Theocracy Watch III: Education Edition

Theocracy Watch III: Education Edition May 3, 2006

Never satisfied with compromise, never willing to accept anything less than complete dominion, the forces of theocracy are again on the attack against the constitutional guarantees that have made the United States of America what it is. In particular, there has lately been a rash of cases targeting those who are most vulnerable – the children who attend our public schools. Nowhere is it more important to be vigilant in defending the wall of separation between church and state than here. As the Supreme Court wrote in Edwards v. Aguillard, “Families entrust public schools with the education of their children, but condition their trust on the understanding that the classroom will not purposely be used to advance religious views that may conflict with the private beliefs of the student and his or her family. Students in such institutions are impressionable and their attendance is involuntary.”

First, a story about one of the religious right’s oldest tactics: lobbying for the banning of books to prevent others from being exposed to ideas that the religious right finds objectionable. This story comes via the blog Street Prophets, where we learn that a group calling itself “Called2Action” is lobbying for the removal of three books from public school English curricula in Raleigh, North Carolina. Although the district already has a policy allowing parents to request alternative reading assignments if they are offended by a book’s content, that is insufficient for this group – they want them removed from schools altogether so that no student has the option to read them, even if that student’s parents don’t object. As one of the group’s action alerts says (source), “These books should not be an option in middle school”. And to magnify the hypocrisy, many of the leaders of C2A do not even have children in public schools. They want to exert control solely over what other people’s children are reading.

We move now to Georgia, where both houses of the Republican-controlled state legislature voted in April to encourage school districts statewide to teach an elective course on the Bible, and provide state funding for that purpose. What makes this especially egregious is that the legislature rejected a similar bill proposed by Democrats, encouraging a Bible course using a textbook called “The Bible and Its Influence”, which was developed and endorsed by a variety of religious and legal groups, including the First Amendment Center, as a constitutionally permissible guide to teaching about religion in a neutral way. (The effort to defeat this bill was spearheaded by evangelist D. James Kennedy, who lied by claiming that the ACLU and Islamic groups had endorsed the book in a move calculated to appeal to conservative voters’ prejudices.) In place of this, the Republican bill uses the Bible itself as the textbook, and supplements it with secondary sources of which most are “from an evangelical Christian perspective”, according to the linked article, and which have been condemned as containing numerous factual inaccuracies.

In juxtaposition, these stories present an interesting contrast. On the one hand, Christians oppose the use of books in public school curricula that contain references to sex, violence, and foul language. On the other hand, they are pushing for the inclusion and teaching of the Bible, which contains far more sex, violence and obscene passages than any of the challenged books, in that same public school system. What would censorship-happy theists say about allowing children to read passages such as this?

Lot and his two daughters left Zoar and settled in the mountains, for he was afraid to stay in Zoar. He and his two daughters lived in a cave. One day the older daughter said to the younger, “Our father is old, and there is no man around here to lie with us, as is the custom all over the earth. Let’s get our father to drink wine and then lie with him and preserve our family line through our father.” (Genesis 19:30-32)

What type of wholesome moral lesson will passages like this one impart to young people?

“Moses, Eleazar the priest and all the leaders of the community went to meet them outside the camp. Moses was angry with the officers of the army — the commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds — who returned from the battle.

“Have you allowed all the women to live?” he asked them. “They were the ones who followed Balaam’s advice and were the means of turning the Israelites away from the Lord in what happened at Peor, so that a plague struck the Lord’s people. Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man.” (Numbers 31:13-18)

What sort of morality will they learn after reading verses such as the following?

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this disgraceful thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But to this man, don’t do such a disgraceful thing.”

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold. He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home.

When he reached home, he took a knife and cut up his concubine, limb by limb, into twelve parts and sent them into all the areas of Israel. Everyone who saw it said, “Such a thing has never been seen or done, not since the day the Israelites came up out of Egypt. Think about it! Consider it! Tell us what to do!” (Judges 19:22-30)

Personally, I do not support any initiative to teach the Bible in public schools. Such courses have been used so often by evangelical groups as a disguise for attempts to proselytize that any attempt to do must be considered suspect. In any case, there is no shortage whatsoever of opportunity for people in our culture to learn about the Bible; given the abysmal state of science education in this country, the precious instructional time in schools should be used for that instead. (That abysmal state is itself brought about and encouraged by right-wing Christians, of course. That point is made in an excellent editorial from the open-access journal PLoS Biology, Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology, which makes an incisive observation: “The era of nonpartisan science is gone”. The Republican party has been taken over by elements openly hostile to science, as commentators such as Chris Mooney have noted, and if scientists want to continue their work in peace and foster public understanding, they must support efforts to defeat those elements.)

However, if the Bible is to be taught, it must be done through a course that treats the subject matter in a neutral fashion that does not prejudge the accuracy of the claims it contains. The course suggested by the Democratic lawmakers was better in that respect, which makes it no surprise that the Republicans scuttled it. For all the reasonable-sounding Christian requests for “fairness”, or to “teach the controversy”, when push comes to shove it is made clear time and again that the only thing these theocrats really want is for their religious beliefs to be treated as absolute truth and for all others to be shut out.

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