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Fundamentalist Chickens Come Home to Roost

A lawyer lays out photos of a child who died at day care, as his father looks on. (Kelly Wilkinson/The Indianapolis Star)

Here is a sad story, worth telling because one family’s tragedy is directly traceable to America’s so-called culture wars – which have nothing to do with whether you prefer Mozart, Gaughin or Woody Allen. Two parents in Indianapolis took their little boy to day care, just like millions of other parents do every day. Except this time the little boy didn’t come home.

Juan Carlos Cardenas, age 1, wandered off during lunch, but none of the adults noticed. When they finally went looking for him, they found him face down in the baptismal pool. He drowned.

Why was there a baptismal pool at the day care center? Because it was held at a church; specifically the Praise Fellowship Assembly of God.

The newspapers never have said, to my knowledge, how far away the baptismal pool was from the main day care area; or whether the pool was covered with a lid when not in use; or whether he had to climb up to get to the pool; or whether it was sunken into the floor, so that anyone could trip and fall into it; or how long Juan Carlos was gone before the adults noticed and went looking. The Indianapolis Star, whose story this is, has always been vague about the details – except for a very salient fact: day cares aren’t licensed in Indiana if they’re run by churches.

In Indiana church day cares are “registered,” not licensed. They are exempt from all the safety and staffing requirements state government imposes on commercial day cares and secular non-profit versions. The state legislature decided, after pressure from churches, that they didn’t have to comply with the legal requirements. The church-run centers have lower costs that way; the state doesn’t interfere with their “exercise of religion.” Juan Carlos sadly exercised himself all the way to the room with the baptismal pool.

How many staff were on duty that day? The Star doesn’t say, never has. I guess that’s up to the judge to find out, because a lawsuit’s coming – against the Indiana state government.

Thank you, legislators, so much.

By “registering” church day cares instead of licensing them, the state knows that they exist and takes a role in advising churches how a day care should be run. The state can even do inspections – but it can’t force compliance, because that would interfere with “religious freedom” – to run a day care that kills a kid.

But wait, there’s more: it turns out the state legislature decided, faced with the obvious need for more day care facilities, that it would give out vouchers to qualifying families to send their kids to day care – without requiring them to go to a licensed facility. The Cardenas family enrolled their son at the Praise Fellowship.

Thus the state is deeply implicated here, and probably liable to some extent, though a judge will eventually decide. The church itself has already settled with the family – and shut down the day care center by refusing to accept the vouchers anymore. The state didn’t order the shutdown, they left that to the church.

Indiana sent an inspector to examine the facility back in November, four months before little Juan Carlos was drowned. The inspector cited the facility for 18 violations. However, the church was exempt from complying. See how this works?

After the child’s death, the state sent another inspection team, but by then it was too late, and besides, the state couldn’t close what it never licensed to open.

All this so the Assembly of God, and every other congregation like them, could practice its religion.

No doubt they were well-meaning, but that didn’t keep the child safe. He wandered off and nobody noticed, probably because there wasn’t enough staff.

The Star has never said whether the baptismal pool was considered a violation. Pity the poor inspector whose hands were tied by the legislature. She was busy counting the number of marked exits and making sure the applesauce was refrigerated and not expired, but never got trained in what to do about a baptismal pool. Clearly baptism is a religious matter.

A rational state – New York comes to mind – would handle this differently, I suspect. There, if a church wanted to open a day care center, the state would have welcomed them with open arms – and then told them that religion notwithstanding, they had to be licensed. If they got licensed, they would be eligible for the state to send children there and pay for them.

Not in Indiana.

I hope the state pays through the nose for the parents’ loss. I wish, though it will never happen, that the settlement funds had to come out of the salaries of state legislators. They’re the ones who failed the kid by not requiring oversight.

Why did they do it? Because the churches wanted them to, and had a thousand reasons why they couldn’t comply with the regulations. These aren’t just day care centers, but “ministries,” and everyone knows you don’t mess with a ministry, no matter how wacky it is. Indeed, politicians are eager to do everything they can to help out churches – including giving them money to take in kids like Juan Carlos.

The stupidity of all this need barely be mentioned. A child is dead and politicians killed him. They didn’t mean to, the kid just wandered off.

Surely however we can see many connections between religion, politics and the nation’s problems. Are you worried about the budget deficit? Try paying for your wars next time. Whose wars? George W. Bush’s, the Lord’s Anointed. That’s what the Fundamentalists said; by invading Iraq, Bush was going to remake the Middle East, guarantee Israel’s safety and thereby usher in the Second Coming of Christ.

I’m still waiting.

