Time Magazine Cover Story Promotes Christian Supremacy
The tale opens in the New Braunfels High School in Oakwood, Texas as teacher Jennifer Kendrick works her students along through the Gospel of Matthew. Kendrick's curriculum is loosely based on the more neutral of the two big national scope Bible course curriculae, "The Bible and It's Influence" that has been endorsed by a broad spectrum of religious scholars from across the religious spectrum and is credited my many as relatively nonpartisan. Kendricks considers the curriculum slanted though, telling Van Biema the curriculum "will bring up Catholicism and mention Gandhi, but you can tell it's written as if I am a Protestant Christian teaching Protestant Christians". Van Biema sums up his quite favorable impression of Jennifer Kendricks' high school Bible class:
"I could find little to object to here and much to admire. Here was a conservative teacher going way beyond The Bible and Its Influence, but not in a predictable direction. She name-checked the Crusades, avoided faith declarations and treated the Bible as a living document to be pored over rather than blindly accepted. She even managed to fit in other faiths" [emphasis mine]In what manner did Kendricks fit in other faiths ? Van Biema provides a few details:
"Explaining why Jesus' famous sermon took place on a mount, she reminds the students that Matthew was writing for Jews, and a mount is where Moses received the Ten Commandments. "So, supposedly," she says, "Jesus is the new covenant, the new law, for the Jewish people."It's impossible to quite tell from the context how to read this, and it might be quite innocuous, but I have to wonder if there are any Jewish students in Kendricks class. Regardless, there's a vast gulf between Dave Van Biema's relatively warm and cuddly version of Bible classes in Texas public schools and political realities in Texas that may soon have a bearing on Bible classes in the Lone Star State. As I've written up in a separate story, a bill coming up for a vote in the Texas State House would mandate that Texas high schools offer elective Bible courses and teach from a curriculum demonstrated to be baldy, religiously partisan and which promotes a falsified version of American history. Texas State Rep. Warren Chisum's House Bill 1287 may not make its way into law, but Texas has pioneered "Abstinence-Only" sex ed ( or mis-ed as it were )and "Faith Based" prisons and gave America George W. Bush, so there's no good reason for faith in this latest experiment.
[ from Two Perspectives On Bible Classes In Texas ]OK, back to "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School"... At a number of points in the story, and also simply by generally failing to acknowledge that non-Christians might be part of the controversy over Bible classes in public schools, Time's senior religion correspondent seems to suggest that Christian beliefs, specifically Christian right beliefs, are the only true expressions of Christianity, that liberal Christians are little more than atheists in disguise, and that all other religious beliefs on Earth are invalid and only Christians can achieve a fully meaningful life. Time's story has vanished 45 million moderate to liberal American Christians from the debate over the Bible in schools but Americans with non-Christian religious and philosophical beliefs, Muslims, Jews, atheists, and so on, fare even worse.... Welcome to America, 2007. The last two sentences of Dave Van Biema's Time Magazine article concerning the Bible in public schools are:
"what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone."Thus, Van Biema concludes his story ; those are the two sentences Americans who read the Time story are most likely to take with them. Van Biema seems to suggest there's a Constitutional right, enjoyed by American citizens, to a "vibrantly accessible" Bible and that making the Bible "vibrantly accessible" is a patriotic duty of American citizens. In effect, Time Magazine's senior religion correspondent appears to declare everyone who does not support teaching the Bible in public schools to be unpatriotic. Meanwhile, scripture from no other religious tradition apparently merits such "patriotic" promotion. But, there's far worse mischief at play in Time Magazine's latest edition cover story. The story coda discussed above could be interpreted in other ways, possibly, but it fits into a pattern, in the Time story, in which the conflict over the teaching of the Bible in public schools gets depicted as a struggle between the "religious right" and the "secular left". The religious Christian left, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Taoists, adherents to Native North American religious traditions, atheists and agnostics, all but Christians are excluded, apparently, from the discussion and don't merit mention in "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public Schools", and that "virtual religious and ethnic cleansing", whether inadvertant or not, mirrors the religious supremacy to be found on the Christian right. If minorities, do not merit inclusion in the discussion over the teaching of Christian scriptures in public schools, they are moving towards dhimmitude and American Democracy may be sicker then we suppose and Christian nationalism closer than we suspect.
The sentiments expressed in Time's cover story and the very depiction of the debate, as a struggle between fundamentalist Christianity and the "secular left" should be considered scandalous (see analysis, next paragraph), and the Anti-Defamation League, among other minority rights groups, should demand Time Magazine and Van Biema issue an apology, But whether it gets airplay in American national media discourse or not, Time's message is clear: a naked declaration of Christian nationalism, an expression of Christian supremacy suggesting that all but Americans on the Christian right are second class citizens. Welcome to the new America and thank you, Time Magazine, for making things so plain.
