Christian Nationalism Has You By The ___ And You Don't Even Know It
IntroductionThe April 2, 2007 issue of Time Magazine featured a cover story titled "Why The Bible Should be Taught In Public Schools" and I thought the story so intellectually dubious and slanted towards precepts of the American Christian right that I wrote a rebuttal and posted it in several places including on the Daily Kos website, with the original title entitled "Time Magazine Cover Story Promotes Bigoted Christian Nationalism" ( later shortened to just "Time Magazine Spouts Bigoted Christian Nationalism" ). My post provoked a popular rebuttal post on the Daily Kos, in response, which argued in favor of teaching Bible classes in public schools, and although the rebuttal to my post made a case for Bible classes in public schools I hadn't actually made a case against Bible classes in my scathing critique of Time's cover story.
But the troubling aspect of the controversy, for me, concerned the apparent ability of Time's cover story to short circuit the basic logical skepticism, or so it seemed, of many members from one of the leading US left/progressive community websites on the Internet. The illogic of Time's cover story should have provoked skepticism at least and the fact that the story got a substantial amount of support in the progressive/liberal political activist community is exhibit "A" in my case that Christian nationalist precepts are starting to get their hooks into the heads of people on the American left Time's op-ed in favor of Bible classes in public schools employed a favorite argument of Christian nationalism ; majority religious preferences rule and if religious minorities don't like the promotion of partisan religious values in schools or elsewhere in the public sphere, tough. Time's article expresses this plainly ; 60% of Americans favor Bible classes in public schools. But I can assure you this ; people in the Indian River School District of Southern Delaware who, in 2005 or 2006, harassed a Jewish family from its home of 18 years, to flee the area amidst death threats, did not think they were being unreasonable but, rather, that the family which fled was out of line for complaining about Christian sectarian displays of religious beliefs in public schools. Christian nationalism works best when it is implicit, part of our background mental assumptions.
One of the hallmarks of good PR and propaganda is that it becomes unnoticeable as ideas sink into our mental landscape to shape our perceptions and even come to seem commonsensical. Were the aspects of the Time story I criticize, in my analysis below, intentional ? That's impossible to say, and I didn't notice some of the most egregious argumentative flaws at first myself even though I seem to spend an unusual amount of energy smelling out the undercurrents of ideology. In retrospect, it seems to me that some of the logical leaps, flaws, and contradictions in the Time piece should have hit me like the stench of an industrial chicken farm, and so I have to assume that there's a good bit of Christian nationalism kicking around in my head too. There's so much to critique in Time's argument that I could teach an entire course on the subject, and although my initial critique has gone through several versions already ( see V. 1.0 and V. 2.0 ) there's still much more to say, not the least of which concerns the apparent success of the article in selling a coded version of Christian Nationalism to a fair number of liberals.
[* HINT * : I've used bolded title for sub-sections of my argument so if one bores or annoys you it's easy to scroll to the next section ]
Step One : Whose Bible ?
To begin with, whose Bible should get taught in public schools ? There are, in fact, many different Bibles. Whose Bible should we teach ? It's not a trivial or a casual question but most of the discussion seems to gloss over the issue or dismiss it as if it were commonly known that "The Bible" was a standardized industrial or fast food product served up to millions in identical form like a Burger King Whopper or a McDonalds Happy Meal when, in fact, wars have been fought over the "Whose Bible ?" question. The two groups cited in the Time story which produce Bible class curriculum seem to reference the Protestant Bible as if millions of American Catholics, and the Bible they pay heed to, did not exist, so this issue is far from minor nor is it minor that the Daily Kos post arguing for Bible classes in schools did not seem to recognize the difference between Protestant and Catholic Bibles: "Which version of the Bible?".... Doesn't matter. If we were teaching it as religion, it would matter more; but for basic cultural literacy, any translation will do. The differences between the King James and the Revised Standard Version, etc., are minor on the issues that are important for this level of education. We're not bringing this into the classrooms to quibble over dogma. Apocryphal books have had minimal impact, so that's a moot point, as well. "
Whoah ! Let's hold on a minute. In Come the Theocracy, Whose Bible Will Rule?, Jonathan Hutson gets a bit technical for us:
The word Bible comes from the Greek biblia, or "the books." But which books are the sacred and canonical ones? Catholic editions of the Bible contain 77 books, but Protestant copies usually lack several of these books (including Tobit, Judith, Wisdom, Sirach, Baruch, and First and Second Maccabees). Protestant Bibles also lack parts of two books (Esther 10:4-16:24, and Daniel 3:24-90; 13:1-14:42) which are not found in the Jewish editions of the Old Testament. So, according to Chalcedon, does Christianity include Catholics, who do not view the King James Version, the new King James Version, or any other Protestant Bible, as the final and complete Word of God?... How about Mormons? Mormons revere the Old Testament and the New Testament, but also regard the Book of Mormon as sacred. The Book of Mormon makes clear that, from a Mormon perspective, the Protestant canon is not the only inspired Word of God.
