Time Magazine Story Promotes Christian Nationalism, V.2.0
"Why we should teach the Bible in Public Schools" may well be a good faith effort, by Dave Van Biema and Time Magazine, to negotiate the controversy over Bible classes in public schools, but even assuming good faith Time's cover story nonetheless carries Christian nationalist themes and advances what is probably the key narrative that's driving the Christian right as a political movement, the bigoted myth of the culture war between the Christian right and the "secular left" or "secular liberals" in which only right wing Americans are held to have valid religious beliefs or, indeed, any religious beliefs at all.
Time Magazine, and Van Biema, appear to endorse that key Christian right frame, rooted in a narrative of an alleged war between good and evil and acted out on Earth as a battle between (right wing) Christians and Godless atheists ("secularists"). The Christian right narrative Time and Van Biema seem to endorse is bigoted because it asserts that liberal Christians are not true Christians and don't actually even merit mention as such and so are, in effect, really atheists, and just as importantly, because the Christian right narrative simply "disappears" all Americans with religious beliefs who are not Christians, as if they simply don't exist. Van Biema refers to "secular liberals" and the "secular left", but his presentation of the controversy over Bible classes in public schools acknowledges neither the 45 million-odd Americans represented the National Council Of Churches (NCC) nor the millions of Americans with non-Christian religious beliefs.
American media has long displayed a preference for amplifying the voice of the Christian right and ignoring the spokespeople of the American Christian center and left, and a media blackout on a recent peace delegation of US religious groups, including the NCC and representing upwards of 50 million Americans, to Iran was only the most recent expression of a pervasive blackout: on its return the Peace delegation held a Washington Press Club press conference to almost total media silence, as if the close to 1/5 of Americans represented by the delegation simply did not exist. In other words, Time's "religious cleansing" of the mainstream to left segment of American Christianity is not anomalous but has been, until very recently with an upsurge in media awareness that an American religious left might actually exist, standard practice.
"Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public Schools" might seem, to readers unfamiliar with the deeper background, to be evenhanded. It is not, and the playing field, as illustrated above, skews wildly in favor of the religious right and in Van Biema's story huge chunks of the American electorate aren't on the playing field at all and don't seem to actually exist. In reality they do exist, they've just been cut out of the narrative, or simply forgotten. Which is worse ? Intentional omission requires, first, notice of that which is omitted. But if Dave Van Biema has simply forgotten that religious minorities, non-Christians, really do live in America and actually are American citizens, or that a sizable fraction of American Christianity is not on the religious right, then we may be well down the road to Christian nationalism.
Missing The Point
Dave Van Biema, Time's senior religion correspondent, comes down against the two existing national Bible class curriculum that are currently being used most widely in the hundreds of American school districts and suggests approaches that are clearly less partisan than those two curriculum but Van Biema seems not to grasp what the basic controversy is about. Here's Van Biema and Time's final assessment of Bible classes in public schools:
The study doesn't have to be mandatory. In a national school system overscheduled with basic skills, other topics such as history and literature deserve core status more than Scripture--provided that these classes address it themselves, where appropriate. But if an elective is offered, it should be twinned mandatorily with a world religions course, even if that would mean just a semester of each. Within that period students could be expected to read and discuss Genesis, the Gospel of Matthew, a few Moses-on-the-mountain passages and two of Paul's letters. No one should take the course but juniors and seniors. The Bible's harmful as well as helpful uses must be addressed, which could be done by acknowledging that religious conservatives see the problems as stemming from the abuse of the holy text, while others think the text itself may be the culprit. [emphasis mine]
I've highlighted a sentence in the passage above to highlight Dave Van Biema's assertion that while Bible classes should not take precedence over and displace history and literature, "scripture" [Christian scripture that is] should nonetheless be a fundamental component of history and literature classes in high school. That claim is, if anything, even more radical than proposals put forth by avowed partisans on the Christian right because, per Van Biema's arguments on the centrality of the Bible to American and Western civilization and the US historical experience, the Bible should be integrated into just about all high school classes except hard sciences and mathematics. This is an example of the partisan bias that runs through Van Biema's article, which presents a simulacrum of objectivity but in the end supports positions advanced by the American Christian right.