The central ideological frame of Time's story is the same narrative frame to be found in Tim LaHaye's Apocalyptic fiction "Left Behind" book series (and turned into a video game too) and which underlies the sensibility of much of American fundamentalist Christianity ; the idea of, essentially, an ongoing, elemental war between religion, defined solely as right wing Christianity, and atheism, manifested in the United States as a clash between a 'truly Christian' American right and an allegedly secular ( read as "atheist" ) American left. For many on the Christian right, the narrative is rooted in an apocalyptic dualism which posits what is at base a war between good and evil . Some in this vein, such as Tim LaHaye, see Public schools as incorrigably satanic in nature:
"[S]ecular humanists have long advocated a one-world government--which, of course, they feel that they alone are qualified to run. John Dewey is famous for destroying the learning process for millions of children and young people because he was more interested in teaching atheism, evolution, self autonomy, and a socialistic worldview instead of reading, writing, and math."
Many others on the Christian right see public education is satanically influenced but not irretrievably so. Restoring Bible classes to public schools could set things right says Elizabeth Ridenour, head of the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools, whose secret Bible course curriculum ( reporters can't get copies, nor can school districts unless the agree to teach the curriculum first ) is riddled with revisionist takes on American history based on fake quotes, misquotes, lies and distortions - fake history, in short ( the NCBCPS is now the subject of an ongoing expose at Talk To Action ) .
Time's acceptance of that bigoted mythic narrative could hardly make the likes of James Dobson, Tim Lahaye, and John Hagee happier. By implication, the US left is irreligious and the only form of valid religious belief in the equation is right-wing Christianity : no Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, or Unitarians need apply. Having thus excluded vast swaths of the American electorate from the debate over the Bible in public schools, Time's Van Biema proceeds to a flourish of Solomonic wisdom by splitting the difference Between the warring ideological claims of the these two groups he's laid out, the Christian right and the "secular left". Hence.... the truth must lie in the middle !
There's more too. Where to begin ? Well, one step at a time.....
First, why didn't Time title its story "Why religion should be taught in schools" or "Why school kids should learn about religion" ? Even if the title was chosen purely for its controversial, sensationalist, merit the choice seems to exclude non-Christians as undeserving of even a nod. But, human consequences spring from such Christianity-centric perspectives. In a recent unfortunate incident, a Delaware Jewish family protesting loud and intrusive Christian sectarian religious displays was hounded, amidst death threats, from town. Why shouldn't the Bible be taught in schools ? - In some areas of the United States, those who object to that question are now more likely to be viewed as unreasonable troublemakers than as Americans exercising their rights to be free from state sanctioned and imposed religious beliefs.
Time Magazine's April 2, 2007 "Bible" issue should present a wake up call to Americans, who value church state separation in any form, on how far United States culture has drifted into a nascent Christian nationalism ; when a leading national weekly news magazine trumpets Christian nationalist themes, to little notice so far, and the same week a bloc of thirty-odd Congressional legislators mostly from the GOP announces, on the capital steps and apparently wearing the authority of their office and the federal sanction that presumes, that it is organizing "national prayer", again to little notice, well.....
The hard American Christian right faction that drives the advance of aggressive Christian nationalism is far from a majority but nonetheless represents the most energized and best organized faction in American politics today. There was a time in American history when "under God" was not in the "Pledge Of Allegiance", when the "National Prayer Breakfast" was not enshrined as part of Washington DC political culture, when the US Justice Department wasn't packed with acolytes of Pat Robertson's Regent University such as Monica Goodling, before Church Courts, before Teen Mania's Battle Cry and when public declarations, by Pentagon officials, that their religious loyalties supercedes their loyalty to the United States, might have provoked outrage. Was America of the 1940's less fully patriotic than now ? Presumeably not, nor less religious one would suppose.
But memories of the time when American political atmosphere was not suffused with soupy piety and Christian supremacist presumption have faded and we've come to a point, now, where Christian nationalism crowds other religious and philosophical beliefs from the "public square" and its ideas colonize the positions of Democratic Party politicians and seep into imagination of many Americans, perhaps including Time Magazine's editors and writers, who no longer can imagine why it should bother Jews, Muslims, or any other non-Christians when government resources are used to promote and endorse sectarian religious beliefs that seem to imply that no religion other than Christianity is fully legitimate.
