Religious Bigotry Caught Red-Handed

Religious Bigotry Caught Red-Handed November 13, 2006

November has been quite the month for feeling schadenfreude. Between Kent Hovind’s conviction, Ted Haggard’s spectacular fall from grace, and the Republicans’ crushing loss in the midterm elections, atheists have had much to rejoice over, and our political adversaries much occasion to mourn. And now, there is another encouraging piece of news where the good guys win.

According to the Lippard Blog, which came to my attention via Pharyngula, a religious bigot who is a high-school teacher has been caught red-handed abusing his classroom authority to proselytize his students.

Self-described conservative Baptist David Paszkiewicz used his history class to proselytize biblical fundamentalism over the course of several days at the beginning of this school year.

Among his remarks in open class were statements that a being must have created the universe, that the Christian Bible is the word of God, and that dinosaurs were aboard Noah’s ark. If you do not accept Jesus, he flatly proclaimed to his class, “you belong in hell.” Referring to a Muslim student who had been mentioned by name, he lamented what he saw as her inevitable fate should she not convert. In an attempt to promote biblical creationism, he also dismissed evolution and the Big Bang as non-scientific, arguing by contrast that the Bible is supported by what he calls confirmed biblical prophecies.

But what makes this story particularly delicious is how this outrageous behavior was caught, thanks to a brilliant stratagem from a clever student:

After taking the matter to the school administration, one of Paszkiewicz’s students, junior Matthew LaClair, requested a meeting with the teacher and the school principal… After two weeks, a meeting took place in the principal’s office, wherein Paszkiewicz denied making many of these comments, claiming that LaClair had taken his remarks out of context. Paszkiewicz specifically denied using the phrase, “you belong in hell.” He also asserted that he did nothing different in this class than he has been doing in fifteen years of teaching.

At the end of the meeting, LaClair revealed that he had recorded the remarks, and presented the principal with two compact discs. The teacher then declined to comment further without his union representative.

May I take this opportunity to offer Mr. LaClair a hearty round of applause. Well done indeed, sir! Your quick thinking and foresight have unmasked a bullying religious bigot for who he is and spared potentially hundreds of students from unconstitutional religious indoctrination.

Matthew LaClair should be a shoo-in for a First Amendment Hero award from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, should he choose to accept it. To judge by his own published writings on other topics, he is a courageous and principled young man and thoughtful well beyond his years, defending controversial positions with eloquence and sincerity. I think we can expect great things from him in the future.

And what of David Paszkiewicz? If the account presented by Lippard is accurate, Paszkiewicz has utterly forfeited the trust bestowed on public school teachers and abused his authority in the most shameful and outrageous way imaginable. If he is guilty, he should immediately resign his position, or be fired if he will not. More, if he is guilty he should never be allowed to teach public school again, for two reasons: first, because his intentionally deceptive denial is utterly beyond the pale of any acceptable standard of behavior for a figure of trust such as a teacher, and gives a strong suggestion that he would do the same thing again if he thought he could get away with it; and second, because even if he did not repeat his behavior, his authority would be so compromised as to leave him unable to effectively lead a class. Any disgruntled student could make a similar accusation against him and the school would have little choice but to accept that claim.

One wonders how a Christian could justify such behavior even in their own mind. Does the Bible not contain a clear injunction against bearing false witness? Being asked whether one has said certain things, and deliberately lying in response, would violate that commandment by any reasonable standard. On the other hand, the Bible also contains endorsements of deception when it is done in the name of God; for example, the Old Testament story of Rahab, who is rewarded for lying to her pagan neighbors to protect two Israelite spies in her midst. There are many examples of this ends-justifies-the-means theology in Christianity throughout history, most notably among today’s religious right, many prominent members of which seem to believe that winning converts is a goal that justifies virtually any action taken to bring it about. (C.S. Lewis, though his beliefs were not exactly the same as the American right, wrote in one of his books that Christian evangelists should deliberately omit mention of the divisions within Christianity, lest they dissuade a potential convert.)

It would be far too broad and unfair a generalization to say that all Christians engage in this type of dishonest behavior, but clearly there are many who do. Unlike the fundamentalists who want to ban gays, atheists and sometimes all non-Christians from all positions of public authority, I will not return the insult; I would never advocate any misguided measure to exclude Christians from these positions because of the dishonest actions of a few. Every individual deserves to have their behavior judged on its own merits. On the other hand, there are some vipers in the bunch, which is why we will always need watchful individuals like Matthew LaClair standing ready to catch them in the act. The abolitionist and orator Wendell Phillips’ words are as true today as on the day they were spoken: Eternal vigilance is still the price of liberty.

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