Celebrating liberation with eggs and matzo balls

Posted: Apr 17, 2003 12:00 AM

Why is this week different from all other weeks? Because this week hundreds of thousands of Jewish and Christian soldiers - -liberators, not conquerors - are celebrating Passover and Easter in the Middle East. The Jews rejoice in the liberation of Iraq, as they recall their ancient liberation from the Pharaoh. Christians attest to the renewal of a hideously abused nation, renewal in the spirit of their belief in the Resurrection.

Jewish soldiers received cans of matzo ball soup and gefilte fish. Greek Orthodox Christians will enjoy red-dyed eggs. Military regulations prohibit alcohol but permit sacramental wines for the Passover Seder and the Catholic masses.

Judeo-Christian values are hyphenated and indelibly linked in mutual respect among Americans. It was not always so and we can all exult in the celebration of our common values today. Although American soldiers are among Muslims who do not usually understand religious freedom, they celebrate their religious observances. "I know of no religious restrictions on our military personnel," says Captain Stewart Upton, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar. More than 300 military chaplains representing many different faiths, tend the souls of American soldiers in Kuwait and Iraq. They testify to the enduring rights of all Americans as set forth "by their Creator."

So glorious is our concept of separation of church and state, rooted in religious tolerance for all that it sometimes suffers from distortion and even willful misconception. The most recent example is in reaction to remarks made by Rod Paige, secretary of education. "All things being equal," Mr. Paige told the Baptist Press, "I would prefer to have a child in a school where there's a strong appreciation for values, the kind of values that I think are associated with the Christian communities, so that this child can be brought up in an environment that teaches them to have strong faith."

Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Henny-Penny who often sees the wall between church and state as falling, asked the secretary to repudiate his remarks or resign. Sen. Edward Kennedy, always looking for an exhibitionist way to show that his Catholicism never interferes with his politics, asked him to repudiate the divisive comments and reaffirm a commitment to students of all religions. Sandra Feldman, head of the American Federation of Teachers, joined the choir.

Bill Bennett, the former education secretary under Ronald Reagan, got it right. The values Rod Paige talks about include "helping your neighbor, visiting the sick, feeding the hunger, clothing the naked." He asks, "Who's opposed to that?"

It's no secret that public schools these days offer a chaos of values, a veritable Tower of Babel and that increasing numbers of students attend religious schools or are home-schooled in direct reaction to the public schools' straitjacket of political correctness. What Secretary Paige said is quite obvious to anyone who sees what's going on in secondary schools, colleges and universities.

"The reason that Christian schools and Christian universities are growing is a result of a strong value system," he said. " In a religious environment the value system is set. That's not the case in a public school, where there are so many different kids with different kinds of values." Should he have checked his observations at the schoolhouse door? The secretary has many times proven by his actions and bully pulpit that he promotes diversity no matter what religion or race.

While this silly controversy creates ripples deep in the shallows of what passes for secular high-mindedness, Harold Bloom, a literary scholar and a professor at Yale, announces that he will leave his huge collection of papers and books of American and British literature to St. Michael's, a small, relatively unknown Catholic college in Colchester, Vt. He cites several reasons, but crucial is his criticism of colleges and universities who deny the aesthetic and spiritual values inherent in great literature. They promote what he calls attitudes from "the school of resentment" found in Marxist, feminist and Afrocentric studies taught by deconstructionist scholars.

"With rare exceptions," he told The New York Times, "the universities and colleges in the English-speaking world that have sustained some sense of literature as a matter of powerful cognition and extraordinary aesthetic beauty tend to be the Roman Catholic Institutions."

To observe the way spiritual values influence teaching, whether in private or public institutions, hardly elevates one religion over another. His observation calls attention to the way different ideas flow through our culture in different ways, testifying to our freedom of thought and religion. That's why Christians and Jews in the military can enjoy a matzo ball or a red-dyed egg, at home or far away - and why this week in Iraq is different from all other weeks for lots of people of different faiths.