Chasing Demons in Prince William County

Sometimes it’s hard to maintain a focus on my primary interest — creating more prosperous, liveable communities in a globally competitive economy — when there are so many kumquats out there stirring up controversy over the most ridiculous cultural issues. If it’s not right-wing zealots trying to ban Harry Potter from school libraries on the grounds that the popular series promotes sorcery and witchcraft, it’s left-wing zealots trying to expunge the slightest taint of religion, no matter how deeply embedded it is in our cultural heritage, from the public sphere.

Here’s latest idiocy: Dennis Brown, the band director of the C.D. Hylton High School in Prince William County, has pulled “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” from the band’s repertoire for fear of sparking a controversy — all because a parent who’d seen the band perform the song wrote a letter in the Potomac News wondering “how a song about the devil could be played at school events, because of the separation of church and state,” according to the Washington Post.

Said Hylton: “I was just being protective of my students. I didn’t want any negative publicity for C.D. Hylton High School.” Sadly for Hylton, his decision sparked a highly critical backlash among parents, alumni and local residents.

I take Hylton at his word that he just wanted to spare the school negative publicity. But, my gosh, negative publicity over what? A violation of the First Amendment, which says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”?

Liberals point out (rightly, I believe) that the Second Amendement protecting the right to bear arms should be interpreted in the institutional context of the late 18th century when the citizenry was organized in militias. If only liberals would interpret the First Amendment in the institutional context of the late 18th century, when the Anglican Church had, during colonial rule, been established as an arm of royal English authority. Rather, they see the First Amendment as mandating the “separation of church and state,” and, in recent years, justifying the extirpation of any cultural symbol reminiscent of Christian culture from public schools and public property.

In the name of multi-culturalism and tolerance, of course, it’s OK for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religious minorities to celebrate their cultural heritage, even when it’s imbued with religious symbolism. But it’s not OK for members of the religious majority, whose ancestors created the first society on the face of the earth to bequeath constitutional protections to religious minorities, to express any sign of their religious heritage.

Now the madness has spread to questioning the mere expression of any symbol that might be remotely construed as religious. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” isn’t talking about God, or Jesus, or the Virgin Mary, but “the devil.” And we’re not talking about Satan, or Lucifer or Beelzebub here. No, we’re talking about an imaginary, Faustian demon who plays the fiddle in a story told as a folk tale.

But that’s not the end of it. No one was actually singing the song. This was a band, not the glee club! The band was playing the music to the Charlie Daniels song, not singing the words! But the mere song title, “The Devil Goes Down to Georgia,” apparently is so dangerous that it might send the C.D. Hylton High School down the slippery slope toward crazed, Jerry Falwell wannabes hikjacking the county school board and indoctrinating impressionable young students about sexual abstinence, the right to life and the need to seek salvation in Jesus. (Addendum: Upon reading the original letter, I see that the author was not making this slippery slope argument.)

I, as long-time readers of this blog know, am an atheist-agnostic with strong convictions. I do not attend church. But neither do I live in mortal dread of the dominant religion. What I do see is a secular minority imposing its secular values, built upon secular metaphysics regarding the nature of good, evil and morality, upon a religious majority — not through the exercise of reason but through the power of the courts. I will have no part of it.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


  1. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    But isn’t a fun story? Certainly more interesting than all this dreary death penalty stuff that’s taking up space. For the benefit of readers, here are some more links:
    The letter to the editor thatstarted it
    Potomac News story “Hylton pulls Devil song from routine”
    Charlie Daniels’ reaction
    Potomac News editorial
    James Simpson column
    lots of interesting commentary at Volokh Conspiracy
    And most fun of all, 39 Questions for Charlie Daniels

  2. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Well, maybe you are not so far off base, here.

    You could probably make the aregument that comunities with lots of churches are more properous and livable than those without.

    I’m not sure I buy the idea that we should always interpret the constitution in it’s 18th century meaning. Isn’t the purpose to provide a framework for protecting our rights in today’s world?

    Just because you have the right to say anything you like does not mean that you should. All those kumquats may be an indicaton that some people just don’t have enough to do.

  3. Mitch Cumstein Avatar
    Mitch Cumstein

    It’s interesting how politicized an issue like this can quickly become. Having spoken to a number of Hylton students (I’m a very active Hytlon parent), the word around the campfire is that the song was really pulled because it was the weakest in the program, not for the purposes of political correctness. Isn’t funny how folks look for meaning even when it isn’t necessarily there? Or, how we sometimes use politics as a smokescreen for our real motives?

