May 21, 2008

God returns to Tennessee public schools

Tennessee State Senator Roy Herron (a Democrat) has managed to wrangle a bill through the legislature to the Governor's desk that establishes a "state funded elective course consisting of a nonsectarian, nonreligious academic study of the Bible and its influence on literature, art, music, culture, and politics."

Among the reasons Herron was inspired to sponsor the bill is he's had citizens complain to him for years that “they’ve taken God out of our schools,” which is not exactly an academic or a scholarly complaint (not to mention an implied denial of God's omnipresence).

One of the bill's provisions prohibits the "teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions."

Breaking through that series of disjunctions, we get a prohibition on the teaching of texts from other cultural traditions. Even if it means the prohibition is against sectarian interpretation of texts from other cultural traditions, the same problem inheres, as I see it.

Because that apparently means the course can only be designed to study the Bible and the Bible's influence, but not the Bible's own folkloric antecedents. I don't know whether that's constitutionally problematic, but it's certainly problematic as a question of scholarship.

What this bill allows is for Tennessee public school teachers to, for example, discuss the creation and flood myths in the Book of Genesis but doesn't allow them to discuss the earlier Sumerian mythology — an "other cultural tradition" — upon which Genesis is based, as if the Bible just appeared out of nowhere.

That's almost laughable, and probably has poor old E.A. Speiser spinning in his grave. I'm all for teaching a course on the Bible but if it's truly not just a vehicle for proselytizing or furthering our own American "Christian Nation" myth, then it should be comprehensive.

Laws like this may be challenged on constitutional grounds in two ways: on the face of their language, or "as applied," that is, as implemented. According to Tennessee's Attorney General, the bill's language is constitutional on its face, but obviously it remains to be seen what manner of zealots end up preaching teaching the course.

And on the eighth day, litigation ensued. (Gen. 2:3.5)

h/t Religion Clause (which is where all the links are at).

9 comments:

Super Id said...

I beleive it was Mark Twain who said the best evidence against the existence of God is the bible.

So I guess I don't have a problem with classes about the bible so as long it is viewed in parity with any other book.

Now, I realize the application of that line in the sand might wash away as soon as the books are distributed. But what the heck.

Thomas Joseph said...

Which version of the Bible? They going to use a Protestant version? The larger Catholic version? Or the even larger Orthodox version?

illusory tenant said...

Good question. No Maccabees in the KJV.

Thomas Joseph said...

From what I recall, it was the Catholics who got the Bible out of public schools in the first place, and for good reason if you ask me.

If you want the Bible in your child's curriculum, send them to a Christian private school. If you want the Koran in your child's curriculum, send them to an Islamic private school. When I was growing up, we were released every Wednesday about 90 minutes early to go to "Sunday school". Perhaps I can say this with the knowledge that there is a pretty extensive Catholic educational system ... but then again some of the worst classes I was submitted to during my time in grade school/high school were my religion classes. I look back on those days and I'm amazed I even step foot into my parish church, let alone all the other things I do for them.

The funny thing is, for all the talk that Protestants do about having a "personal relationship with Jesus", they sure do want to shove it down everyone's throat where it's the least applicable and/or don't remember the lessons taught to us by history and/or want to come up with reasonable compromises which have been employed in the past.

gnarlytrombone said...

Mr. Herrons's "Student Religious Liberty Act"

Clutch said...

One of the bill's provisions prohibits the "teaching of religious doctrine or sectarian interpretation of the Bible or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions."

Breaking through that series of disjunctions, we get a prohibition on the teaching of texts from other cultural traditions.


Well... I think you're wrong here. Looks to me like it should be parsed so that "...of texts from other religious..." attaches to "sectarian interpretation" and not to "teaching". In other words: no religious doctrine, and also no sectarian interpretations of either the Bible or any other religious text.

illusory tenant said...

You're probably right, that that was the intent, but as you know, we thrive on ambiguity.

Clutch said...

It may well be a pernicious ambiguity. Am I biased to think it's too subtle an ambiguity to have been introduced deliberately by the crafters of the policy?

illusory tenant said...

Good question. Depends what they mean by sectarian, I suppose. Further to that it depends what a sectarian interpretation of, for example, the Epic of Gilgamesh is.

You've probably seen some of the dismissals of the Documentary Hypothesis by Josh McDowell and the rest.

Are those "sectarian," I wonder?