Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Biblical Arizona

A few weeks ago, the governor of Arizona Jan Brewer signed into law a bill that seems to attempt an end-run around the separation of church and state. Though Arizona prohibits the teaching of any religion in public schools, this new law, crafted by Tea Party champion Terri Proud, now makes an exception in the case of the Christian Bible. The law allows high schools to offer an elective course on “The Bible and its Influence on Western Culture”.

"Defender" of the Faith, Jan Brewer.
Photo by Gage Skidmore
The law was prompted by a fear among some conservatives that Christianity is losing its grip in American life, and is apparently similar to laws already on the books in five other states, including my native Georgia. To explain the rationale behind the law, Terri Proud was cited as saying that Arizona students will be missing out if they aren’t aware of the Biblical roots of such expressions as “an eye for an eye” or “on the road to Damascus.”

To counter this unhappy prospect, the Arizona law would require classes on the Bible to cover the “characters, poetry and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy”, as well as the “influence of the Old and New Testament on laws, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture.”  Whew.

Sounds kind of redundant to me, and unnecessary.

First of all, the idea that Christianity is rapidly fading away in America, perhaps the most religion-obsessed advanced country in the world, seems completely ridiculous. There are hundreds of thousands of places where children can learn about the Bible. They are called churches. And they don’t seem to lack for business.

Georgia, the first state to implement Arizona-style Bible courses in public schools five years ago, is already scaling back the classes due to low levels of interest. In the beginning, the classes were offered in 48 of Georgia’s 180 school districts, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This year, that number has fallen to only 16 school districts. Obviously, there’s no huge pent-up demand out there for scripture studies that’s not already being met in, say, Sunday School.

Second of all, I would love to sit in on a course like the one Rep. Proud is promoting. I’ve got nothing against exploring the influence of the Bible, objectively that is. I wouldn’t say such studies would be very useful for "understanding society", but there’s no harm in knowing that da Vinci’s “Last Supper” was inspired by, wait for it, the Last Supper. Or, as a less obvious example, knowing that when Bob Dylan sings “in a little hilltop village, they gambled for my clothes” he’s talking about Calvary. It won’t help you get a job, but it might come in handy in a game of Trivial Pursuit.

What bothers me, however, is the notion that the Bible is, or needs to be, at the center of American life. It’s a fevered dream that certain conservatives like to force on the public.

Biblical themes, of course, are found throughout the arts (the Pope, after all, didn’t pay Michelangelo to cover the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel with scenes from Aesop’s Fables). And you can’t argue that the Bible, or at least Christianity, didn’t forever deflect the course of human history.

St. Paul on road to Damascus in a
15th-century French illumination. 
But when it comes to American government and law, I suspect the Holy Book doesn’t have nearly as much real impact as Rep. Proud would like to think.

Where in the Bible do you find anything about representative democracy? Freedom of speech? Trial by jury? If the Old Testament has been such an influence on our laws and government, why aren’t the Ten Commandments woven into the US legal system? Why isn’t coveting your neighbor’s wife and/or house a punishable offense in any US state? Where are the federal laws against taking God’s name in vain?

Let’s take Rep. Proud’s examples of phrases kids should know in order to better participate in American society. I’ve never seen “on the road to Damascus” used outside the context of St. Paul’s conversion, so it’s not as if it’s going to pop up in some office e-mail, leaving you wondering what the hell your boss is talking about. It’s more useful to know the meaning of such antique phrases as “the die is cast”, though you would typically run across this only in e-mails from your most melodramatic colleagues.

Also, it’s fine knowing the origin of “an eye for an eye”, but what does that have to do with modern American life? It may be a principle of jurisprudence in Saudi Arabia, but definitely doesn’t belong in the US.

Perhaps bringing to light such a point would make a high school Bible class worthwhile after all. An Arizona sophomore might learn that Jesus’ view of “an eye for an eye” was:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

An excellent start, if there ever was one, for a classroom discussion on whether there really should be a greater role for the Bible in American public life. Just think, what if George Bush had followed Biblical principles in response to what happen on Sept. 11, 2001, and actually had turned the other cheek to al-Qaeda? Some of those righteous folks in Arizona would surely have wanted to crucify him. Literally.  


  1. I recall taking a pretty good class in high school called "Comparative Religions". It cemented my conclusion that all religion is totally insane. I learned thereafter to loathe them all equally.

  2. I suppose one could argue that the example of Jesus is liberal (for the age) and leftist, thus leading to stuff like enlightenment, rationality, human rights, Christian humanism and secular humanism, moral tenet socialism ("from each according to their ability, to each according their need"), etc.
    Somehow, though, I don't think that's what teabaggers mean.