Friday, March 30, 2007

The Good Book in a good book

My 12-year-old daughter is a sixth grader in a Rockford public school, and her social studies textbook is a shining refutation of one of the great lies spread by the religious right in this country over the past 40 years.

The book is titled "World: Adventures in Time and Place." It's published by McMillan/McGraw-Hill and was copyrighted in 1997.

On page 246 of this work, there's a photo of a painting of Jesus. There's another one on page 248, and another one on page 249. The book also has a painting of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments, and there are pictures of people praying in churches and clergy addressing their flocks.

There are separate sections on the childhood of Jesus, on his teachings and on how he "changed the world." There are passages from the Old and New Testaments. There are chapters on "how Christianity has affected life on every continent on Earth."

The book also offers shorter treatments of Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions.

On the whole, the book does a passable job of presenting to 11- and 12-year-olds some sense of the big role religion has played in the course of human history -- politically, culturally, economically and in countless other ways.

The book also unintentionally performs another worthy service: It disproves the popular notion that the mere mention of Jesus or God or the Bible in a public school will invariably bring on hordes of howling atheists and armies of ACLU lawyers.

The truth is that children in public schools are perfectly free to pray whenever they want, so long as it isn't disruptive or in any way sanctioned by the school. The kids also are free to form prayer clubs or Bible-reading groups and hold meetings on school grounds after classes.

And, as evidenced by my daughter's textbook, schools are free to teach students about the Bible as literature and religion as history. Schools have always had this freedom, no matter the rhetoric to the contrary from TV preachers and their ilk.

The demagogues on this issue, eager to create a demon against which they'll valiantly posture, studiously avoid any mention of the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court, in its two major school prayer rulings, actually encouraged schools to teach about the historical importance of religion. Instead, these rabble-rousers direct all their efforts at decrying the court’s ban on government involving itself in the promotion of religion.

The Pat Robertsons and the rest of them also pretend that judicial rulings against religious exercises in public schools were unprecedented before the 1960s -- as if the same influences that spawned the hippies also tainted the courts and other institutions, which in turn chased God out of the schools.

In fact, the history of such rulings goes back more than a century. The School Board in Cincinnati, Ohio, banned Bible-reading and required prayers in 1869 and was upheld by the state Supreme Court. A similar ruling was passed down by the Illinois Supreme Court in 1910. In both cases, Catholic parents had challenged common practices on grounds that public schools had no right to push Protestantism.

By 1960, courts in 11 states had ruled against devotional Bible-reading in public schools. In retrospect, it was inevitable that the nation’s highest court would follow suit.

Widespread ignorance or misunderstanding of this history and of the realities of court rulings regarding religion have created significant problems. On one side of the equation, millions of religious folks wrongly believe that religion cannot be taught about or even mentioned in public schools. On another side, lots of school teachers and administrators have gone too far in guarding against school sponsorship of religious exercises.

On that latter point, it probably would surprise most conservatives to know that the ACLU has frequently brought lawsuits in cases where schools have enfringed on students' religious rights. But, of course, the civil libertarians also are quick to fight against the pushing of religion by school officials.

As well they should.

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