The cover story of next week's American edition of Time Magazine concludes with the following assertion : "what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism. The conflation of patriotism with Christianity is Christian nationalism, or Christian supremacy, at its most naked. Teaching the Bible in American public schools, writes Time Magazine's senior correspondent for religion in the year 2007, is patriotic because patriotism is "a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone."
Time Magazine seems to be getting into the Christian historical revisionism business, and if "Why We Should teach The Bible In Public School" had advanced Holocaust revisionist ideas Dave Van Biema and the editors who approved his story would almost certainly be out on the streets. But, Time and Van Biema pushed Christian historical revisionism, so they'll likely get a pass even though such revision feeds anti-Semitism too. It sounds so positive though, so bouncy ; Jews, Muslims, and non Christians shouldn't be at all offended by Bible classes in American public schools. In fact, such classes are a right enjoyed by all American citizens and based on the "vibrantly accessible Bible" principle found somewhere in the United States Constitution, suggests Time's Dave Van Biema.
Does Time's Dave an Biema really believe the United States Constitution mandates that the Bible be made "vibrantly accessible" to all American citizens ? Have Constitutional scholars for hundreds of years now missed this "vibrant access" clause ? Far too little public attention has been paid to the thriving cottage industry of Christian historical revisionism, promoted by David Barton and others, that works to replace current historical understanding on the nature of church-state separation in American government with a fraudulent history in which church state separation, as constitutional scholars have for many decades generally understood that principle , never existed. America was always a Christian nation, claims Barton and his Christian nationalist cohorts, and the implication for those who fall for this con is that those to object to government endorsement and support of partisan Christianity, that excludes not only some Christians but people of other religious and philosophical beliefs, are troublemakers.
One of the engines powering the advance of American Christian nationalism is what could be called "the myth of worse and worse" or "the cult of perpetual decline". For decades, American Christian right leaders have attributed a whole host of social ills, just about anything conceivable but tooth-decay, to the lack of Bible classes in American public schools. But readers of this Time story will hear nothing about that. Instead, they'll get a whopping dose of Christian nationalist ideological pablum asserting that the Bible is indispensible to America's school children, that the only people who oppose teaching the Bible in schools are irreligious, and that the US Constitution sanctions Bible classes, too, under a mysterious principle of the Constitutional right to a "vibrantly accessible Bible". In short, America will get conned.
In "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School", David Van Biema cites some justifications for teaching the Bible in schools that sound reasonable unless scrutinized : it is true that the Bible is a popular and influential book and a key to a great deal of Western literature and history. Fine. As Biema puts it:
THE BIBLE IS THE MOST influential book ever written. Not only is the Bible the best-selling book of all time, it is the best-selling book of the year every year.
Shakespeare refers heavily to the Bible, but:
If literature doesn't interest you, you also need the Bible to make sense of the ideas and rhetoric that have helped drive U.S. history. "The shining city on the hill"? That's Puritan leader John Winthrop quoting Matthew to describe his settlement's convenantal standing with God. In his Second Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln noted sadly that both sides in the Civil War "read the same Bible" to bolster their opposing claims. When Martin Luther King Jr. talked of "Justice rolling down like waters" in his "I Have a Dream" speech, he was consciously enlisting the Old Testament prophet Amos, who first spoke those words. The Bible provided the argot--and theological underpinnings--of women's suffrage and prison-reform movements.
From there, Van Biema's argument becomes shaky ; he notes that knowledge of the Bible would help secular Americans ( who Van Biema considers, it seems, to all be liberals ) better understand religious rhetoric wielded by George W. Bush and other politicians. Possibly.
But then the claims become quite grandiose:
Without the Bible and a few imposing secular sources we face a numbing horizontality in our culture--blogs, political announcements, ads. The world is flat, sure. But Scripture is among our few means to make it deep.
The implication is stark. Scripture, but Christian scripture, only the Christian Bible enables and enriches life in profound ways and makes human experience all that it can be. So, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, and people from countless other religious traditions the world is one dimensional...
And what of Jews ? Per Van Van Biema's claim, would their adherence to the Old Testament but not the New Testament mean they would get to live in a world slightly more dimensional than the one dimensional world of the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, and so on ? Would Jews live in perhaps a one and a half dimensional world ?
OK : Non Christians live in some dreary gray world of thin meaning, Jews fare a little better, Christians live in fullest technicolor at the height of human dimensionality ! Got it.
To be fair, Van Biema might have intended, in referring to the Bible as a primary source of meaning, that the Bible should code for religious traditions in general. But Time Magazine reaches millions of people around the world, and if its editors failed to pick up such an apparent expression of Christian supremacy that would suggest such religious ideology is spreading into the US mainstream. There are other interpretations possible, yes, but none of those lead to a place that appears welcoming to non-Christian religious beliefs. Exclusion is exclusion, and there's a lot of it in this Time story; religious minorities seem not be relevant to the debate in the teaching of the Bible in public schools, and the debate depicted is solely between "secularists" and the "religious right". But liberal American Christians, and there are ten of millions, get no mention either -- as if they do not exist.
