Was Student Who Claims She Was Suspended For Saying, “Bless You” Mimicking God’s Not Dead?

Did a high school really suspend a student for saying “bless you” when someone sneezed? And if not, what really happened? As school resumed this month, a story emerged about Kendra Turner of Dyer County, Tennessee, who was allegedly chastised by her teacher for saying, “Bless you.” (“Bless you” appeared on a list of words that were considered distracting or inappropriate for use in the classroom, alongside words like “boring” and “hang out.”)

According to Turner, she was told that “Godly language” would not be tolerated in school and that her Constitutional rights didn’t apply in the classroom. When another student stepped in and told the teacher she couldn’t “trump God,” Turner was suspended for the rest of the period. Now lawyers from the conservative Christian Liberty Institute are demanding a public apology from the school.

Despite having taught in public high schools and witnessing incidents where teachers violated the free exercise rights of their students, I found the story of Turner’s suspension difficult to believe.

Atheist blogger Hemant Mehta shared this suspicion and spoke with Peggy Dodds, the school principal, who reported that Turner was never suspended but rather chose to walk out of the classroom. FERPA requirements prevent school officials from releasing information about the incident, however, Mehta suggests this was essentially a misunderstanding rather than a teacher persecuting Christians for their faith.

But I suspect there’s more going on here. This scene of a Christian student leading a class in protest against a supposedly anti-Christian educator isn’t an isolated event. A week earlier, a professor at the University of Central Florida sent an open letter to his class after a student allegedly stood up in class and called on his fellow students to refuse to participate in a discussion of “religious bigotry.”

The cultural “script” for both of these incidents appears to be Harold Cronk’s recent film “God’s Not Dead,” in which Radisson (Kevin Sorbo), a philosophy professor, requires his freshman students to sign a pledge avowing that, “God is dead.” One Christian student (played by Shane Harper) resists, rhetorically humiliating Radisson in front of his class, and inspires non-Christian classmates to convert. The film, an over-the-top piece of anti-intellectualism, portrays educators as modern-day Pharisees who promote ideology rather than critical thinking.

So it’s hardly surprising that some Christian students began performing this script in the first week of classes. By equating educators with the villains of the New Testament, ordinary classroom encounters can be transformed into an extension of Biblical narratives. In Cronk’s film, Harper’s character is compared to a Christian facing martyrdom in the Coliseum. Why would anyone want to be an ordinary student when they could be a hero of Biblical proportions? The “God’s Not Dead” script also harnesses ordinary adolescent resistance to authority and gives it cosmic significance. Swenson said of school authorities, “I want them to realize that God is in control and they’re not.”

Jason Bivins notes that for the New Christian Right, schools are a site not just of political but cosmic struggle against the forces of evil. This is a worldview in which ordinary policies can be seen as demonic persecution. Just as claims of a “War on Christmas” equated saying “Happy Holidays” with anti-Christian hostility, policies about saying “bless you” at inappropriate times may soon become the next battlefield of the culture wars.

The conservative Leadership Institute has already begun reporting on other professors who discourage saying “bless you” during lectures. Moving forward in this environment will require better training for teachers, administrators, and policy makers around such issues as the First Amendment, religious pluralism, and conflict resolution.

But clearly the best way to thwart the “God’s Not Dead” script is to look as little like Professor Radisson as possible.

Joseph Laycock is an assistant professor of religious studies at Texas State University. His forthcoming books include The Seer of Bayside: Veronica Lueken and the Struggle for Catholic Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Dangerous Games: What the Moral Panic Over Role-Playing Games Says About Religion, Play, and Imagined Worlds (University of California Press, 2015).

  • Jim Reed

    If we need to have a battle between Christians and non-believers I guess the classroom is as good a place as any.

  • Cat lady

    Has anybody explored the origin of “Bless you” in response to sneezing? I think it’s some belief that I can only regard as weird having to do with the soul being more vulnerable to demons after a sneeze. I’d think it would be a good teaching moment to ask students to pursue this question.

  • Jim Reed

    I think the Christians are just looking to start a fight. The details don’t really matter.

  • Rmj

    I know “Bless” is supposedly an exclusively religious term, but does anyone really know what it means?

    “God Bless America” is not the same thing as “Blessed are the poor,” and neither has any relation to “Bless your heart,” which can be a wish for good, or a very subtle insult. And “God bless you”, or just “Bless you”, after someone sneezes, is largely a cultural reflex, again meant to bestow at least good wishes (or thoughts) on the person sneezing (who is obviously ill or allergic to something, both conditions we shouldn’t wish on others).

    I guess I’m confused by any teacher who wants to ban that phrase from the classroom. Behaving like you are a fake Christian martyr from a bad film is something I would keep out of my classroom, too. But telling people you can’t say “Bless you” in my presence because I’m the teacher and it’s my room?

