By Craig R. Prentiss
A decade ago, I was driving with my family on a highway in Tennessee when our windshield was hit by a stone. My focus soon shifted from the fresh crack in the glass to the signs on the back of each vehicle in a convoy of gravel trucks reading: “Stay Back 300 Feet: Not Responsible for Broken Windshields.”
Furious, I wailed, “How is it possible that they’re not responsible?!” I searched the trucks for a telephone number as I passed, to no avail. Reaching for an (absurd) analogy, I yelled, “What’s next? Serial killers wearing t-shirts saying ‘not responsible for accumulating corpses’?” I was quite proud of the analogy, but my family was more concerned about my rage than the $200 it would eventually cost to replace the windshield.
I thought about that windshield this fall when a former student shared an invitation she received from the Governor of Missouri to “The Thirtieth Annual Governor’s Student Leadership Forum: Faith and Values in Leadership.” Only the top students in the state receive the invitation, so she was rightly honored to have been selected. A description of the three-day event in Jefferson City was enclosed. It explained: “Each January, student leaders across the state gather with leaders in politics and business to discuss the servant leadership philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth . . . . The forum is not religious. We seek participants of all faiths . . . .” The forum is subsidized by the annual Governor’s Prayer Breakfast. Selected students pay a fee of $350 to attend, and no tax dollars directly fund the forum.
I want to draw attention to the discursive act of insisting the forum “is not religious.” The felt need to make this assertion, no doubt, stems from both the U.S. Constitution’s establishment clause, and Article II, Sec. 5 of the Missouri State Constitution, which holds that “neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion.” So I am led to ask, what structures must be in place to make the non-religiousness of the forum “true”?
In this case, we have the most powerful figure in the state, the governor, endorsing the forum, along with other public officials and wealthy business leaders. We have the fact that substantial financial resources would be required to contest the “religiosity” of the forum in court. We have the political reality that Missouri’s population is overwhelmingly Christian. Talk of “faith” and “values” and even “Jesus” remain part of the native vocabulary of a plurality of Missourians and likely strikes few as problematic or unacceptable. Moreover, we have a history of American presidents and state governors participating in prayer breakfasts, chaplains opening legislative sessions, and the language of divinity frequently appropriated for civic ceremony, effectively normalizing it. Finally, we have the definitive claim that this student forum is “not religious” (a claim reinforced by strategically identifying its concern with the “philosophy” of Jesus — a term associated with openness to scrutiny through reason — rather than with his “beliefs” or “teachings”). The forum’s dedication to an examination of Jesus, its prayer breakfast funding, its appeal to students of “all faiths” (not, say, “all perspectives” or “all ideologies”), are countered (blunted) by the straightforward assertion that it is “not religious.”
Most interesting to me, however, is another mechanism preserving the structure that endows the forum’s “not religious” status: the cost-benefit analysis nearly all of us do, either consciously or subconsciously, when determining whether to put up a fight when inclined to dispute such a claim. I discovered years after my windshield incidents that — surprise! — poorly covered gravel trucks really ARE liable for broken windshields. It’s right there in the Code of Federal Regulations 393.100b: “Each commercial motor vehicle must, when transporting cargo on public roads, be loaded and equipped, and the cargo secured . . . to prevent the cargo from . . . blowing or falling from the motor vehicle.” Voilá! I had grounds to hold the truck companies responsible for my broken windshields.
But I know myself. Even if I were aware of the C.F.R. regulations, and had taken the steps necessary to track down the phone numbers and addresses of the gravel transport companies, there are limits to how far I would go in pursuit of justice. If they denied my initial reimbursement request for the $200 it cost me to have my windshield fixed, would I have taken them to small-claims court? Would I have gone to the trouble of securing a lawyer? For all my bluster, probably not. In fact, most folks let the sign denying responsibility for the broken windshield stand-in for the rules and stand-in for the end of the story (hint: that’s why they have the signs). The actual “responsibility” of a trucking company, like the “religious-ness” or “non-religious-ness” of a forum dedicated to the examination of Jesus of Nazareth, is sometimes not dependent on federal codes or constitutional language. Instead, it depends upon our willingness to wade through the layers of hassle, dedicate limited resources, marshal tools of persuasion, and overcome the impulse toward inertia standing in the way of reconfiguring power. So a religion-free forum on the “philosophy” of Jesus of Nazareth? Sure, why not?
Craig R. Prentiss is a Professor of Religious Studies at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri. He is the author of Staging Faith: Religion and African American Theater from the Harlem Renaissance to World War II (NYU Press).