So having worked arguments, for Bible classes, that are firmly rooted in bigoted, exclusionary Christian right religious supremacist presumptions, Dave Van Biema throws out one last zinger of a rhetorical question : "Doesn't secular teaching about the Bible play into the hands of the religious right and the secular left?" His answer splits the difference between the warring camps - the truth lies in the middle ! Does teaching about the Bible play into the hands of both groups ? Van Biema triumphantly answers "YES. BOTH. WHICH MAY SUGGEST THAT EACH is exaggerating its claim.".
So, if we split the difference between the Christian right and the "secular left", we get..... Jim Wallis ? Who knows, but the construction is ludicrous and Dave Van Biema has apparently forgotten, among other parties, the 45 million or so Americans in denominations represented by the National Council Of Churches that hasn't, as far as I know, been pushing for Bible classes in public schools.
Van Biema - besides rendering non-Christians handicapped or less than fully human through their mistaken choices of religious belief - has also disappeared much of the entire Democratic Party or implied that liberal Christians aren't, well, real Christians. They're faux Christians whose Christianity is unworthy of even a nod, basically atheists in disguise.
Is any of this intentional on Dave Van Biema's part ? Or has his brain been so fully colonized by Christian right supremacist ideology that, for him, the only fully valid religious doctrine on Earth issues from sources such as the TV and radio studios of Focus On The Family or the pulpit of John Hagee ?
It seems a harsh thing to write, but it appears that the senior religion writer for Time, secular or not, lives within ideological frames constructed by the Christian right.. whether he knows it or not.
There's something else I'd like to address:
The reasons Van Biema cites for Bible classes in America's public schools, religiously bigoted though they may sound, are not the core reasons put forth within the Christian right itself.
The reasons Van Biema cites, in his article, for teaching the Bible in public schools, may fly in polite national circles based on their rationalist gloss but they are not the darkly conspiratorial, sometimes hateful reasons advanced by Christian right leaders, they are not what gets shouted from pulpit to pulpit and broadcast in harangues over Christian right media empires across the nation, to tens of millions of Americans, on why the Bible should be taught in Americans public schools. In that narrative, the Bible is the linchpin of a national morality held to be in free fall, with dire consequences ahead ; a threat of divine punishment, some say held, looms over the country unless Americans come to their senses and teach the Bible to America's children.
Evidence cited for the alleged moral decline include a decline in marriage, legalized abortion, increased access to pornography, and the increasing willingness of gays and lesbians to make their sexual preferences public : to be out of the closet in other words. But, are crime, murder, rape, divorce, teen pregnancy, STD rates, and other commonly cited proxies for societal wellbeing actually increasing ? No, and by those measures America society has been growing steadily healthier since the early 1990's.
In the end, the "moral collapse" narrative that drives much of the Christian right push for teaching the Bible in classrooms is not rooted in facts. Rather, it's a dark mythos, an argot of conspiratorial menace in which the purported catastrophic wave of immorality threatening the national social fabric gets attributed to dark, sinister crypto-communist conspiracies, ultimately satanic in origin, of "secularists", liberals, socialists, criminals, sexual perverts, and sometimes Jews. New York, LA, and Hollywood are held to be especially strong centers of contagion that await, perhaps, punishment via tidal waves, earthquakes, hurricanes, and nuclear blasts.
And, there you have it. Dave Van Biema should know that too.
As if the message, of Christian supremacy, hasn't been made perfectly clear, "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School" concludes with a non-to-subtle coda. : "what is required in teaching about the Bible in our public schools is patriotism: a belief that we live in a nation that understands the wisdom of its Constitution clearly enough to allow the most important book in its history to remain vibrantly accessible for everyone.". Is the Bible inaccessible to some Americans ? Who ? Or is the Bible, in Biema's opinion, not "vibrantly accessible" enough because it is not taught not just in churches but in public schools as well ?
"Vibrant access" to the Bible, as a right, is not enshrined in the US Constitution, nor is the obligation to tell the truth codified as a responsibility of United States citizens and American journalists and, barring a national referendum to overhaul the foundational document for American government, that's the way things will remain.
Useful Background Reading To This Story
Time Magazine Cover Story Promotes Christian Supremacy | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)
Time Magazine Cover Story Promotes Christian Supremacy | 9 comments (9 topical, 0 hidden)