    I tend to pass over anyone who reflexively says “Bless you” in response to anyone sneezing in my lectures. I have a lecture to finish, and I seldom have enough time as it is.

    I seriously doubt this is a “thing” as the Leadership Institute wants to claim it is, but even if a few teachers are doing it, I have to ask: “Why?” Aren’t there more pressing pedagogical issues in any classroom?

  • Jim Reed

    Perhaps it would be more acceptable if before saying “bless you” the student raised her hand. Then the teacher could call on all the blessers in an orderly fashion.

  • cgosling

    “Bless you,” is a religious term that I reluctantly put up with every day. It is a whole lot better than “God bless you”. Is there another non-religious term that would be appropriate when someone sneezes?

  • DKeane123

    “The cold dark universe is indifferent to your sneeze”?

    Other good examples:
    http://www.noneexist.com/responsestosneezing/

  • DKeane123

    Anything ever written about by Todd Starnes

  • GeniusPhx

    the pendulum swings both ways apparently, from teachers holding virtual Sunday school in their classrooms with posters and bible verses on the walls, to this.
    students can be religious on their own but teachers and school staff cannot lead or participate in prayers or rituals. school facilities cannot be used to promote or show a religious bias.
    govt (by extension the school) doesn’t have to formally establish a religion to be unconstitutional, it just has to appear to an objective observer that govt has chosen one religion over another or religion over no religion. you can see how a Christian monument or cross might on the school lawn might leave that impression, and that’s all it takes.

  • frharry

    The story sounds pretty contrived, in all honesty. What I found more troubling than the focus of the story was the possibility that words like “boring” and “hang out” are somehow inappropriate for a classroom. What kind of Kafkaesque place is this?

    I guess I wonder if the New Christian Right realizes how transparently self-serving this obsession with martyrdom is to everyone outside their circled wagons. Self-appointed martyrs almost inevitably betray their egocentric if not narcissistic motives in their behavior. And the willingness of the rank and file believers to buy into these improbable narratives without any kind of critical consideration and circulate them with abandon does not provide much of a basis for anyone outside the confines of the tribe to take them or their religious beliefs seriously. At a very basic level, this is self-defeating behavior.

    For the record, I teach at a public university and I routinely say “G-d bless you” when a student sneezes. I’m not evangelizing, I’m simply engaging in a folkway.

  • Jim Reed

    The point of the circled wagons is to divide the world into two different parts. Too much mixing would be bad for conservative style religion, so by circling the wagons at least they can continue to have more control over what is inside the circle.

  • mendonik

    In Spanish one says “salud” (health) if someone sneezes.

  • phatkhat

    “Gesundheit” simply means “health”, and is a good wish that you are not sick/getting sick, without religious connotations.

  • phatkhat

    Exactly. They do not want to be part of “the World”, which is Satan’s domain. A local church marquee proclaims “In a scary world, the safest place is close to Jesus”. That pretty much sums up their attitude. The world is a scary place, and you have to stay close to Jesus by staying with your “own kind of people – Jesus’ people”. I have no idea how we can combat that closed-mindedness.

  • Jim Reed

    I think you start by understanding there is a great and growing divide. People have to be on one side or the other, because there is no middle ground. Victory will come because as they grow farther away, a few people wake up and leave that side. As it gets smaller it also becomes more sure it is right because those who question are gone. Just make sure we don’t compromise. Compromise has been the traditional response to them, but it has drawn this out extra decades. Just let them close their minds and drift away, knowing they have no where to go, so they will shrink and some day disappear.

  • Félix Culpa

    Once in a public library I said “¡Salud!” when someone sneezed, and a woman snapped “Why don’t you speak English!” I replied “Pos no me pega la gana.” (This was in Southern California and the Republicans were busy whipping up anti-immigrant – read anti-Latino – animus). She wouldn’t have minded if I’d said “Gesundheit!” Then again there’s another Spanish reply: “¡Jesús!” Wonder what the Dyersburg First Assembly of God would think about that?

  • Marian L Shatto

    And for those of us who live in “Pennsylvania Dutch” country, “gesundheit” is what comes automatically to mind and lips.

  • phatkhat

    And to mine, after living many years in Germany!

  • lorasinger

    Simply diffuse by making a joke out of it with a hearty “Bleshooooo” or “blechooo” and go on doing what you were doing before. Making a buffoon out of oneself is handy to take away from any seriousness in the situation.

  • lorasinger

    It was believed that at the time of the sneeze, that the soul would actually leave the body for a moment and so the entire “blessing” is “bless you…the Devil wants you”.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    I learned “Gesundheit” from my parents in England — but I always assumed it was an imitation sneeze to express sympathy.

    -dlj.

  • David Lloyd-Jones

    Don’t be silly. That “cold dark” universe is all full of viruses that cause sneezes..

    -dlj.