The Ethical Dilemma: Preaching to the Choir

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Preaching To The Choir: My daughter is in the high school choir. Yesterday they performed a concert, and to my disappointment, the song my daughter’s group sang was “Alleluia.” There were also three or four other religious/spiritual songs performed. This never happened in middle school, not even in the Christmas concert.

The choir director is a temporary (one-year) substitute while the regular teacher is on leave. I can appreciate that the teacher may want to expose students to these types of music, but I was surprised by this performance. My husband, an atheist whose family background is Muslim, was even more perturbed than I was since the songs were Christian. My daughter was not bothered—in fact she was not aware that “Alleluia” was religious. How should I address this with the choir teacher, or should I just leave it alone?

—Out Of Tune

Dear Tune,

As someone who has sung in choruses all my life, I’m familiar with the challenges of reconciling the desire to immerse yourself in gorgeous music and the fact that historically, the vast majority of outstanding choral works are religious-themed, predominantly Christian. I’ve covered this in past columns, and always cite the late, great David Randolph, an atheist who I believe still holds the record for conducting the most performances of Handel’s Messiah. He argued that there’s no such thing as religious music. I also know firsthand how you can sing the words “Jesu Christe” as beautifully as you are able and never stop to think that you’re glorifying a god you don’t believe in—until someone points it out.

The fact is there certainly is music with lyrics that promote religious doctrine, and it can be uncomfortable for anyone who’s not on board with that—particularly school children (and their parents) who have to utter those lyrics or for audiences who have to listen to them. I believe there’s a place for such pieces even in strictly secular choirs, within the context of great music and themed concerts—as long as there is some balance provided with other types of music in those or other performances.

It sounds as though your substitute choir teacher has a penchant for religious music, possibly with an agenda for proselytizing, or perhaps because those happen to be the pieces he or she particularly admires or feels most competent to conduct. Either way, it’s a good idea to bring up this issue, in person or in writing, not with the temporary choir director but with the school principal (it’s a public school, right?). Note the religious nature of the pieces in that particular concert and give a nod of approval to the more secular programs that were the rule in middle school. Request a policy that future programs be balanced and secular in nature to ensure that this example remains the exception and doesn’t become the rule. That should do the trick to get current and future choir teachers to refrain from too many “Alleluia” refrains.