THE WEBSTER FAMILY IS ENGAGED IN A DYING RITUAL.

They are eating dinner together -- chicken over white rice, a good, crisp salad with sliced almonds boiled in sugar, steamed broccoli, hot rolls and, for dessert, layered cream cake that's a few days old or apple pie made this afternoon. Sue and John Webster and their teen-age kids, David and Lora, eat like this pretty much every night. They laugh, gripe, brag, replay the day. These are full meals full of meaning. Sue recalls a teacher who once asked her students how many of them still ate dinner with their parents, and out of 30 kids, only two said they sat down to meals as a family. Sue can only shake her head at that and, once again, wonder what this country is coming to.

"People make choices," Sue says. "This life is our choice."

The Websters are Main Street USA. John is a Republican, Sue a Democrat. They have degrees from Catawba College in North Carolina, where Sue was Miss Catawba her senior year. Their dog, a collie, is named Lady. Their kids go to public schools. They drive the Lincoln to the Baptist church on Sundays.

Until recently, the Websters were an invisible family living on a street named Hounds Run in the drab, humid southern city of Mobile, Ala. But the Websters had had enough: They decided that America, just like the family dinner, was going to hell in a hand basket because of an erosion of Christianity. So when they learned of a lawsuit alleging that textbooks in Alabama's public schools violated the First Amendment by giving short shrift to the role religion has played in American history and by promoting an atheistic religion called "secular humanism," John and Sue Webster, and 600 others, signed on.

The urbane and the sophisticated labeled them "fundamentalists," which the Websters are. They believe that the Red Sea parted so Moses could flee Pharaoh, that if the Bible says Joshua stopped the sun, he did, even if it's the Earth that does the moving. But a lot goes unsaid in that word "fundamentalist" -- images of Bible Belt bumpkins and a damnation-bent Gospel; grainy visions from "Inherit the Wind" of the Clarence Darrow character grilling the sad, sweating, slump-shouldered William Jennings Bryan; TV's Lord-oh-Lord, red-faced preachers who, on the evolutionary scale, must rank below the noble chimpanzee; the fear that if these people ever got real power, they would legislate a Puritan morality. These images, these biases, are etched in the national memory.

So the Websters were fit into a tidy, insignificant category: ignorant zealots, book burners, enemies of tolerance, friends of demagogues.

Yet it takes a blind arrogance to dismiss the Websters as so much 19th-century nostalgia, or as ignorant folk befuddled by the ferocity of change. Because without really knowing it, the Websters are part of a chorus of social critics -- from left to right -- arguing that Americans have become too self-absorbed, lost in a vain, selfish pursuit of personal "fulfillment" that has left their lives increasingly empty and meaningless while creating a society of people without direction, purpose or commitment.

The Mobile lawsuit, in which a federal judge ruled in favor of the Websters' side last fall

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EB from Alabama's schools before his order was stayed by a higher court, will likely go to the Supreme Court. The smart money says the Websters will lose the case. But that won't diminish the importance of the social issues they raise. Good liberals may disdain the Websters' solutions -- fair descriptions of Christian morality in the public schools, a national return to Christian values, all of it based on a bedrock belief in Jesus Christ and the literal truth of the Bible. But the Websters are on to something. They are struggling with the same dilemmas facing all Americans, faithful or faithless. And while they are ridiculed, it is the Websters who have the answer so many modern Americans seek: They know who they are, and they know the "why" of their lives. @

@o It is the curious, continuing irony of modern life. @

@o But there's another twist: The unyielding faith that gives their lives meaning is also unsettling, scary, to those who don't share it, because the Websters call up old fears about all True Believers, people convinced that only they know the Truth. The Mobile suit is but a piece of the frame. In "Inherit the Wind," the famous stage portrayal of the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial," the fictionalized characters based on Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan have this exchange: @

@o Darrow: "Progress has never been a bargain. You've got to pay for it. Sometimes I think there's a man behind a counter who says, 'All right, you can have a telephone, but you'll have to give up privacy, the charm of distance. Madam, you may vote, but at a price; you lose the right to retreat behind a powder puff or a petticoat. Mister, you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline!' Darwin moved us forward to a hilltop, where we could look back and see the way from which we came. But for this view, this insight, this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis." @

