In mid-December, six-year-old Isaiah Martinez brought a box of candy canes to his public elementary school. Affixed to each cane was a legend explaining the manner in which the candy symbolizes the life and death of Jesus. Isaiah’s first-grade teacher took possession of the candy and asked her supervising principal whether it would be permissible for Isaiah to distribute to his classmates. The teacher was informed that, while the candy itself might be distributed, the attached religious message could not. She is then reported to have told Isaiah that “Jesus is not allowed at school,” to have torn the legends from the candy, and to have thrown them in the trash.
Such is the account of Robert Tyler of Advocates for Faith & Freedom, who is serving as media spokesman for the Martinez family. Organizations such as Fox News and Glenn Beck’s The Blaze latched onto the story with purple prose and pointed commentary to rally the base. The Daily Caller described the teacher as having “snatched” the candy from Isaiah’s hands, “and thenright in front of his little six-year-old eyesripped the religious messages from each candy cane.” Fox News said “it takes a special kind of evil to confiscate a six-year-old child’s Christmas gifts.”
The trolls who inhabit online comment boxes were less restrained. The teacher was a liberal, communist, dictatornot only hateful and anti-Christian, but devil worshiping. Amid calls for her firing and observations that a worse fate awaits her in the afterlife, temporal punishments ranging from the obscene to the criminally violent were repeatedly suggested. Isaiah’s teacher has now become the regular recipient not only of hate mail, but of personal threats that have prompted her school to hire on-site security.
Such behavior would be entirely unbecoming of Christians even if the teacher in question were all the things she has been called. In fact, she is herself a pious and confessional Christian, though it would be impossible to discern as much from the coverage of much Christian media.
I know this because I was present at her baptism; I participated in the catechesis leading to her reception into the theologically (and, overwhelmingly, politically) conservative Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod; I preached at her wedding; my wife and I are godparents to her children, as she and her husband (who is himself on the faculty of a Christian university) are to our youngest. Needless to say, I have complete confidence that her far less dramatic version of events is much the more accurate account.
Some will say that precisely as a Christian she should have had the courage of her convictions and allowed the distribution of a Christian message in her classroom. And yet, precisely because she is a catechized Christian, perhaps she understands that in her vocation she serves under the authority of others.
Perhaps it was wise in the litigious context of America’s public schools to confer with and defer to the supervising principal. Indeed, a lawsuit arising from virtually identical circumstances is still, ten years on, bogged down in the courts. If the answers to the pertinent legal questions are not immediately obvious to the dozens of lawyers and judges involved in this previous case, one can hardly expect them to be self-evident even to an intelligent primary school teacher. Thus, those critics who have dismissively counseled her simply to “read the Constitution” betray (in addition to a lack of charity) either an unhelpful naivety or a willful ignorance.
To be sure, important principles are here involved; but so too are persons. Unfortunately, in this case and more, too many have shown themselves unable to defend a principle without defaming a person, even a fellow Christian. They have ignored the wise explanation of the eighth commandment found in the Catechism of Isaiah’s teacher: “We should fear and love God so that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, think and speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.”
In slandering this woman, conservative and Christian media have made it even more difficult to take seriously the many similar stories in which some Christian’s rights are trampled. This is no way to wage, much less to win, a culture war.
Korey D. Maas, an ordained pastor in the Lutheran ChurchMissouri Synod, is Assistant Professor of History at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan.