schools than it has been in the history of civilization. The Finding Common Ground resource offers several well-articulated distinctions:

  • The school’s approach to religion is academic, not devotional.
  • The school may sponsor study about religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to a diversity of religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school may educate about all religions, but may not promote or denigrate any religion.

This display was part of the school’s larger effort to do this. To be fair, I can actually sympathize with a certain level of surprise at the sight of this large bulletin board on the first day of school. One may have a case in claiming that the nature, timing, and prominence of this bulletin board–irrespective of the religion being highlighted–may give the impression that a religion is being promoted. But even if the method was ill-advised, the intention was not unconstitutional. That’s the legal perspective. Beyond this, Christians need to understand that such careful separation actually helps, not harms, religious belief and honors the idea of a God who does not coerce us into believing in or loving Him.

The second disturbing factor for me in all of this is the hatred or distrust toward the Muslim faith that is almost always accompanied by a lack of knowledge about it (the definition of prejudice). This has been a troubling, well-documented problem in the United States ever since 9-11. Due to possible copyright issues, I have not included the photo of the bulletin board, but there’s one important thing to know about it: it was blank. The bulletin board was not even finished. Other than the heading about the 5 pillars, there was no content on the board yet and they had not written up what the 5 pillars are.

I would have absolutely no problem with my children learning the 5 pillars of Islam. If they became friends with a child from a Muslim family, I would be on the front lines of encouraging them to understand their friend’s beliefs. I know what the 5 pillars are and find nothing objectionable or harmful about them. Based on experience, I would venture a guess that neither the congressman nor most of the opposing parents would be able to cite a tenet of Islam. Have your opinion, but if your opinion is formed without any knowledge of the subject, that is irresponsible and one of the true banes of society. In a climate where people hold signs in public saying, “All I need to know about Islam I learned on 9/11,” we need informed and responsible people to speak up. The 9/11 terrorists no more represent Islam than Westboro Baptist Church represents Christianity. The Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, venerates and respects Jesus, sees Jews and Christians as fellow “people of the book” and not the enemy, and contains some laudable teachings that Christians would find familiar (“Treat kindly your parents, relatives, the orphans and those who have been left alone in the society,” Surah 4:36). There are, of course, many points of departure as well. The Qur’an teaches that Jesus was never crucified, for example, and does indeed contain some calls to violence (though many scholars of Islam say that they are usually in the context of self-defense). But just as with Christians, the vast majority of Muslims look at the greater picture and see the ultimate goal as one of right relationship with God and people (“We have divided you into peoples and tribes that you might have knowledge of one another,” Surah 49:13).

Although such outcries as in Wichita no longer surprise me, I still deeply grieve the vitriol that comes from the mouths of alleged followers of Jesus. Some of the rhetoric is indistinguishable from the exclusivity and nationalism we abhor in others but on which we give ourselves a free pass. This Lord and Savior we claim to follow said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot love those whom we do not even know. Think of the message this must have sent to any students from Muslim families. “You are not welcome here.” Some of my own denominational leaders and theological educators are engaging in dialogue with Muslims, and I hope to see such things more widely embraced.

May we first seek to understand. In coming to understand our neighbor, the Spirit may just move us toward compassion for that neighbor. That is my prayer.

Corey Fields

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Corey Fields is associate pastor of First Baptist Church, Topeka, KS. His doctoral work at Central Baptist Theological Seminary focused on developing a congregational vision for missional ministry. In the summer of 2014, he completed a Louisville Institute sponsored sabbatical study on Christian Community Development.

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