@o Bryan: "We must @

not @'

abandon faith! Faith is the important thing!" @

@o The debate is unchanged. @

@o There is a price for knowledge, a price for fundamental faith. @

@o That's why very good people like the Websters can seem very ominous. FL

FL "I GOT ONE!" DAVID WEBSTER AN-

FN nounces between forkfuls of rice. "The one where all those women sit around and talk about birth control." @

@o His sister Lora laughs. "Every time that commercial comes on, he leaves." @

@o "It's ridiculous!" says David. @

@o The Websters are eating dinner, debating TV's most offensive commercials ENTER AREA 02and describing what they see as an assault on their values. TV is to them a mass-media hawking not only of products but also of values, seductive values, values they don't share, values that are wrong, even evil, but values that first must be ingrained in Americans if they are to buy the bevy of items foisted upon them by the marketeers. Because before you can go for the gusto, John says, you must first believe the gusto is worth going for -- at the expense of, say, family, friends, altruism and faith in God. The Websters aren't stuffy or self-righteous about this. No, they're having a family belly laugh about it. @

@o John, 39, pounds the table with one hand and covers his eyes with the other. He often does this when he laughs. Sue, also 39, throws back her @

@' head, musses her short blond-to-gray hair and releases her staccato laugh, @ he-he-he-he, @'

flashing a smile that is wide on her lean face. David, 16 years old, strong and 6 feet 2, rolls his eyes and mumbles in his best good ol' boy drawl. Lora, 13, smiles demurely. @

@o "Talkin' 'bout birth control on TV and why they like it," says David, shaking his head and widening his eyes. "I don't wanna see it." @

@o Says Sue, "There was this pineapple commercial . FH

FH . FH

FH ." @

@o Lora groans. @

@o "Oh, maaaan," says David, slapping his forehead. @

@o "I think it was Dole. It was the most sensuous commercial, and there was nothin' to it. I mean it was @ sensuous @' !" @

@o "She was really eatin' it," says John, sucking his fingers seductively. @

@o ENTER AREA 03"It wasn't selling pineapple!" says Sue, incredulous. "It was selling sex!" FL

Suddenly, John says, "Douche commercials!" FL

" @ Ohhhh . FH

FH . FH

FH . @' " Everyone groans at once. @

@o " 'In my special shape!' " says John, mockingly. " 'It's @

so @'

comfortable!' " @

@o "How 'bout the one where they go, 'You can use a thin pad at your worst time of month,' " says David. @

@o Sue's shrieking laugh pierces the room. @

@o "It has wings!" yells David. @

@o Says John, "Sold American!" @

@o If the Websters' table banter sounds tasteless to you, remember that 100 million Americans can watch these ads on TV any given night. Maybe you've seen the feminine deodorant ads or the new commercials showing women in bras, and wondered where it will end. Or maybe you've wondered if TV characters should French kiss before your kids have gone to bed. Or if J.R. or Mr. T or MTV is bad for your son. Or if it's good that Max Headroom was the main character on a prime-time TV show at the same time he was the advertising symbol for Coke at the same time Coke sponsored the Max Headroom show. Maybe you've wondered if you aren't already living 15 minutes into the future, where too much is beyond your control, too much imposed without consent. Perhaps these things sometimes even seem vaguely like moral issues to you, matters of value, of right and wrong. @

@o And sometimes, maybe these thoughts swirl around in your head and, in some vague, unexplainable way, connect with more disturbing realities -- teen suicide and pregnancy, the cocaine boom, the Wall Street scandals, Elliott Abrams telling Congress the difference between deception and lying, how you read in the paper that this year's high school graduates don't aspire to accomplishment or knowledge, but fame and wealth. Perhaps sometimes, at the dinner table, you, too, stop and worry about what it means to be modern, and what this country is coming to. If so, you aren't unlike the Websters. @

@o Except for one difference. The Websters aren't confused; they don't feel helpless. They know the trouble: the loss of fundamental faith in Christ. FL

FL A conversation with John and Sue: @

@o "What is wrong with America today?" they are aed. @

@o Sue: "We've got teen-age suicide like we've never had before, teen-age pregnancy, drug abuse, teen-age alcoholism. We've got problems, and what we're doing is not working. It just baffles me that the intellectual elite keeps saying, 'Yes, we've got problems, but what you're saying is too simplistic a view. It's not a viable answer to the complex issues facing us.' @

