Touring the DMZ of the “Culture War”

Well, I’m back from Nebraska. From a work standpoint, the trip was just fine — nothing spectacular, nothing particularly problematic. Well, except for a couple of coworkers who got delayed for several hours in Chicago thanks to icing problems; coming through Detroit Metro Airport (a bizarrely over-the-top airport if ever I’ve seen one), I got into Omaha right on time.

From a personal standpoint, however, the trip was positively astounding.

Omaha itself certainly had sites worth revisiting, from the Joslyn Art Museum (which still conducts the “Bagels & Bach” programs I remembered), to the Henry Doorly Zoo (now prominently featuring an IMAX theater), to Rosenblatt Stadium, to the Woodmen Tower (still visible for miles around, but no longer the city’s tallest building), to the Mutual of Omaha building (perhaps not the landmark it once was, now that Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom is no longer airing). Other sites were lost to history, such as the Ak-Sar-Ben Race Track, since closed and largely sold off. (Of course, while there, I had to have a steak.)

But far more meaningful for me was exploring the closest thing I have to a “home town,” Papillion. As an Air Force brat, I moved all around the country (though, oddly enough, not overseas), never living in any one spot for very long. But in an unusually long assignment to one place (the then-headquarters of the now-defunct Strategic Air Command), we lived in Papillion for four-and-a-half years, arriving just before I started third grade, and finally departing midway through seventh. A positive eternity, relatively speaking.

Yes, I got to see my old house — and chat with one of our neighbors who still lives there. I got to drive around all the town streets, remembering where my friends lived, where I used to ride my bike, the park I used to play in (the just-waiting-for-an-accident merry-go-round was still there), the drainage pipe I used to sneak into to travel under the town streets (still accessible to curious kids), the fields where I used to play soccer, the town’s first McDonald’s (built while I lived there, and about to be torn down this year), the pool where I used to swim.

I got to visit my old elementary school — the principal actually took time out of her schedule to give me the grand tour (mentioning that the principal during my era still stops by from time to time) — and I got to talk with one of the teachers I knew, still teaching there. (A similar visit to my Junior High School was somewhat less productive, but as I only attended there a semester, my memories were less ingrained anyway.)

I found the old “Papio” movie theater, site of many a Saturday matinée (not to mention numerous Star Wars viewings). In the years since I left, the theater itself was converted first into a church, and thereafter renovated as a live-performance venue/coffee shop. It was while I was visiting, discussing both the theater itself and the more general changes in the town during my nearly quarter-century absence, that one of the place’s owners asked what must no doubt have seemed a fairly straightforward question: “Are you surprised at how big Papillion’s gotten?”

I couldn’t answer right away, and when I did, I was ambiguous in my response. By most objective metrics, yes, the town was much bigger. The population had nearly tripled, from a mere 6,500 to nearly 18,000. The fire department was no longer (or no longer exclusively) a volunteer outfit. There was a brand-new public library; when I lived there, the library was merely housed in the City Hall building. There was certainly lot more in the way of shopping centers (and the attendant traffic). Thankfully, the town still enjoyed a prosperity that kept it from falling into the decay that plagues much of rural America.

But I was struck more with how small everything seemed. The hallways in my elementary school — which once felt so tall and wide — seemed positively cramped, the classrooms confining. Distances which seemed interminably vast to a child on a bicycle were mere moments away by car — certainly nothing compared with the distances between... well, anything in Northern Virginia. The homes, while not tiny, were certainly smaller than most of the single-family homes in the Burke area (and I’m discounting the mansions on the next street over from us).

Still, it wasn’t the physical “smallness” of the place that struck me the most, but the cultural. Phrasing it that way makes it sound like I’m being pejorative, which isn’t my intent. What I saw was a distinctly small-town culture, vastly different from life here in D.C.

And one of the hallmarks of that culture was religion.

Now, it’s important to be clear on this — nowhere was there any hint of the self-righteous condemnation we see so frequently among the religious right. This was not a culture that insisted that all conform to its religious beliefs, but neither was it one that had any compunction about displaying its religious conviction openly. It’s hard to pinpoint specific instances — it was more the little hints, the types of indicators that even my more religious friends would find at least awkward in social environments here. An offhand comment: “I’m not perfect; there’s only been perfection once in history.” A choice in school reading material, of which I caught only a snippet, “...he took the Lord’s name in vain”; most likely innocuous in context, of course, but likely to raise more than a few eyebrows here. Even the aforementioned performance venue is clear in its religious bent — its very name, “The Rock,” is an explicit reference to St. Peter.

On the other hand, one of the top headlines in the local paper had to do with a high school math teacher being suspended for using his classroom as a religious platform. While this would appear to indicate at least the existence of the more extreme element, it also demonstrates that even in an environment such as this, certain fairly obvious limits remain. (The newspaper article’s substantial ambiguity leaves much open to interpretation, but for now, I’ll take the story at face value.)

I don’t intend to lessen my antagonism toward right-wing religious extremism in the slightest — and not only because of that elements’s decision to open a “culture war” (using the most belligerent language that goes along with it) against those of use who do not share the most offensive of its belief set. In my assessment, too many of them are all too willing to take the “justification by faith alone” doctrine of the Protestant reformation as blanket permission to engage in actions overtly counter to the teachings of the ostensible leader of the religion they profess to follow. If belief in the divinity of Jesus is all that’s required for “salvation,” then one can pick and choose one’s behaviors almost whimsically, committing acts of hatred — and often violence — antithetical to the man’s actual message; if the messenger is all that is significant, then the message becomes irrelevant.

As I’ve noted before, I take exactly the opposite position — I do not accept the divinity of the man, but find much to admire in the message. (Along those lines, I’d recommend taking a look at Tom Bridge’s ongoing series on the Advent season — a very nice analysis of the ceremony of the season in the Christian observance.) And in Nebraska, I found a culture that, while still observing the divinity of the man, seemed more intent on following the substance of the message.

Going forward, I will strive to be clearer in my tolerance for those who choose merely to observe their beliefs more openly. If people are happy in following a particular belief set — and are in no way attempting to impose those beliefs on others, then by all means, they should feel free to do so. At the risk of agreeing with one of the mantras of the right-wing pundits, freedom of religion is not synonymous with freedom from religion. I can no more enforce my own lack of religious observance on those who disagree with me than they can force me to observe their beliefs. And why on Earth should I want to do so? How does it negatively affect me to have happy, polite, people to interact with, even though I may not support their rationale?

I do think there are some concrete, practical issues about which the (majority of) Nebraskans and I would find ourselves in conflict — the pledge of allegiance, to pick just one example. But as long as we can proceed from a general attitude of tolerance and good will, I suspect we would at least be able to debate such issues without demonizing each other.


At 1:06 PM, Bill Coughlan said...

I do apologize for the veritable novel above. Usually, I mamage to get my thoughts down in at least a somewhat more concise fashion.

But one, I had a lot to write about after the trip, and two, it seemed appropriate to mark this weblog’s second anniversary with something at least marginally substantive. And since I haven’t yet heard about the National Film Challenge finalists decision, this was it.

At 4:09 PM, Andrew said...

In light of the above, I thought you'd find this amusing.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home