Unsentimental Education

Comprehensive sex education is at the heart of what divides America today. One side thinks it's a direct affront to the Christian value of abstinence until marriage; the other thinks it helps prevent the 60% of teens who already having sex from getting pregnant, or contracting a disease and dying.

Tonight's documentary on PBS, "The Education of Shelby Knox," traverses the bridge between both sides. Shelby Knox is a 15-year-old Christian girl who takes a church pledge to not have sex until marriage. She lives in Lubbock, Texas, a Republican Christian stronghold where local government meetings begin with a prayer, and where students learn that abstinence is the only way to prevent pregnancy and disease.

But surprise, surprise: Shelby's town also happens to have one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases in the country.

Shelby's personal story, which follows her from her sophomore to senior year of high school, is compelling: She develops from an obedient, sheltered teenager who doesn't know what a condom looks like into an activist for sex education and gay rights. She makes great, wise statements, like, "All these wonderful people can't be going to hell. I don't think God ... would create all these people and then not let any of them into heaven." She battles old white Christian men, telling them to back off as they attempt to question her morals.

She even takes her pastor, with whom she made the abstinence pledge, to task: When he tells her "Christian and liberal is like oil and water" and "Christianity is the most intolerant religion in the world," she informs him that "Christianity is about being tolerant." And by the end, she exemplifies the true meaning of a compassionate Christian: One who believes in "God, family, country -- in that order," but who at the same time, champions progressive causes.

Filmmakers Rose Rosenblatt and Marion Lipschutz say Shelby's story shows that dialogue is possible between both sides. Nowadays, however, it's difficult to find people like Shelby Knox in this country. People believe what they believe, and for the most part, that's how is. And although people do talk a lot in the film, most of them don't change their minds. It's actually a bit disheartening, given the outcome of the sex education and gay rights campaigns that Shelby gets involved with. Shelby herself has said, in interviews, that she wants to move to a liberal area of the country and run for office. She's seen how hard it is to create change in the opposite camp. How do you get through to people who stop all rational discussion with the statement, "It's a sin"?

What is apparent from the film is that if conversion from right-wing thinking to open-minded tolerance does happen, it happens on an individual level. At one point, Shelby visits a group of gay students whose gay-straight alliance has been banned by the school administration. She appears uncomfortable when she first meets them, sitting at the far end of the couch. But as she listens to them talk about how they've been beaten up and targeted by teachers, you can see her realize that they are just human beings, and pretty nice ones at that.

"I'm a Christian, and I don't think that the church should control the schools or government," she says, to which a young man replies, "If there were more Christians like you, we'd be in heaven." Pretty soon, she's letting him put makeup on her.

There's another, much less celebrated individual who experiences a transformation here: Shelby's staunchly Republican mom. At first, she isn't comfortable with gay issues. But eventually, she's marching next to her daughter in a gay rights rally. It may just be in the name of love, but in the end, maybe that's the only cause that can cross lines.

The Education of Shelby Knox airs Tuesday, June 21, at 10pm on PBS (check local listings). Read AlterNet's recent Q&A with Shelby Knox.

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