@o ENTER AREA 04"I think that what threatens the sincere believer is not modernism but the 'expert' view that what we think is the ultimate reality in our lives is not real. It is real! And when the 'experts' start telling our children that our reality is not real, then it's our responsibility to get involved." @

@o John: "It's not another 'mind-set.' It's a faith in a God that's real. As a society we've come a long way, babe, and now we're nowhere. We need foundations peoENTER AREA 05ple can put a hook into. Pretty soon we're going to take a vote if we have to go to war as a nation. It started with the Vietnam war, it started with Korea. We have moved and shifted, moved and shifted to where many people coming up in the younger generation are saying, 'Who am I, what am I, what do we stand for as a country and as an individual?' Are we contra people, are we non-contra people? Are we pro-Vietnam? What are we?" @

@o ENTER AREA 06He is told, "Well, we're all those things." @

@o John: "I don't think we need to be all things to everybody." @

@o "What else would we be? We are a pluralistic society." @

@o John: "We need to state who we are and be consistent." @

@o "Speak with one solid voice of values and attitudes?" @

@o John: "Maybe not to the extent of limENTER AREA 07iting thought process, but, yes, I think we need to have a standard, absolutely." @

@o "At what time to do you think we lived like this?" @

@o John: "There was a time that we did have a balance." @

@o He is told, "The good burghers in Europe with the Industrial Revolution had their lives wrenched apart. American farmers were thrown off their farms starting a hundred years ago. The great migrations. The potato famine. The lack of balance that you fear seems to be the history of man." @

@o John: "There was order when we were kids. We knew what to expect. I'm not sure the kids today do. We're always stressing, 'Who am I? Why should I care about my neighbor? Why should I hang in a marriage? Why should I support my kid? Who really cares?' There has to be something in society that says 'Hey, you need to. You need to.' " @

@o "You keep saying that, but how does a 'society' do that?" @

@o John: "A return to basic values, a return to a standard. I'd like to see us take a stronger stand. On abortion." @

@o "The liberal Protestant denominations are some of the strongest supporters of legalized abortion." @

@o John: "Which puzzles us. I mean, that would puzzle anybody. All I can tell you is that the Christians that I know . FH

FH . FH

FH ." @

@o "That's because you know conservative Christians . FH

FH . FH

FH ." @

@o John: "And the Bible says . FH

FH . FH

FH ." @

@o "But there are educated, respected Christians who argue that the Bible does not say what you say it does." @

@o John: "I believe I have an understanding of what the Bible says." @

@o "But so do others." @

@o John, softly: "I can only tell how I feel, what I see. This is where I am with my beliefs: If I can take the Bible and read a passage and interpret it three or four different ways and say, 'Well, I don't know, I can interpret this any way I want,' I'll close that book and say, 'This is nothing more than another novel.' If I could not read the Bible and clearly see, word for word, what it says, then I probably would have to deny my Christianity and my faith." @

@o "The Bible and your faith are accomplishing for you what society can't, which is that it has no ambiguity, everything is clear?" @

@o John: "It's a foundation. It's solid." @

@o "It's a rock?" @

@o John: "It is. Without that, I'm in the pot with everybody else." FL

FL JOHN WEBSTER BELIEVES HE WAS A DIF-

FN ferent man a decade ago. @

@o In pursuit of plastics promotions, he had moved his family to seven cities in ENTER AREA 08seven years. He was a decent guy, but he wasn't above bullying Sue, even calling her stupid. If it would help him get ahead, he'd spread a rumor at work. But most important, John judged people in a way that may sound familiar: "What do you do? What's your position?" John went to church, but to look good, and because he figured the kids needed it. He had been raised Episcopalian, was even an altar boy at his family church in New Jersey, but any church would do for John. He was a hypocrite, really, with no commitment to anything -- his faith, his employer, his family. John looked out for John. @

@o "Why shouldn't I go for the gusto?" he'd a. "It's my turn." @

@o Then John did something dumb, miscalculated. He took a job in Mobile as the sales manager of a plastics company, figuring he had finally hit the big time. But it was a bad job, boring and with little future. John -- always on the make, always ahead of the eight ball -- had bombed. "What am I doing?" he aed himself. "I'm using the formulas, I'm plugging myself in. I feel lousy, I'm really not pulling my weight at home. For God sakes, I've dropped back five years -- and stuck in Mobile, Alabama! Holy mackerel! What a sham I've made of my life." @

