These days an avalanche of attention is being paid to something we probably have always known: “You are what you eat.” While the affirmation may be an overstatement, it is increasingly clear that nutrition has serious long-term consequences. Feed a child a diet of french fries and ice cream, and a fat little kid will most likely become an obese adult. Hardly a week goes by at our house when we aren’t deluged with warnings about the implications of a bad diet. So we shy away from fatty fried things and pay attention to keeping our food intake in proper balance, without making a fetish of it.
If it is important that children receive solid nutrition, my guess is that the values children are taught determine their ethical commitments as adults. The way I now see the world is in large measure the natural outcome of what I learned as a child. And that is probably also true for most of you.
As I reflect on my earliest spiritual and ethical diet, it is clear that what I now believe about life has matured from seeds planted by my parents and others when I was very young. I was enrolled in our congregation’s “Cradle Roll” long before I could recall anything about what went on during these Sunday morning adventures. But I do have a clear recollection of the song that was the center of that institution’s life.
"Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world,
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world."
The picture that hung on the wall at the foot of my crib showed a gentle Jesus surrounded by children of many colors and nations.
Most of the values with which I have lived as an adult are the product of these early images. If my childhood songs had been about the violent victories of the good warriors of my nation and religion over the bad guys who didn’t even look like our kind of people, what I now believe would probably be very different.
My earliest Sunday School class might then have introduced me to life with pictures of a bloodied Jesus being sneered at by foreigners. Some time ago I accessed the website of the Ku Klux Klan. The musical background of the verbal message was — you guessed it — “The Old Rugged Cross.” While the cross is rightly the best recognized Christian image, its misuse by our nation’s bigots has been shameful. The central image of the Ku Klux Klan is a fiery cross and standing by it, an American flag. The assumption is that these two symbols stand together against an evil world controlled by anti-American and anti-Christian foreigners.
If your children’s religious theme song was “Onward Christian Soldiers,” one might wonder how that image might have shaped you as an adult. I have seen Sunday school materials produced by a TV evangelist picturing biblical stories of God’s national patriots attacking dark-skinned pagans. Another religious organization conducts summer camps for children using the military images of basic training, preparing these little ones to wage war on evil pagan forces who are also the enemies of the nation.
In my childhood, there was not much talk about doctrine, but there was plenty of conversation about the sort of world Jesus wanted his followers to affirm. The theme was “The Kingdom of God,” and even if that designation was rarely used, it was clear that Jesus’ call was for a world of peace and justice, and that I must be part of this world-order.
So what values are America’s children being fed, particularly by the nation’s conservative religious forces? The answer to that question may suggest why a significant body of evangelicals support this administration led by a “white America first” president.