  4. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    Maybe Kaine and Kilgore could take this up as a campaign issue. It has all the makings for VA politics. Think of it: a devil, country music, triumph of good over evil. Would be even better if NASCAR or guns could be worked in too, but oh well. It’s an absurd story (no one objected to the song) but not any more absurd than discussing whether to execute Hitler. Maybe one of the campaigns could even make it a theme song!

  5. Jim Bacon Avatar

    I hope “Mitch” is right, and that the Washington Post was spinning a controversy out of nothing. If he is right, I will happily retract my wrathful indignation. However, it is a sad commentary on the times that such a thing can be readily believed.

    Becky, please don’t give the K&K campaigns any ideas!!

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Did they have a fiddle player to make the song work? Because as an old half-time hack trumpet player, it is hard to imagine an arrangment of that working with the standard band orchestration. But you have no idea how weird it is getting in education — rampant paranoia is a good day.

  7. Mitch Cumstein Avatar
    Mitch Cumstein

    Jim, think about what you just said: “…Washington Post was spinning a controversy out of nothing.” Would this really be anything new?

  8. subpatre Avatar

    Becky Dale said …”even better if NASCAR or guns could be worked in“…

    Jim Bacon already made a noble effort at that with “the Second Amendement protecting the right to bear arms should be interpreted in the institutional context of the late 18th century…“. I guess the context just didn’t “take”.

  9. Anonymous Avatar

    A lot of these apparent outrages turn out to be misreprestations. Most recently, there was the “Bible reading banned in school” and “Declaration of Indepedance banned in School because it mentions Creator” outrages. Both turned out to be gross misrepresentations of the actual facts of the case. I’ve gotten burned on these stories so often that now I’m a lot more wary when agape press or worldnetdaily starts blasting out the next outrage.

    While I do think sometimes misguided people do wrongly try to take religion out of civil society instead of just out of official government, it’s worth noting that there is also a “Christian Nation” movement that exists to create and trumpet such outrages to help fill their fundraising coffers and advance an agenda that goes well beyond free exercise. So it’s not like there aren’t agendas involved. And on the other side, I’m not sure there really is any organized anti-religion movement of any consequence or authority. Even the new boogeyman, the ACLU, seems to be a lot more measured and balanced in their approach than they are made out to be: yes, they go after official government taking sides in religious matters, but they also zealously represent citizens being denied free exercise by the government, such as a the girl who was denied the right to use Bible quotes in her personal yearbook page.

    Considering that Madison, the architect of the First Amendment, thought it implied the idea of separation of church and state (he even objected to Congressional chaplains on those grounds), I hardly see it as a settled issue that the 1st amendment means no such thing.

  10. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    Come on, Jim. One campaign can grab it as their theme song, to nail down all those voters indignant that the song was ditched by the band leader. Then the other campaign can adopt “Amazing Grace” as their song. Can’t you see it? My question, by the way, is why Johnny won the fiddle contest. Isn’t pride supposed to go before a fall? Pride won the day.

  11. Jim Bacon Avatar

    Becky, Here’s my question: If the Kilgore campaign (or the Kaine campaign, take your pick) adopted “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” who symbolizes what? Would the devil represent Tim Kaine, or the forces of big government, or the legions of liberalism, generally? And what about Johnny? Does he represent Kilgore? Would Kilgore want to risk being seen as “gambling” the strength of state finances on tax cuts? You see, the exegesis can get hairy very quickly.

  12. Avatar

    Jim: I’ve always though that part of the reason that liberal intellectuals can be okay with Buddhists, Hindus, Latino Catholics, Black Protestants acting their religion out in public settings is that they truly don’t see it as equivalent to the institutions of the Anglican Church or Roman Catholicism. It’s a quaint folk art practiced by interesting folks of color and – in their minds – is not threatening to Secular Humanism. Take a look at last weekend’s folk festival for that. Somehow, the soundtrack from “O Brother…” is on par with black folks singing and swinging to Amazing Grace. For them, the Supreme Court is the highest institution of Reason with ideas fed into it by the Ivy League consensus.

    Ray – Ironically, the Bible Belt is home to some of the worse social and economic problems (including higher abortion rates) in the country, and wages/incomes are actually lower on average.

    — Conaway

  13. WTOP is reporting that the complaining parent is a homeschooler. Finally, proof in the media that not all homeschoolers are evangelical Christians!