@o ENTER AREA 09It was the flash point for John's conversion. @

@o John felt empty -- that's the only way he can describe it. He had sensed a vague discomfort for years, as if he were living his life in pieces, watching himself act out life instead of live it. Confused and anxious, he went to Houston on business, where he found himself surrounded by businessmen who were born-again Christians. These were mainstream guys who talked about Jesus like they talked about golf or plastic pipes, describing prayers and sins and miracles. It was weird, and John felt out of place, shallow. When aed, he said, "I go to church," though he knew that wasn't the right answer, not for this crowd and maybe not for him. The next week John was born again. @

@o It happened that fast. @

@o You can remind John that there are secular, psychological reasons for what happened to him. He was closing in on 30, guilt-ridden about failing his family, learning that the ride to the top isn't guaranteed. Not to mention the social pressure of the Bible Belt, where the language of faith is as important to membership as is the language of cynicism and sophistication in New York. John nods, unimpressed. @

@o

@

@' "All I know is this: When it happened, my life changed. I became a different person." John's voice is slow and gentle and musical in that southern way, his years in Alabama having smoothed the New Jersey roughness from his words. He is very earnest. "I was so wrapped up in me -- and if I was all there was and was able to fail, how sensitive it is. There was hopelessness. @

@o

@

@' "I saw other people. I saw their needs. I saw the hurt that I could inflict. I saw it all. I saw where I was headed and what I was becoming. I saw some folks who were happy, with peace in their lives. And I wanted some of that. I had all the ingredients -- great family, good-looking wife, nice home. But I just didn't put it all together. With Christ, I put it all together. That was 11 years ago, October 1976. And that was the beginning." @

@o Sue Webster was elated. @

@o She had been raised in Asheboro, N.C., where the Dogwood Acres Presbyterian Church was the center of her life. Sue was a fundamentalist who didn't realize people could be anything else. It wasn't until her freshman year in college that a religion professor taught Sue that Christ was probably educated by the same Jewish sect that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, that His teachings weren't unique, that He was not divine. Sue freaked. She told her father, who told Sue's old minister at Dogwood Acres, who said, yes, some historians believe that. The minister didn't seem bothered at all. @

@o ENTER AREA 10But sweet Sue, naive and untutored, couldn't reconcile her faith with facts that she believed contradicted the Bible. So she decided not to decide, putting her religion on the shelf. She recalls the next few years as dark and brooding. @

@o Again, you can remind Sue that college is a dark and brooding time for many, and she will shake her head. No, it was her crisis of faith that caused her depression. She knows this because when she returned to Christ -- after David was forced to wear leg braces for six months as a toddler -- and allowed her faith to imbue her again, when she did this, her depression lifted. @

@o "I didn't have the strength to deal with myself, much less what was going on. It broke my heart. Suddenly this real independent little kid couldn't get on his tricycle, couldn't sit on the swing. I went back and said, 'I don't care where Christ was.' " She figured that if He was taught by the sect that wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, that was fine with her. But soon after that, Sue read in John 7:15: "How is ENTER AREA 11it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?" Sue decided her college professor had been wrong: The Bible said so. @

@o "I interpreted that to be the reality I needed." FL

FL A conversation with John and Sue: @

@o "So people who don't have a personal relationship with Christ are doomed?" @

@o John: "That's what the Bible says." @

@o "They go to Hell?" @

@o John: "Yes." @

@o Sue, realizing how harsh this sounds: "Just forget the attitude about the Bible. One of the things we believe is that God is just and that He is good and that He is righteous. Then no matter what happens, it is going to be fair." @

@o John: "I don't believe that there is a difference between you and me, except where I have chosen to go in eternity." @

@o "That's no minor difference." @

@o John: "But I mean that I have no 'better-than' philosophy." @

@o "What about the Zen Buddhist?" @

@o ENTER AREA 12John: "I don't understand why, but the Scripture says that there is only one way, and that's through Christ." @

@o "That won't be reassuring to millions of Americans." @

@o John: "What can I say? There it is." FL

FL FOR THOSE OF YOU WONDERING IF THE Websters are all show and no go on this religion thing, here is how they live. John contributes about 15 percent of his income, before taxes, to his church and to other charities, the Salvation Army, the United Way. Since John left his job and started his own plastics company in 1979, these haven't been paltry amounts. @

