Young, Devout, Maligned

Adults routinely trivialize, and in some cases derogate, young people’s religious values, beliefs, and practices. It’s wrong and it should stop.

Exhibit A. Slate Magazine’s Tom Scocca’s recent anti-Joel Northrup screed. Northrup is the homeschooled Iowa wrestler who two weeks ago chose to forfeit his state tournament wrestling match because he didn’t want to compete against a female.

Here’s what Northrup said about his decision not to wrestle. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Cassy and Megan and their accomplishments. However wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most high school sports in Iowa.”

And here’s Scocca’s unbelievable Slate Magazine response.

Iowa Wrestler Won’t Wrestle a Girl Because His Parents Are Raising Him to Be Self-ImportantPosted Thursday, February 17, 2011 10:08 PM | By Tom Scocca
Joel Northrup, a 112-pound high school wrestler in Iowa, decided to lose his first match in the state tournament by default rather than compete against a female opponent, Cassy Herkelman. Northrup wrestles, or sometimes chooses to refuse to wrestle, for the Linn-Mar High School Lions, although he does not attend Linn-Mar High School. He is home-schooled by his parents, but Iowa allows homeschoolers to participate in varsity athletics.Having been given the chance to take part in the Linn-Mar athletic program, Northrup and his parents decided to use the public school as a platform for their beliefs about the role of women. In a statement, Northrup wrote:”[W]restling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other High School sports in Iowa.”The passive voice—”I have been placed in a situation”—is appropriate, narrowly. Northrup’s father, Jamie Northrup, said the family helped the son make the decision. (The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against “gender confusion”; he is also a “volunteer chaplain with the United States Army,” where presumably issues about women’s exposure to violence and combat never come up.)One easy way to have avoided the situation would have been for the Northrups to really stand by their beliefs and let high school sports be played by people who go to high school. Out of all the students who attend Linn-Mar, there might be a 112-pounder who would be willing to go to states and wrestle a girl, rather than sticking the team with a default loss.

But entitlement means never having to sacrifice anything. The Northrups were too good or too godly for high school, but they weren’t too good for high school sports, until high school sports turned out to include gender equality, at which point they wanted to drop out again. Once the high school athletic system gave him a suitably male consolation-round opponent, Joel Northrup went back to being a participant.

It’s like the ultra-Orthodox Jewish students who sued Yale in the ’90s because they wanted to go the university but be segregated from the opposite sex. Either turn your back on the sinful world and its rights for women, or don’t. Society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race is not there to be your waiter. If you want to be a wrestler, wrestle your draw.

Scocca pretends to know Joel Northrup’s family because he can’t wrap his head around the fact that he is a deeply religious adolescent. In Scocca’s mind I suspect, that’s only explainable as a result of indoctrination. Also, it’s important to Scocca that his readers know “The elder Northrup is reportedly a youth pastor at a nondenominational church whose main pastor has preached against ‘gender confusion'”. Guilty by association of politics unacceptable to Scocca in the same way the right ripped Obama for his former pastor’s extremist views.

And who does Northrup think he is opting out of public schooling? In the end, how dare he act on his religious convictions in a way that is antithetical to Scocca’s politics.

Scocca needs to take to heart his last two sentences and Stephen Bates’s brilliant book, Battleground: One Mother’s Crusade, The Religious Right, and the Struggle for Control of our Classrooms. Bates’s book makes it crystal clear that society isn’t an a la carte menu, and the whole human race isn’t there to be Scocca’s waiter.

Scocca, if you want to be a citizen in a pluralist democracy, learn to accept the byproducts of diversity including conservative religious and political behavior.

I’m sure my politics are more closely aligned to Scocca’s than Northrups, but I’m inspired by the fact that Northup had the courage of his conservative religious convictions. The wrap on teenage boys is that all they do is sit around and play video games while girls excel all around them. So forgive me if I find it refreshing that one of those maligned teenaged boys simply and courageously acted on his beliefs when he knew he’d be criticized for it. Scocca is afraid of conservative religious behavior. I’m find apathy far more threatening.

Granted, as the documentary Jesus Camp poignantly illustrated, some young people are indoctrinated by adults. Others simply conform to a strict religious family culture that they’re born into. I understand respectfully challenging those adolescents’ beliefs, but many young people seek spiritual meaning and choose religious practices relatively independently. In particular, journalists and other media continue to demonstrate an utter lack of sophistication by unfairly lumping all of these religious young people together.