  14. Anonymous Avatar

    It’s like the post reporter couldn’t be bothered to actually check the story first…..

    The “homeschooling” letter-writer I think is a christian. The letter wasn’t complaining about there being too much religion in the school. Itcomplained there wasn’t enough.

    Heck, the letter didn’t even complain about the SONG being in the school.

    The letter pointed out (in the writer’s mind) that is was ironic that nobody complained about the song, but you wouldn’t be allowed to play “Amazing Grace”. (I still am certain that somewhere in the last two months I read a story about a band dropping “when the saints go marching in” or something like that because of complaints about religion).

    In other words, he pointed out a song that NOBODY would complain about, and suddenly there is a big controversy over the song and it is pulled.

    So far as I can tell from the letters, nobody ever really complained about the song.

  15. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    Why, Jim, haven’t you noticed? The OTHER party is the devil. So, if the Kilgore campaign adopted the song, Kaine would be the devil (and Kilgore would be Johnny, winning the contest, winning the election). If the Kaine campaign adopted the song, Kilgore would be the devil (and Kaine would be Johnny, winning the contest, winning the election). Aren’t they pretty much saying the other candidate is the devil now? Song would be right on point for them.

  16. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    Here’s commentary from academics with expertise in religion law.

  17. Ray Hyde Avatar


    Right you are, I was wondering if anyone would pick up on it.

    The other thing that’s curious is that churches are the one infrastructur we seldom have a shortqge of.

  18. Maybe they dropped the song because it teaches young people that you can resolve conflict by resorting to violins.

  19. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Ugh, Ooh, Argh, Groan

  20. Somehow this one slipped past me. As someone who rather directly was involved in a similar church state issue in Albemarle county, I think I’ve got a unique perspective on this issue.

    You see, from my experience it isn’t the liberals who are making society more secular but rather the Fundementalists themselves. Many liberals whould have no problem with a truely pluralistic system where any religion can coexist. Fundemetalists, however, hide behind the guise of pluralism to promote ideas that are anything but. For example, the Weekday Bible Religious education program in Augusta county (and others) allows them to bus kids out of the schools in midday for Bible School, while forcing other kids who opt out to sit silently or wash blackboards. The only reason this hasn’t been thrown out as unconstitutional is that there’s a claim that any other religious group is allowed to do the same thing, and no one has (yet) taken them up on their offer. You better believe though that if atheists or Muslims started a program to bus the kids out in midday that the local school board would kill the whole program immediately.

    You see, as soon as Fundementalists realize that they have to share the public spotlight with other faiths then they pull support from pluralistic programs creating a more secular environment. Ironically, this means the more they try to force their beliefs by exploiting pluralism the more secular schools eventually end up.

    Trust me, you could probably squeeze just about all the card carrying secular humanists in Virginia easily into the same room. It’s laughable that the likes of Falwell’s crowd is as frightened of them as they’ve been.

    Also, the exclusion of religion in school has been greatly overstated. There is not, nor has there ever been a prohibition on students engaging in religion in public schools advocated by a court. Students can gather with other students and pray as much as they like, but what the schools can’t do is endorse one faith over another. While it is foolish that some localities take things too far in one direction or another, like removing a song referencing the devil, in general the so called religious persecution is so greatly overstated as to be absurd.

    Lastly, anyone with the most minimal knowledge of American History can tell you that we had both founders that were big advocates of secularism, and ones that favored a more religious society. In the end, an uneasy compromise was reached. One thing is certain though, we are not nor have we ever been a “Christian Nation”. Don’t take my word for it though, check out the Treaty of Tripoli which passed unanimously without debate which says in Article 11, “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion…” It’s by far not the only quote illuminating the intentions of our founders, but a very good one.

    Also, in response to Jim Bacon’s Statement:

    “But it’s not OK for members of the religious majority, whose ancestors created the first society on the face of the earth to bequeath constitutional protections to religious minorities, to express any sign of their religious heritage.”

    I think you’re probably mistaken on both counts here. Keep in mind most people who fled to the United States were religious minorities. Most may have been Christian but I dare say they often had little in common beyond that. Also it’s extremely arrogant to claim that the United States had the first protections for religious minorities. You’ll find many ancient societies with similar laws. Even the Romans had many protections for religions, people tend to forget that the Christians were mainly persecuted for not paying their taxes… (Which is not inherently different than many Mennonites who have been persecuted in the U.S. for not paying taxes or participating in the draft).

Leave a Reply