There's an even more central confusion packed into that passage, above, from Time's article:
The Bible's "helpful or harmful uses" actually are not the main point of the controversy over Bible classes in schools, which actually centers around whether Bible classes, no matter how well constructed and "non-partisan" nonetheless would serve to advance a de facto national religion, whether Bible classes taught even under a non-partisan curriculum would be used, in many public high schools, to advance partisan religious agendas, whether such classes would be fair to American minority groups holding non-Christian religious and political beliefs, and -for that matter- which of the many versions of the Bible would be used as the source text for such courses.
The very title of "Why We Should Teach The Bible in Public Schools" advances the fundamentalist myth of "The One Bible" but there is no single authoritative Bible. As Jonathan Hutson explains, in Come the Theocracy, Whose Bible Will Rule?, there are many versions of the Bible, each held up by a myriad of competing Christian factions as the authoritative, "true" version. So how would we choose from among those versions ?
This is not hair-splitting. The push for Bible classes in American public schools comes mostly heavily from the American Christian right which, as a political movement, is heavily dominated by the belief that the Bible is the revealed, divinely inspired source of all truth and it is more than likely that if Bible classes in public schools become widespread they will be used, however "nonpartisan" the official course curriculum used are, to push that view of the Bible as the source of all truth, even scientific truth.
But, as widely respected historian of the Bible Bart Ehrman has documented, ( WHYY interview with Ehrman ) fundamentalist claims on the existence of a single, authoritative and inerrant Bible melt away under scrutiny. As a recent Washington Post story on Ehrman, who began out a fundamentalist, described Ehrman's journey into Biblical deconstruction:
The Bible simply wasn't error-free. The mistakes grew exponentially as he traced translations through the centuries. There are some 5,700 ancient Greek manuscripts that are the basis of the modern versions of the New Testament, and scholars have uncovered more than 200,000 differences in those texts.
As I've said, I'm taking no position on the question of Bible classes in public schools here, and good arguments for teaching religious and philosophical, if not specifically Christian, literacy have been made from many point of the US political spectrum. But if Bible classes are taught in American public schools, whose Bible will those classes use ? And will such classes teach Bart Ehrman's findings, that Biblical scripture has been heavily altered by humans over the past several thousand years to the point that, in some cases, the intent of the original authors of Biblical scripture may have become warped almost beyond recognition ? Should high school classes teach that ? Would they ?
The Bible Comes To Texas
The narrative of "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School" begins in a classroom in a Texas high school where a Bible class is being taught. One of the things readers might notice is that the Bible class Dave Van Biema describes seems to amount to a simplified Sunday-school class approach to teaching the Bible itself. Jennifer Kendrick's high school Bible class does not seem to teach about the Bible, it appears to teach the Bible. If Van Biema notices that, he does not mention it in his Time story and Kendrick's Bible class gets presented in a clearly favorable light in spite of the fact that based on Van Biema's description Jennifer Kendrick's high school class seems to have been converted into an auxiliary (maybe Baptist) church.
Dave Van Biema seems to find that uninteresting, or maybe he just doesn't notice the transformation, and there is a wider context in Texas that might have been appropriate for mention ; Texas over the last two decades has been a cauldron of innovation in methods for assaulting church-state separation. Texas gave America "faith based" prisons, for example, and pioneered "abstinence only until marriage" sex ed. An upcoming bill in the Texas State Legislature would require all high schools in Texas to provide elective Bible classes based on a nakedly partisan Bible class curriculum that contains a Christian right revisionist, fake that is, historical view claiming that America was founded as a "Christian nation".
But, you won't find any of that in "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public Schools".