@o "I write those checks first," he says, "before I pay the bills." @

@o John teaches Sunday school at the Cottage Hill Baptist Church, and every Tuesday morning from 5 to 6 he mans the church's 24-hour prayer phone, taking calls from sick or depressed people aing for prayers for themselves or others. Lora teaches Sunday school to deaf children, and Sue, who doesn't hold a paying ENTER AREA 13job, teaches Sunday school to women. She also meets with several women's prayer groups, support groups really, during the week, visits shut-ins, takes old people to the doctor. Once a week, she takes a 6-year-old boy with severe brain damage to swimming therapy. @

@o The Websters are not fringe, holy-roller people. Their kids wear Nikes and jeans and old T-shirts. David has a funky haircut -- short in the front, long in the back. He figures it makes his big nose look smaller. He'll probably be a starting linebacker on the varsity next fall. He and his dad go to the Y to lift weights together in the mornings. Lora wears pink polish on her nails; she's captain of the cheerleading squad, president of the student council. @

@o They're a clean-cut, joyful crew. Nobody swears much, nobody drinks. They go to movies, dance, watch a few risque' TV shows, "Moonlighting," for instance. But John and Sue are strict with the kids, stricter than any parents David and Lora know. "It's pretty rough having our folks," says David, hiding a smile. "Kinda like livin' in a concentration camp." Everybody at the dinner table laughs. @

@o The Websters make all their own Christmas presents for each other, so homemade lamps and vases and mugs fill the house. But what's most striking about their home is that nearly every item in it -- pictures, inspirational sayings (which are everywhere), pillowcases, rugs, everything -- is a story. Because most of them are gifts, many in return for favors done by the Websters. @

@o The crystal bird is from a neighbor whose daughter Sue baby-sat free of charge for two months after the man's wife died. The tiny wooden house is from the eight teen-agers who lived with the Websters for two weeks as part of a church camp. The statue of the old, bent man is from Ecuador and was given to them by missionary friends. It just goes on and on, and for more than an hour Sue walks through her four-bedroom home, cheerfully telling the stories behind dozens of belongings. Nothing is here because Sue or John thought it would look @

just right @'

with the decor. No, it's a home filled not with good taste but with meaning, decorated from the heart for a family that works. @

@o Sue has no doubt why. @

@o "The life of our family is based on our faith," she says. "It's the only reason we do what we do. I'm not good. I'm not kind. I don't have that in me. I can't do any of that without motivation from God." FL

FL A conversation with David, the son: @

@o "How does praying make you feel?" @

@o David: "I feel like kind of a tingling feeling, a light-headedness. I don't know, it ENTER AREA 14sounds kinda hokey, but at church camp every year, that's the time I feel the closest. Like nothing could hurt you, nothing could go wrong. You're in harmony with yourself and everybody around you, and God. It's hard to describe, and it sounds kinda funny." @

@

@o

@' "Do you ever wonder about your religion?" @

@o David: "I wonder, but I don't honestly doubt. My imagination goes wild, but I don't doubt it." @

@o "Like what?" @

@o David: "Where the Bible things fit in as far as geologic time. Right now, we're working on the geologic rock record. They put all 4.5 million years into a year, and where do Adam and Eve fit in because man didn't come in until 10 minutes before midnight of December 31st. And that's Cro-Magnon man! So where does it all fit in? I know it's gotta fit in somewhere." @

@o "Why?" @

@o David: "Because the Bible says so." @

@o "Couldn't the Bible be wrong?" @

@o David: "No, see, that's the thing. It's not. I don't know, it's God's teachings. It's like a road map. This is what we go by -- the Gospel truth." @

@o "Men said God told them that. God didn't put a sign up in Times Square or buy space in USA Today to say, 'This is my Word.' " @

@o ENTER AREA 15David: "I believe the Bible is 100 percent true. I mean, most of my friends do not. They believe portions of the Bible. They intellectualize things: 'This couldn't be, because of this and that.' " @

@o "What's wrong with thinking about things?" @

@o David: "Nothing is wrong with thinking about things, but that's the truth. And somehow that fits in with everything else." @

@o "What's the truth?" @

@o David: "The Bible. Somewhere Adam and Eve fit in. I'm not too sure where, but I know it does fit in somewhere in that geologic time. Because the Bible says so. We're talkin' a belief in faith. There's only one Holy Bible, and it's right. That's what I've been taught. And I'm not exactly sure why it's all right, but I just know that I've been taught that it's right, and that's what I know." @

