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            A Church on Every Corner

          Throughout my college career, I was the guy in the mathematics department who talked a lot about religion.  For some of the reason for this, see my story "Father, Son, and Distilled Spirits."  Sometimes my reputation extended even beyond mathematics departments.  Since the "Distilled Spirits" tale dates to the early 1970's, here is one from the 1990's, near the other end of my career.
I was teaching Computer Science at the University of Memphis, TN.

       Toward the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, it became possible for students from the Eastern European countries to study in the United States.  And it happened one day, on the first day of classes in the Fall, that there came a rather timorous knock on the door of my office.  "Come in."  Another timorous knock.  I went to the door and opened it.  There stood the entire newly arrived delegation of students from Hungary.

     "Are you Professor Ordman?"
     "We have a question."
      "It isn't a computer science question."
      "That's OK"
      "Well, aren't you a computer science teacher?"
       "Well, someone told us to ask you our question, but it isn't a computer science question."
       "That's OK.  What is your question?"
        They exchanged looks with one another and the spokesman squared up his shoulders a bit before proceeding.
        "Why is there a church on every street corner?"

      (This is, in fact, a reasonable description of much of Memphis, and especially of the area near the university campus.  The corner I live on, four miles from campus, has three churched, on the other three corners of the intersection.)
        Luckily, I'd traveled a bit, and been asked in other countries about religion in America.  So, rather to my surprise, I found I had an answer ready.

        I had to go back to a point in their education, in communist schools, where we could find a common starting point.  Did they recall the 1600's and 1700's, when there were still religious wars in Europe?  Did they recall the times when a King would pick a church and expect everyone to join that church?  Did they recall that people who wouldn't join the King's church might get in a lot of trouble?  Yes, they did  - - it was part of their communist education in how awful religion was.

       And did they remember, then, that a lot of those people who didn't want to join the King's church, packed up and moved to North America?  Yes, and the light began to dawn.  The United States was selectively settled by people who did not want to have to go to the same church as their next door neighbors.  And from the earliest days, our laws have reflected that.  To this day, on the whole, if you don't like a church, the zoning and tax laws make it as easy as possible for you to go across the street and start another church to compete with it.  The process is still going on today, not only through immigration but through our own actions.  Two of my own nieces have in fact been founding members of new local churches, one dividing over a doctrinal difference and one caused when a group of church members deliberately moved to another state so that they could start a church of their type in a new city.

       I've found this explanation useful in other contexts, too.  In 1998 I found myself lecturing to university students in Xi'an, China.  It turned out the computer science students in the room were weak on English, so I couldn't draw computer science questions - but Americans were a great novelty for them.  So I asked for any questions at all, and after a few easy ones someone asked "Please can you explain US Tibet Policy?"   Not an easy one.  I started exactly as I had with Hungarians.  But the ending was different.  The US was settled, also, by people who did NOT want the government interfering with their religion.  That  is a value our immigrant ancestors had and that we have kept.  The average American, I said, knows very little about Tibet.  We mainly don't know how it was governed before the communists came in, or after the communists came in.  We don't know what the economy was like before the communists came in, or how it changed after the communists came in.  But when the Dalai Lama came out of Tibet and said, "The new government is interfering with our religion," he had said the magic words.  The average American hears those words and is going to be sympathetic to the Dalai Lama and opposed to the present government in Tibet.  No amount of information about the economy of Tibet has improved, of how Tibet is being modernized, is going to make any difference at all.  The US government will be unhappy about things in Tibet as long as the America people think that religion is being interfered with.

(C) 2001 Edward Ordman

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