The Bible, the Quran and American History
The 2016 GOP (Republican) platform has its share of conservative causes, including yet another attempt to sneak the Bible (and not every translation for sure) past the “separation of church and state” amendment clause of the American constitution and back into the classroom.
The actual recommendation is rather banal, that biblical literature be available in schools as an elective because “a good understanding of the Bible” is “indispensable to the development of an educated citizenry.” The idea that the Bible is “indispensable” for an educated citizen is dubious, although the influence of the Bible, especially the King James Version, in American history and literature is indeed profound. Ironically, some Protestant ministers would prefer that the Bible be kept out of the public schools, since there is no guarantee it will be interpreted in a certain way. The problem is not so much in using the Bible as literature, but the way in which it might be taught with a particular slant.
Interpretation of the separation clause has a long history, but the key principle is clearly that there should be no national religion, not even Christianity or a brand thereof. Given the disastrous history of state-sponsored religion in Europe, this was a wise ruling. It is important to remember that a number of the founders of the United States were in fact Deists, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. As noted in the 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary, America was not founded as a specifically Christian country, nor did it have any enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Muslims. Beyond this, there is no law against atheism in the United States.
The Bible has not been absent from American politics, nor from public schools in the past. The famous McGuffey Reader series used examples of prose and poetry from the King James Version, with rather dimly veiled theological commentary. In a passage from Psalms contrasting Israel’s God with the gods of the heathens, the main concern is that students pronounce God correctly and not as Gud or Gawd. But then one of the leading questions is about the contrast between the “true God, and the idols of the heathen.” Other passages are explicit, such as a selection from Grimke that the only Book God ever sent is the Bible, which is “the classic of all mankind.” Since public schools were the responsibility of states and local school boards, it should not be surprising that Christianity has been advertised through the curriculum over the years. But a series of court cases reaching the Supreme Court have restricted the teaching of Christian theology, such as creationism and Noah’s flood, as scientific facts. It is not illegal to use biblical excerpts as literature, just as the Quran or any text can be looked at as a literary text. The issue is pushing a particular theological interpretation.
Yet the GOP platform says nothing about the Quran or any other sacred religious text, nor do I think most Jews would appreciate learning about the Bible through Christian translations in English. When the University of North Carolina suggested the 2002 summer reading for incoming students of Michael Sell’s Approaching the Quran, there was a torrent of protest from religious conservatives, even though this was at the university level. The duplicity of the GOP platform, which has not been officially released, is clear; this issue is a sop to the Evangelical wing but essentially means little beyond its propaganda value.
Should excerpts from the Bible be taught as part of American history? Yes, indeed, if taught as rhetoric. Consider that in the debate over slavery in mid-19th century America, the Bible was used to justify slavery. Abolitionists used the Bible as well, so a comparison of the interpretations would be a good lesson. The famous Scopes Trial of 1925 could also be taught as a battleground between those who wanted a literal interpretation of Biblical creation taught rather than the emerging scientific field of evolution, but I suspect this would not please the more conservative members of the party who still push for creation as science. The issue that the GOP avoids is that the United States has both freedom of and from religion. The fact that most Americans self-identify with Christianity in one way or another does not make it a national religion.
The GOP plank may also be a way to make up for the fact that Donald Trump, their presumptive nominee, is a rather poor example for Evangelicals. Apart from his lifestyle, which is hardly one of upholding Christian virtues, he suggested that his favorite Bible verse was the Old Testament “eye for an eye,” as though what Jesus says in the Gospels about turning the other cheek has no value. Here is what he said in an April interview]:
Well, I think many. I mean, when we get into the Bible, I think many, so many. And some people, look, an eye for an eye, you can almost say that. That’s not a particularly nice thing. But you know, if you look at what’s happening to our country, I mean, when you see what’s going on with our country, how people are taking advantage of us … we have to be firm and have to be very strong. And we can learn a lot from the Bible, that I can tell you.
There is indeed a lot to be learned (and unlearned) from the Bible, but the Donald is hardly the one to do so.