How Do Americans View Christianity?
Episode 14 of American Butterfly: The Most Christian Attitude
River Day School was good to me. The teachers cared, and I couldn’t ask for a better education in the basics of reading, writing, math, and science. In fourth grade we started rotating some classes, and the school became seriously challenging by fifth grade. I was fortunate to be a good student who enjoyed learning in a traditional academic setting. RDS was, I think, torture for some, including my brother.
Each year we took a class on some aspect of the Bible. The school prided itself on teaching young men to work hard while living a Christian life.
76% of those students attended schools with a religious affiliation. About 10% of private schools in America are associated with conservative Christian Churches.
My classmates were solid. Like anywhere, there were some who were harder to get along with than others. I was not part of the cool clique nor much of an athlete at the time, but I could relate to most. When I saw others treated poorly, the type of thing that happens everywhere, I sincerely tried to stand up for them.
The rare moment when I felt inclined to violence was an afternoon when I found a few kids picking on my brother, making fun of his eye patch and glasses. It was silly stuff: “If you’re a pirate, where’s your hook?…What type of pirate wears glasses?”
I barreled in and pushed them back. I’m sure I said something stupid in JT’s defense, not being terribly clever in off-the-cuff insults. I dared anyone to say anything more and dragged JT away. It was probably the only moment my soon-to-be-cool brother ever needed my help in the face of a crowd.
Like everyone, I was the object of some abuse from fellow students. I remember hearing two teachers once talking about me, thinking that I couldn’t hear: “Sometimes I just wish he would punch them.”
At the time punching didn’t seem necessary or advisable in the face of what was usually superior force. Again, in most cases, students were pretty good to one another.
The end-of-year Awards session was held in May. It largely recognized the excellence of the graduating 6th-Grade class. I was only a 5th-Grader, but I was excited for the event. Our car was packed to leave immediately afterwards on our drive to Florida. Neither Mom nor Dad took much time off, and we were finally getting a family vacation.
As the event approached its end, the headmaster announced that the two most prestigious awards remained. I was shocked when the daughter of Mrs. Lillian Jefferson announced my name for the Lillian Vernon Jefferson Trophy for The Most Christian Attitude, awarded to a member of the 5th Grade.
Many debate what involves a “Christian attitude.”
Some see the best in Christianity: empathy, forgiveness, bravery, and sincere love.
Others focus on the worst: elitism, judgement, patriarchy, and hypocrisy.
I really had no idea what to do.
Was I supposed to smile? That might seem superior. Was I supposed to be serious? That might seem unappreciative. I found the whole experience awkward, and I was certain the award could have gone to a more deserving student.
In retrospect, I’m still struck by the fact that in this rigorous, academic school, one of the “most prestigious” awards was for a student who represented the most Christian attitude.
Our school argued that, like Philip of Macedon (the father of Alexander the Great who hired Aristotle to teach his son), it was educating future leaders.
River Day School celebrated alumni who were Memphis business owners, Fortune 500 company executives, and politicians. It put enormous importance on academics, sports, and contribution to the community…but also on Christian values.
It would be easy to pooh-pooh this as eye-wash, as fake in some way.
I am certain, though, that River Day School meant it.
In the minds of its leaders, the best aspects of a Christian attitude and leadership went hand-in-hand.
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through a family story, different and similar to yours and to mine.