Interestingly, one of the positive aspects of the Time cover story in question concerns the fact that it did recognize that Bible classes could be taught from a Protestant, rather than a Catholic, perspective - indeed, the Texas high school teacher whose Bible class figured centrally in the Time cover story narrative acknowledged a Protestant bias in the "Bible Literacy Project" Bible class curriculum, and the other curriculum cited in the Time story, the National Council On Bible Curriculum In Public Schools (NCBCPS) Bible class curriculum has been accused of having an even more pronounced Protestant slant. As Southern Methodist University Biblical Historian Dr. Mark Chauncey wrote in his analysis of the most recent NCBCPS curriculum, it "....attempts to persuade teachers and students to adopt views of the Bible that are common in some conservative Protestant circles but rejected by most scholars. While such views are certainly appropriate for individuals or religious groups, public schools should not present them as fact.... The curriculum almost exclusively reflects views held by certain conservative Protestant groups. The role of the Bible in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christian thought receives little attention."
In other words, the "whose Bible" question is not a trivial one at all but concerns, at base, religious freedom.
Magick 101 : From a Mystery 'Coalition' to A Mystery 'Consensus'
Backing up from that issue though, Time's article contained even more dubious fare; it claimed the existence of a broad "coalition" promoting teaching the Bible in schools but then failed to say, beyond two nonprofit groups producing Bible curriculum for public schools, who was actually in that alleged "coalition". Then, that mystery coalition morphed into an equally mysterious "consensus" for Bible classes:
The Time story cited an unnamed poll showing that 60% of Americans endorsed Bible classes in public schools and declared the existence of a national "consensus" on the subject. At that point, this self contradictory argument should have set even mildly critical readers howling. A 60/40 percentage split is a "consensus" ? Apparently the dissent of 40% of America is irrelevant to such an alleged consensus. Or, perhaps the endorsement of the "The Bible and it's Influence" course curriculum by "American Jewish Committee, the Council on Islamic Education, the National Association of Evangelicals and the liberal watchdog group People for the American Way" was what Time was referring too as the basis for its claim that a "new consensus" for secular Bible study argues that knowledge of it is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen". But did the groups mentioned endorse the Bible class curriculum as necessary for "full fledged citizenship" ? That would seem improbable, as it would appear to suggest that knowledge of scripture is a prerequisite to being fully American, a "fully fledged" citizen of the United States.
None But The Religious Right and The 'Secular' (Atheist) Left
Who got cited in the Time story ? What voices got to weigh in on the controversy ? Well, readers got to hear from a Jewish Constitutional scholar, two leaders from the Christian right ( John Hagee and Chuck Colson ), and "first amendmment sentinel" Wendy Kaminer. Later on, too, the article quoted Joe Conn and Rob Boston of Americans United For the Separation Of Church and State. But, Time did not cite any elected representatives from any groups that might have an interest in the conflict or who might be less than fully supportive of Bible classes in public schools.
The 60% Rule : 3/5 Equals 'Consensus', and Dissenters are Unpatriotic
Time story itself cited a poll to the effect that 40% of Americans seemed to be opposed to Bible classes, but Time's presentation accords that substantial minority no voice whatsoever ; Time's story features talking heads but no actual elected representatives with constituencies to answer to. Apparently, according to Time, a dissenting minority of 40% deserves no representative voices in Time's narrative presentation, while the 60% of Americans favoring Bible classes amount to a "consensus" that's so monolithic that if there exists somewhere a few miscreants and malcontents opposed to shore-to-shore Bible classes in American public schools their numbers are too paltry - only 40% of Americans ! - to merit even a mention, and in any case their patriotism may well be suspect, per Dave Van Biema's startling conclusion to the Time story:
"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."
What Liberal Christians ?