@o "Does your faith require that you not think?" @

@o David: "No. Like I said, it's gonna fit in. You can wonder, but somehow it's gonna end up being true. It is really tough to explain. I believe that to go to Heaven, to have life after death, you have to be saved. Jesus has to come into your heart. Somehow I know that the way we believe is right. I mean, without a doubt, somehow I know that that's right." FL

FL THE WEBSTERS FIRST HEARD ABOUT what would become the Mobile "secular humanist" lawsuit at a party. They were told that Mobile's schools couldn't promote Christianity because of recent Supreme Court decisions on maintaining the separation of church and state. And yet the schools were promoting a religion called "secular humanism" -- an atheistic philosophy that says man alone is responsible for his fate. Mobile's textbooks were supposedly expounding the values of secular humanism by teaching sociological and psychological theories of moral judgment and human motivation, without complete discussions of religious morality and values. A group of people were going to court to fight these godless teachings, and the Websters joined. @

@o They went to court last fall seeking a ruling that Alabama's public schools, through their history and home economics textbooks, violated the First Amendment separation of church and state by under-emphasizing the role of religion in American history and by promoting the values of secular humanism. Tele DH preacher/pol Pat Robertson's organization paid a portion of their legal bills. On the other side were the American Civil Liberties Union and People for the American Way. The ACLU portrayed the secular humanism case as nothing more than a smoke screen for fundamentalist zealots ENTER AREA 16trying to get Christianity back in school, and the heavyweight Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson took the case -- to the tune of about $500,000 in pro bono work so far. @

@o There are two critical legal issues. Can a philosophy that denies the existence of God be considered a religion under the Constitution -- especially since secular humanist philosophers sometimes identify their beliefs as the moral equivalent of religion? And if so, do textbooks that discuss secular theories of morality but not religious theories promote a secular religion? @

@o From a distance, the whole thing looks like one more assault by the religious crazies, a modern "monkey trial," with social scientific knowledge on the stand instead of evolution. But the ignorance versus enlightenment motif isn't so easily imposed on the Mobile case. @

@o The Websters, for instance, had their first run-in with the schools when their son was only 8 years old. He was in a special program for gifted students and came home talking about the "fallout shelter" game. In it, students are aed to imagine that there has been a nuclear war. A group of eight people -- including a priest, a doctor, a retarded man and a pregnant woman -- are set to enter a bomb shelter, but there is only room for six. Who will be left to die? The game was part of a teaching program called "values clarification" in which students were supposed to come to understand their own values better by struggling with the intricacies of right and wrong. @

@o The Websters weren't enamored of the intricacies of right and wrong. The Christian answer was simple: You do nothing; only God decides who shall live or die. But John and Sue didn't make a fuss. They borrowed the teacher's study guide and went through it with David, clarifying their own family values. Then they aed that he go into another class while the material was discussed. The school agreed, and the matter ended. @

@o But this kind of debate over the teaching of secular versus religious moral perspectives is at the heart of the suit. Mobile's home economics texts were hit hardest in the court case. Statements such as "Morals are rules made by people" and "What is right and wrong seems to depend more on your own judgment than on what someone tells you" were attacked by the Websters' side as ethical claims conflicting with the religious view that right and wrong are God-given absolutes. The books do contain numerous references to how religious beliefs shaped American history and morality, which the Websters' side conveniently ignored. But the texts do often treat religion as simply another sociological category, akin to age, ENTER AREA 17sex and race, with religion subsumed under a broader, social-scientific umbrella. Right and wrong are often portrayed as "relative" -- changing from person to person, situation to situation. @

@o What upset the Websters most, though, was that in books purporting to teach moral judgment there was virtually no discussion of sin, which is to them a moral reality. "I don't want Christianity taught in school," says Sue. "And I want that shouted from the housetops." What the Websters say they want is religion -- and the reality of spiritual belief in millions of people's lives, fundamentalist or not -- treated fairly. People for the American Way agrees that books used in Mobile -- books used in schools across America -- are superficial and intellectually flabby. But bad books, they argue, aren't unconstitutional. @

@o The Websters' concerns can't be sloughed off as the narrow province of fundamentalists. Left-leaning historian Christopher Lasch caused a sensation with his 1979 book @

