I think I was in ninth grade when I had social studies with Miss Sandra Diamond. Whatever grade it was, she was terrific. She branched out from the crimped curriculum handed to her by the school and thought clearly about creating lessons designed to help us think clearly. One day one student asked what Watergate was all about (OK, if I think about it a minute, that detail should pin down the grade); she ditched the lesson plan and told us. I probably wouldn’t have remembered the canned lesson; her offroading, on the other hand, got me into current affairs and made me an actively thinking American.
One of Miss Diamond’s units dealt with religious freedom. She actually told us that she didn’t like the prefabricated lesson plans (which pleased me to no end then and still warms my heart now) and that she had come up with something new. First we listened to some of Jesus Christ Superstar (we all definitely approved of that part of the new deal) and discussed – actually discussed – the trial before Pilate.
Then Miss Diamond gave us some dilemmas involving religious freedom. One concerned a hypothetical Christian Science family who had let their child die rather than receive a transfusion. Most of the students were horrified; it may have been the first time any of us had heard that such things happen. But Miss Diamond didn’t want us just to classify it as “wrong” because the outcome shocked us; the whole point of the lesson was to see the case from the side of religious freedom. She kept pushing, but as far as I remember, I was the only one willing to admit that the parents had done the right thing given their premises that the child would suffer eternal damnation if they had allowed the procedure.
Over the last few days, we’ve been reading C. S. Lewis’s Christian Reflections in the car. In one of the essays, “The Poison of Subjectivism,” Lewis’s argument reminded me of that discussion in Miss Diamond’s class. Lewis suggests that neither Aztec human sacrificers nor Massachusetts witch hunters had different morals from us, just different beliefs. We send our young people to die in war when we think the greater good of the society demands it, just like the Aztecs; but the Aztecs believed they had to appease the gods to keep their society afloat, while we believe we have to confront our flesh-and-blood enemies. Similarly, we also hunt out threats to the state and execute them just like the folks in Salem; it’s just that we believe our traitors tell lies under orders from foreign nations while the witch hunters believed their traitors told lies under orders from Satan, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same. The evil in each case lies primarily in the false belief. And the difference in each case lies in the belief.
“People should never let their children die if it can be helped” is neither a religious statement nor one which we, as a whole, agree with – considering the wars we get ourselves into. So repugnance at the loss of the child is not a question of religious freedom. Whether the state can tolerate the particular belief that leads to the death of the child is the question of religious freedom, and Miss Diamond helped me see that. Thanks, Miss Diamond!