The framing of the controversy was straight out of the Christian right's PR mill ; it was the war of the "secular left" and "secular liberals" vs. the "religious right" and, beyond the "war of the godly against the godless" framing ( otherwise known as "the war of good vs. evil" ) the implication was that, since the 45 million American Christians in Protestant denominations represented by the center-liberal National Council Of Churches were never mentioned, liberal Christians and indeed liberal religion simply did not exist or just didn't matter in terms of the controversy.
Jews, Hindus, Buddists, and non-Christians of 'faith' need not apply
But Time's cover story was an exercise in equal opportunity bigotry, because if the story didn't accord liberal Christians as having any interest in the controversy neither did it give any voice to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Sufis, Hindus, or any other non-Christian religious minorities in America. The only Americans who seemed to figure in Time Magazine's calculus were Americans on the religious right, however defined, and Americans on the "secular left". Time seemed to be using "secular" in the sense of meaning "non-religious" and so that would imply the "secular left" meant atheists of the left, at best a few percentage of Americans.
Now, if Time's Dave Van Biema had actually put the question to officials representing Protestant Christian denominations or non-Christian religious minorities he might well have demonstrated a broad consensus for Bible classes. That's quite possible. But the point is that Van Biema and Time simply did not think to ask what the representatives from tens or perhaps hundreds of millions of Americans, even, had to say about the issue of Bible classes in public schools even though answers were only a few phone calls away.
The eternal war of the 'godless' vs. the 'godly'
The controversy over Bible classes in public schools, according to Time Magazine, lies solely between the religious right and the "secular left", and that frame no doubt thrilled Chuck Colson, John Hagee, and Tim LaHaye but even Time's use of "secular" was twisted ; Time's conflation of secularism with atheism belies long historical support, from many American religious traditions, for secular government. There's an historical backdrop to Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury, Ct. Baptists that provides historical insight into Jefferson's views on church-state separation ; Baptists were one of the religious minorities persecuted in the American colonies, and so colonial Baptists were quite wary of the dangers posed by state supported religion.
From "Puffing" Billy Graham To Shifting Liberal Thought
A famous (or notorious) William Randolph Hearst memo ordered his editors to "Puff Graham" ( evangelist Billy Graham ) for Graham's anti-communist preaching against "Godless communism", and Henry Luce's Time Magazine also played a key role in magnifying the career of Billy Graham. Indeed Time Magazine, to cite Frederick Clarkson, "has been promoting conservative Evangelical Christianity for decades". So, Time's op-ed promoting Bible classes in American public schools may not an anomaly but part of a longstanding historical pattern in a wider PR strategy to promote American conservative Evangelical Christianity that, measuring the reaction of the community of one of the top liberal political forums in the United States, seems to be working quite effectively at inserting conservative Christian nationalist precepts into liberal minds.
It's Christian Nationalism All the Way Down
The most startling claim put forth in "Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public Schools" is both ontologically and sweepingly bigoted :
All American cultural meaning, but for a "few secular sources" derives from the Bible.
"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."
Beyond "a few imposing secular sources" the Bible is the only means to "make the world deep" ? In a sweeping rhetorical flourish Dave Van Biema has banished all possibility that Americans might derive meaning from philosophy, art, music, poetry...... Banished too are all other religions. Can the Koran, the Bhaghavad Gita, the Talmud, the Ramayana, or the Lotus Sutra supply even a shred of meaning for American culture ? Nope, says Dave Van Biema. Or, what about Yoga or meditation, Kabbalism or Sufism, Zen, Taoism or T'ai Chi ? Forget it, advises Van Biema and Time in a manner more than a bit reminiscent of anecdote, possibly apocryphal, in which an old woman confronts a famous physicist, at a public lecture, to advise him that the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle and, anticipating the obvious retort, comes back with:
"What does the turtle rest on ? Oh, you think you're so clever, but I've got you're number. You seem, doctor, that turtle rests upon another turtle, and the second turtle rests upon a third turtle.... It's turtles all the way down !
For Time Magazine and Dave Van Biema, the pretense of sensible moderation rests on a substrate of Christian nationalism, and that rests upon yet more Christian nationalism...
IN fact, it's Christian nationalism all the way down.
Christian Nationalism Has You By The ___ And You Don't Even Know It | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)
Christian Nationalism Has You By The ___ And You Don't Even Know It | 2 comments (2 topical, 0 hidden)