The Culture of Narcissism @' , which argued that secularized, urbanized, bureaucratized 20th-century America has created a new personality type: The narcissist, self-absorbed and self-indulgent, obsessed with using modern psychology for self-analysis, freed from narrow, traditional roles but often ENTER AREA 18left confused, lonely and rootless. Lasch's narcissist is the modern, irreligious man the Websters fear and despise. @

@o From the conservative side, University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom's @

The Closing of the American Mind @' , which hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list recently, attacks the widespread, modern assumption that morality is "culturally relative." The idea, he says, has destroyed our ability to make confident moral choices. Woody Allen's angst-riddled characters -- always analyzing themselves analyzing themselves -- are Bloom's example of what happens to people who constantly look at themselves as if they were rats in their own experiments. He finds another modern irony: The dancing family of rabbinic Jews in Allen's movie "Zelig" was probably happier than the oh-so-sophisticated audiences chuckling at Allen's comic portrayal of their quaint beliefs. @

@o But it was Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles, hired originally as an expert witness against the Websters, who saw most clearly that the Websters aren't religious freaks but people who have rightly recognized that modern life -- from TV ads to birth-control clinics to the dream of wealth and riches to classroom "clarifications" of their values -- is an ongoing assault on their traditional lives and beliefs. @

@o "Those textbooks are abominable," says Coles, who has for years railed against the arrogance of the "religion" of psychiatry. "They're full of psychological, sociological junk. It isn't what I'd want my kids reading. The so-called intellectuals who leaped to oppose ought to take a look at those books. Let them get outraged about these books, which are crap." @

@o William Bradford Jr., the Hogan & Hartson lawyer handling the case for People for the American Way, says such cultural criticism is interesting but irrelevant to the Mobile case. To broaden the First Amendment definition of religion to include perspectives that are secular and atheistic, he says, is to go beyond the Constitution's definition of religion and to open the door to fringe religious groups' taking schools to court all across the country. @

@o "It's a question of education and culture," he says, "not religion." FL

FL A conversation with Lora, the daughter: @

@o Lora: "I have a book right now that says David and Goliath was a myth." @

@o "Did you say anything to the teacher?" @

@o Lora: "The teacher said, 'I don't want to talk about it. I could get fired.' We can't say anything! We're at home and we know what's right, and then we go to school and they have all these 'facts' that

FN continued on page 38 FR

CE

FL ENTER AREA 00 FL

FL

@ continued from page 17 FL

@' say that there's no way the star could have been where it was the night Jesus was born, or whatever." Lora mentions that she has a friend who is a Jehovah's Witness: "I feel like I'm right, but she feels like she's right." @

@o "So what does that mean?" @

@o Lora: "It's confusing that she can believe in something and I can believe in something very strongly. I know what I believe. I know that that's right. It's just weird how many religions there are." @

@o "What do the differences within Christianity mean when we die?" @

@o Lora: "Well, the people who are really Christians, not just say they're Christians -- to believe and to have faith and to be able to depend on God for all that you need. It depends on how different they believe if they're going to go to Hell or Heaven." @

@o "What about Jews?" @

@o Lora: "Jews? What do they believe?" @

@o "Christ was a Jew. The Jews have never acknowledged him as the Savior." @

@o Lora: "Okay, I feel like in order -- now, I'm only 13, you know -- in order to be a Christian you need to believe Jesus was the son of God, and if you don't, then

FN

FL

FL you're wrong. That's what I believe. I know what I believe, and nothing can tell me that I'm wrong, because I know that I'm right. I know what I believe and I know what I've been taught. They're just teaching what's in the books. Science is bad about that with evolution and all that stuff. It's weird." @

@o "What do you mean?" @

@o Lora: "They just have so many different ideas of how man came to be. They have to have proven facts. See, that's the thing: Nobody can have faith anymore; everything has to be laid out for 'em. They have to see it to believe it." @

@o "Would it matter to you if you discovered the Christmas star didn't exist?" @

@o Lora: "First of all, the Bible says that that star was there, so it @

was @'

there @ . @'

And that's what I'm going to believe, so I don't even have to worry about it. The Bible says it was there, it was there." @

@o "That's all there is to the answer?" @

@o Lora: "Right, there's no point in going any further." FL

FL DINNER IS DONE, AND DAVID ROCKS

FN anxiously on the back legs of his chair, his Kansas City Royals cap returned to his head. Lora as to be excused, and she is. David joins her. Sue pours second cups of French vanilla coffee, and John removes his glasses and rubs his eyes. An ink pen