Give me a whole generation of Joel Northrups and Ronnie Hasties and I’ll be even more bullish about our future. Hastie was the Tumwater High School junior running back who was penalized for extending his right arm and pointing his index finger upward after scoring a touchdown in a Washington State playoff game last fall (thus delaying the game a few seconds).

“It’s my way of giving glory to God, not to myself,” he explained. “I want to give God the credit.” Someone hold Scocca back.

What was lost in the Hastie story was what happened in the subsequent week. Hastie’s coach explained that Hastie didn’t want to jeopardize the team so he decided to kneel on the sidelines afterwards. “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this,” Hastie said.

And yet, rest assured, many adults will continue to make a big negative deal out of youthful piety.

7 thoughts on “Young, Devout, Maligned

  1. I wonder what the same commentator would have said about Eric Liddell (1924 Olympics/Chariots of Fire)? How can people talk about respect for diversity and then bash a young man who doesn’t feel right about hurting women. Makes me wonder about the human race…

  2. Well said Ron. I might not agree with the Northrup’s religious take on this but it was harmless in comparison to some fundamentalists who re-write school text books as they do down here in Texas to fit their Old Testament views.

  3. Just because someone gets their sexist beliefs from their religion does not and should not shield them from criticism. All race and gender discrimination is wrong, regardless of whether it comes from a book or your pastor or your family traditions. Northrup’s resolve is admirable, but we should not condone his bigotry. His stand may have been sincere, but it was also misinformed and displays a serious lack of respect for women. We should pity his delusions, not praise the way he expressed them.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting Jason, but how is his choosing not to wrestle an act of “serious disrespect for women” and why label him deluded for that decision? Do you not believe his statement? If you dig a little deeper he said it’s too bad only wrestlers have to compete against girls in Iowa. Some states have female specific wrestling. Is it disrespectful gender discrimination to have separate boys and girls swim teams, tennis teams, golf teams, basketball teams?

      • I think that the purpose of separate boys and girls teams is to ensure an even playing field in cases where the physical differences between men and women give one group a clear advantage. But Northrup isn’t claiming that his opponent had an unfair advantage over him. In his statement, he explains that ‘wrestling is a combat sport’ and ‘can get violent’. This is true. As all athletes do, his opponent decided she would take the risk. His lack of respect for her decision illustrates his lack of respect for women. And if he truly believes that there is something about the female gender that makes women unsuitable for competition with males, I would count that as a delusion.

      • Again, appreciate the engagement. Respect takes different forms and it’s problematic whenever one person claims to know THE form it should take. Some women catch fish for a living. Some of them feel more respected when called “fishermen” than my default, “fisherperson”. A friend and you attend a dinner party at my house. You watch my wife complete the meal, mostly serve it, prepare dessert, and mostly serve it too. Afterwards, the two of you conclude that the painfully obvious imbalance in dinner party activity must mean I’m a lowlife that doesn’t respect my wife, and by extension, women. Not realizing I did all of the grocery shopping, vacuumed and cleaned the house, and did all of the dishes after the last person left. The point being we know very little about the context of this story, that’s why I view Scocca’s assumptions as anti-religious at root and your “if” in your last sentence as enlightened. However, and here’s the more important point. I have have friends who adhere to much more traditional gender stereotypes than my wife and me. Their wives do a disproportionate amount of child rearing, cleaning, and cooking. In fact, in some cases these mutually arrived at arrangements are informed by their religious worldviews. Not for us at all, but I have to concede it works for them and their wives would tell you they feel respected. It’s a mistake in my view to say that wrestling his female opponent was the only one way for Northrup to show respect to women.

  4. Ron, I think you missed a HUGE part of Scocca’s point.

    The kid and his family basically engaged in a regular practice of opting in and out of things on a whim. Scocca’s not criticizing the decision not to wrestle so much as how the decision was made in a context of having one’s cake, and eating it too, five times over.

    I don’t care one bit about the kid’s religious beliefs. Those beliefs in no way mean that the rest of us should scramble to accomodate him.

    All this comes down to a simple fact: home schooled children should be forbidden from any and all participation in any and all district-sponsored or district-organized activities. Always.

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