Thursday, September 10, 2009

Finally, A Good Book That's Not Written by J.K. Rowling

Note:  This post from late 2009 is ripe for re-posting as the Texas legislature does its usual terrible job of passing laws that are in the best interest of all its constituents, not just those who are the same color, gender, age, and religious persuasion as themselves.  Interestingly, since the passage of the much-debated HB 1287, I haven't found evidence of a single Texas school district that had actually implemented the curriculum discussed below.  I welcome further information from anyone who has it.

Sometimes, despite itself, the Texas Legislature does good work. And sometimes, even when it introduces a bill that at first blush makes you slap your head, the long and winding road from introduction to enactment results in a law that gets it right. True, the state may then manage to screw up the implementation and distort its stated purpose and get everyone up in arms over nothing. But when the dust settles, we have a law that makes sense and actually achieves that elusive balance between the letter and spirit of the Constitution.

Case in point: HB1287, otherwise known as the "Texas Makes Students Study the Bible" law. Passed in 2007 but only fully enacted at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, it's getting a lot of coverage in local media right now. In a nutshell, the law amends the Texas Education Code to require school districts to include "religious literature, including the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and New Testament, and its impact on history and literature" as part of their enrichment curriculum (which also includes subjects like health, economics, languages, and physical education). As part of that amendment of the Code, the law also authorizes school districts to offer elective courses on the the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, as well as courses on other religious books as determined by "student and parent demand for such a course and the impact such books have had on history and culture." (Click here for the complete text of the bill.)

But this isn't just an end-around to get state-sanctioned Bible study into public classrooms. Make no mistake: the wording of the act was carefully crafted to avoid accusations of religious bias and, more to the point, lawsuits resulting therefrom. The lawyers have made sure that eudcators are specifically prohibited from promoting any religious viewpoint when teaching what's being called "Biblical literacy," or in any way violating state or federal laws regarding separation of church and state.

Any statute, of course, can be ignored, subverted, or simply interpreted to be favorable to local custom. All politics are local, and in the end, so are all laws. Nonetheless, as written, the intention of this law is to "teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy." I say, without irony, amen.

I love this law. I love it for a number of reasons, the first being that it's so transparent in its agenda. The bill was sponsored in the Texas House of Representatives by Warren Chisum, R-Pampa. (I had to look it up - it's northeast of Amarillo.) Rep. Chisum is a standard-issue conservative; you can see his voting record and positions here. He is on record as supporting the teaching of Biblical principles in public schools, in the name of maintaining a "moral nation," with "moral" clearly standing in for "Christian" in his thinking. With HB1287, Rep. Chisum sought to install the Christian Bible as the point of the moral compass for Texas' schoolchildren.

I generally respect strong and well-articulated beliefs, whether I agree with them or not. So I'm OK with Rep. Chisum's evident and sincere desire to drag Christianity into Texas schools. I wouldn't have been OK had the Legislature actually allowed that desire to prevail in the law that passed. But the Constitution, as usual, did its job as a watchdog for individual liberties and guided Austin lawmakers to deflect religious ardor away from a collision course with public education. As a result, the initial bill went through a number of modifications - for instance, Rep. Chisum wanted to make Biblical literacy classes mandatory in every school district - on its way to becoming something quite different from the distinguished legislator's original intention.

What we're left with in the enacted law is this: Texas public schools are now required to teach the Bible as a literary, historical, or sociological text. I think that's fantastic. What many people know simply as the Good Book happens to be a hugely important literary work and deserves to be studied as such. But efforts to incorporate it into public school curricula have been impeded on the one side by civil libertarians who disqualify its secular merit because of its religious application, and on the other by devotionals who want to incorporate an implicit acceptance of divine authorship into lesson plans. So the Bible has stayed off reading lists in all but the most homogenous and parochial school districts, where it can be safely presented in a more traditional (i.e., religious) context. Until now.

Now the Bible has to rest in high-school lockers alongside Beowulf, Paradise Lost, The Old Man and the Sea, and other works that, by way, all contain religious content. During the week, Christian students may moan and complain about having to study a book that, on Sundays, they may wholeheartedly embrace for entirely different reasons. Meanwhile, students of other faiths (or, more likely, their parents) may accuse their schools of ignoring the literary merits of their own holy books. Atheists will likely be upset that a book that features God as its main character is not being presented as a work of fantasy.

In other words, the Bible will be debated and dissected and defended and defiled as a work of art. That is a truly enlightened way to view it. And that's why I love this law.

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