FN

FL

FL

FL is clipped inside the neck of his golf shirt. @

@o "You're tired of it all?" @

@o John sighs. "Well, I don't know if we're tired physically, but mentally. We are not professional lawyers, not professional challengers. We're a family here, please -- cameras, mikes, tape recorders, questioning! We're folks here, just trying to survive a day of football and cheerleading." @

@o Says Sue, "We're not afraid of moral absolutes that work for us as a family. We want to guard that." @

@o "But how can you be so sure?"@

@o Says Sue, "I have experienced the privilege of answered prayer." @

@o "Oh, God, goodness," she says. "Every time we see who we're supposed to be on TV, very often read who we're supposed to be in magazines, we can't identify with those people. It's as if it's almost presented in mockery. The reason we agreed to do this is to try to get the truth out. And now that we're in the middle of this, I'm not sure it's possible." @

@o "What do you mean, 'the truth'?" @

@o "What has been printed is that we are a bunch of fundamentalist religious fanatics who are seeking a back-door way of getting their religious beliefs pushed into the public schools. That we are narrow-minded, that we are shortsighted, that we have no reasonable intelligence, that we

FN

FL

FL

FL are backwoods, that we are emotional, that we just kind of cooked this up to railroad it through the system, that we're book burners. We see things almost completely opposite. We think we are the people who make up America." @

@o "You figure your opinion is just as good as any liberal New Yorker's?" @

@o "Why not?" John says. "We've got a vote." @

@o "There's got to be a point of faith," says Sue, pleading. "The intellect should be added to faith. If it's intelligence before faith, then it isn't faith. And what we have is faith. Does that make any sense?" @

@o "Yes, absolutely." @

@o And suddenly, the last scene from "Inherit the Wind" comes to mind, Clarence Darrow angrily saying to the flippant, cynical character based on H.L. Mencken: "You smart aleck! You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have a right to spit on @

my @'

religion! Or my

FN lack of it!" The logic fits here, inspires an empathy for the Websters' predicament. But then, that is a kind of cultural relativism, and the Websters don't like cultural relativism. They don't believe in

FN it. They can't believe in it. Right is right. @

@o Says John, "God has set a standard and the standard is His Word. And it says that separation from God is Hell. Now what

FN

FL

FL

FL that is, we aren't sure. We didn't write

FN the Word. We accept it. And that's part of our belief." @

@o Let's be honest. The Websters have built an enviable life from their faith. They give back to their community, they aren't divorced, their children aren't druggies or jerks, they enjoy life. They are good people. And faith in God is as real to them as life itself. It shapes their perception and their behavior, the very definition of a moral system. So it hardly seems crazy to expect public school textbooks to fairly and objectively acknowledge that reality, if they are going to discuss morality and ethics at all. @

@o But why the nagging sense that something scary is going on here, the sense that there are too many questions the Websters can't a, too many answers that are not possible if the disciples are reduced to dictationists and God to a writer of prose? What if yesterday's fundamentalists had prevailed? Would the Earth and man and God still reign at the center of the universe? Would fanatics still riot against human vaccinations? What of the miracle, the complexity, the beauty of evolution? Would people who gaze at the world through the Websters' eyes ever have seen a blueprint for the journey of man in the birds and fish and lizards of the Gala'pagos Islands? And

FN

FL

FL

FL what of the future, when man will act as

FN God, splicing genes and rebuilding DNA to conquer cancer and mental retardation? @

@o The concerns of the Websters, of the Mobile lawsuit, aren't trivial or stupid. Modern life has exacted a woeful human price, and the philosophies that underpin it -- from psychology to science to consumerism -- should not go unexamined. But will people like the Websters ever a the questions that might lead them to that frightening hilltop where they can look back and see the way from which they came? Will they ever know the exhilaration of unfettered wonder? @

@o A final question: "But do you sacrifice the freedom of curiosity?" @

@o Says Sue, "We believe we are not all-knowing. We are free to investigate, but it has to be in the framework of faith, not dogma. We are not omnipotent. We are seeking the character of God, not the literal details. But belief that is only intellectual is not belief at all." @

@o The debate is unchanged: Confusion is the price of knowledge. Fear of knowledge is the price of fundamental faith. Certainty is faith's reward. @

@o John and Sue, David and Lora Webster have reaped the reward. @

@o John and Sue, David and Lora Webster have paid the price. :: FL