Van Biema's 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 graciously squeeze in mention other religious beliefs (Van Biema calls them 'faiths') ? The following probably is not an example of what Van Biema is referring to :
"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 baldly, 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.
"Vibrant Access" - A Newly Discovered Constitutional Right ?
The last two sentences of Dave Van Biema's Time Magazine article concerning the Bible in public schools are notable for Dave Van Biema's apparent suggestion that the promotion of Bible classes in American public schools are are an expression of patriotism and Constitutional principle. Is a "vibrantly accessible" Bible a right of American citizenship ?
"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, perhaps, making the Bible "vibrantly accessible" is even a patriotic duty of American citizens. In effect, also, 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.
Anybody In here But Us Christians and You Godless Atheists ?
"Why We Should teach The Bible In Public Schools" presents the conflict over the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a struggle between the "religious right" and the "secular left". Here's the key passage:
And then there is today's political rhetoric. For a while, secular liberals complained that when George W. Bush went all biblical, he was speaking in code. Recently, the Democratic Party seems to have come around to the realization that a lot of grass-roots Democrats welcome such use. 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.
So, Dave Van Biema asserts there are two warring parties in the conflict over Bible classes in public schools : "the religious right" and "secular liberals" or the "secular left".
Now, there are quite a few things to be said about this construction, and one of the most notable may be that Dave Van Biema uses terms, "secular liberals" and the "secular left" that have both been extensively used to demonize and characterize the American left as uniformly atheist, and also to pervert the very meaning of the word "secular" as it has been historically used in relation to society and government. As used on the American religious right, the word "secular" gets attached variously to "liberals", "left", "democrats", "humanists" and so on, and is taken to signify "godless" or "atheist".
In other words, atheists are one of the most vilified belief-groups in American society, probably disliked somewhat less than avowed Satanists but that's not saying much, and the smear that Time's Van Biema is amplifying through his Time cover story asserts that the whole of the American left is atheistic.
There's nothing wrong with atheism. But it's hard to construe Van Biema's implication, that the entire American left is atheist, as innocent given that it's so... the words "Orwellian" and "Stalinist" come to mind, or the term "freakishly, counterfactually totalitarian"....
No Methodists, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, or Unitarians need apply
Last month, I interviewed Jim Winkler, one of the top officials of the United Methodist church who represents millions of Americans whose politics probably ranges from the mildly conservative to the moderately liberal. On short notice, and despite his preparations for an upcoming international trip, Winkler graciously gave me time for a brief interview and my assumption was that Winkler was easily accessible for the simple reason that the American media has so pervasively ignored the Mainstream Protestant churches : any press is better than no press, and although I was a mere blogger I was the only one in line to interview a religious leader representing millions of Americans in a peace delegation to a major Mideast country that many fear the United States may soon be at war with. The United Methodist Church no doubt has a position on Bible classes in schools, as I'm sure do the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Unitarian, and others churches that simply do not exist on the mental radar screen of Time Magazine's senior correspondent for religion, and it's highly likely top officials from these religious denominations would have been thrilled to discuss their church's positions on Bible classes in schools with a writer for a major American media publication. But, Dave Van Biema didn't think to pick up the phone and venture a call.
The religious Christian left and even the Christian mainstream, 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 inadvertent 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 "secular left", "the war on God", "satanic public education"
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 ) .
The Truthiness of "Truth Lies In the Middle"
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 !
Christians get two dimension, Jews one and a half dimensions, everybody else....
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:
Real World Christian Supremacy
A startling Coda : the right to "vibrant access"
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 a patriotic imperative, "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."
here's version 1.0 of this story which may contain some additional text.
Here's more about the Christian right and public education. There are two main factions - one seeking to "Christionize public schools, the other seeking to destroy them.
My mother was a public school teacher. My sister is a principal at a nonprofit high school for troubled teenagers. My wife teaches art in a public high school. Unsurprisingly, I think public schools are very important, crucial even, but I'm in good company.
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