We could make long lists of the failed promises and lies of Fundamentalist preachers and politicians, but instead let’s ask another question: why and how did mainline Protestants let these goons take over in the first place?

Or: how are Episcopalians responsible for the wholesale theft of the Christian religion?

Fundamentalism is a 20th century movement, and its roots go back to developments in the 19th century, a period of great scholarly ferment among theologians. New methods of Biblical “criticism” arose, and many reactionary Christian leaders became alarmed. They launched a movement to stress the “fundamentals,” no matter what discoveries scholars made about the texts.

They decided to take over Protestant Christianity – and they did it, because Episcopalians didn’t want to dirty themselves fighting back.

They decided to write papers instead, and become even more scholarly. To the triumphant Fundamentalists, it meant God slew all the Amalekites. Piece of cake, really.

Now a hundred years later we are living with the results – when we’re not dying from them, like Juan Carlos Cardenas.

Does anyone realize how many state legislatures, like Indiana’s, Fundamentalist Christians now control?

Here’s a map of the 2004 presidential election results, which I submit as a proxy to answer the question. St. George the Bush won, of course.

It’s a vast swath of the United States.

But maybe you’d rather look at it by population; we’ve got a map for that too. This map is called a cartogram.

2004 presidential results, weighted by population.

 

That looks a little better perhaps and helps reveal the closeness of the popular vote and Electoral College. But it doesn’t do Juan Carlos or his parents one bit of good in little red Indiana, or a pregnant rape victim any good in Todd Akin’s Missouri.

God help you if you’re a Muslim in Murfreesboro, Tennessee or a Gay kid in Casper, Wyoming.

The unwillingness to fight of Episcopalians and others these past hundred years has real consequences. If the questions were only theological they wouldn’t matter so much. But Fundamentalist Christians want to make themselves the Established Church in the United States, and every other country they can get.

Christian Fundamentalists act just like the Taliban in Afghanistan and the “ultra-orthodox” in Israel. They want to control everything and everybody, and they’ll happily use war to get it.

It’s that last part that freaked out the Episcopalians so much and paralyzed them. “These people are warlike!”

Well, d-uh. Memo to theologians and bishops: there’s no sense arguing when your enemy’s got a gun in his hand.

So they surrendered. They won’t admit that’s what they did, but the evidence is all around us.

Todd Akin, the Republican Senate candidate in Missouri who’s “no abortion, no exceptions,” would have told my grandmother, “We don’t care if this pregnancy will kill you. Your maybe-baby is more important than you are.”

(My grandmother did die in childbirth. If she’d had a safe, legal abortion, I wouldn’t be here – and I still think she should have had a choice.)

As I consider my own Church, and how willfully useless it’s been in fighting for an accurate, balanced, faithful and intellectually respectable Christianity, I think back to the great heroes and heroines of the faith, who were never afraid to fight back. Our calendar of saints is filled with intrepid fighters, who didn’t shed blood but gave their lives combating heresy and preaching what the Church calls “pure doctrine.” We celebrate these people every day and every year. What made us so wimpy when challenged in our own time?

We’ll never fully know, and can’t turn back the clock, but here’s the good news: Fundamentalism can still be defeated, if we’ll take up the tools at hand and fight for the full, entire faith – including its nuances, doubts and contradictions too. I give credit to the 20th century bishops and theologians, they preserved and enhanced the faith for those of us inside the walls. That’s no small achievement. But it doesn’t bring back that little boy, either.

Fundamentalists don’t like the truth, and are afraid of it, so they rely on lies. This is a position of great weakness, because the truth can beat them every time, and the keyboard is mightier than the sword. Mine isn’t, but ours are; Leonardo Ricardo has pointed out the similarity between the Arab Spring and America’s future choices if the Fundamentalist-Tea Party-Republicans succeed this fall. We are not powerless, no matter how many billionaires line up for Romney. If the Assembly of God takes over the government, Americans won’t like it one bit. (In many places, when Fundamentalists have taken over the school board in one election, they’re thrown out the next. Even Kansas finally got rid of its militant anti-abortion attorney general once they saw what he was like.)

No side will ever win a complete victory. But we have power if only we’ll use it.

My hope for the Episcopal Church is that the next time we elect a Presiding Bishop, we’ll pick one who isn’t afraid to fight for the truth. Jesus doesn’t care if two men or two women get married, but he cares very much about how we treat women – children – the poor – the elderly – the sick – the homeless – the oppressed. Since Fundamentalists are intent on marginalizing powerless people, we can count on having his power on our side.++

Valentin de Boulogne, c. 1618: Take That, Goldman Sachs!

 

 

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