A WHILE BACK, a girl was expelled from her private school in Virginia for dating a fellow student who, as the expression goes, happened to be black. The school was a fundamentalist Christian academy that believed, no doubt fervently, that it had a God-given right to be bigoted. The girl's parents sued, but the judge sided with the school, ruling that while it might not have a God-given right to be bigoted, as a religious institution it sure has a constitutional one.
The reassuring bit of news was quickly followed in the same state of Virginia by the excommunication from the Mormon Church of Sonia Johnson, the by-now notorious or merely famous ERA advocate. She got the boot, she says, for her vocal support of the ERA. Her bishop says that's not exactly the case, but just what is the case he will not exactly say. At any rate, the result for Johnson is the same. She's out of her church.
What both of these incidents have in common, besides the state of Virginia, is that they compelled me to move toward my typewriter to denounce. In fact, in my head I could hear the muffled feet of columnists across the country shuffling towards the keyboard, either to criticize or to praise. But what I heard in the end was almost nothing. It turns out that we tigers of the typewriter are mere pussycats when it comes to religion -- especially someone else's.
The reason for this, of course, is that these essentially religious disputes are like family fights in the courtyard across the way. It is wise merely to close the window and mind your own business. This is a universal reaction. I know a woman who didn't really care one way of the other about Sonia Johnson until her own Catholic Church ruled from the Vatican that German theologian Hans Kung could no longer be considered a theologian, and silenced priests attempting to broaden the religious roles of women. Now she cares.
As for me, my indignation hit its high point -- a 10 on my personal Richter scale -- when some rabbi somewhere announced that Mormons had the right idea when it came to ERA. What I could tolerate in the Mormons, I could not tolerate in the rabbi. In my mind, a gun went off and the good rabbi bit the dust. I get rid of a lot of people that way.
The trouble with this live-and-let-live approach, however, is that it fragments the society, leaves Catholics to deal with Catholics, Mormons to deal with Mormons and Jews with Jews, and pretends we have nothing in common as a nation. There is a piece of the Johnson dispute, of course, that is strictly religious. One is tempted to say that she can be either a Mormon or a feminist but not both, and that the choice is hers. As Sam Goldwyn once said, "Include me out."
But you also can say that there is a political issue here: that the dispute with Johnson is not over something like liturgy, but over the ERA which is, after all, about the rights of women. When the Mormon church went after Johnson, it attempted to silence a voice -- not just a Mormon voice, but a voice. If the church succeeds, not just Mormon women will suffer, but women in general.
It is the same with that private school in Virginia. You can argue that the parents enrolled the girl in the school, knowing its philosphy, and they should have been prepared either to live with the rules or yank their daughter out. They cannot have it both ways. It was their choice, they made their bed, etc. You pick the applicable cliche.
But it is not so simple. The effect of the judge's decision is not limited to one girl and one school. The effect of it is to say that it is okay to judge a person solely on the color of his skin and, more than that, to punish -- in this case by expulsion -- those who don't. A little more religion like that and we could have a wonderful race war.
What it comes down to, of course, is the fact that these are not little sectarian disputes that we should all keep out of.They affect us all and we have a stake in the outcome. This does not mean that you declare war on Mormonism or condemn fundamental Protestantism of the sort practiced by that school in Virginia. It means simply that you don't turn your back on the likes of the girl's parents or Sonia Johnson just because their fight, for the moment, happens to be a religious one. The issues are not. When it comes to racial toleration and the rights of women, we are all in the same church.