A troubling development in my booksignings lately at Colonial Williamsburg is the growing frequency that visitors ask me if my Sparrowhawk novels reflect the alleged religious origins of the United States. I usually answer that the novels focus on the secular political ideas that were responsible for the founding.
If visitors press for a more concrete answer, I will answer that most of the Founders were professed deists who nevertheless were adamant in their conviction that God and Government should be separate, that religious beliefs were a private matter not to be suppressed, prescribed or regulated by the state, as they were in Britain, and that one of the things they feared both Parliament and king longed to import to the colonies was a state, tax-supported church.
I will then expand on one aspect of British-American tension, that two British organizations, the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (founded 1698) and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (founded 1701), both with Crown approval and encouragement, lobbied continuously both in London and in the colonies for the establishment of an Anglican episcopate or bishopric in the American colonies. This would have meant that all colonists, regardless of their particular faith, would have been taxed to support the Crown church. This idea was abhorrent to all but colonial Anglicans, and contributed to the swelling dissatisfaction with British rule.
I will offer them a historical tidbit: that the American Episcopal Church (root term, episcopate) is the direct descendent of the Anglican Church, which was disestablished in the United States in 1789.
If necessary, and if my visitors still look doubtful after this free lecture on the political origins of America, I will dwell on the fact that religious freedom, for the Founders, was subsumed under the broader concept of political freedom. Then I refer them to the First Amendment of the Constitution, which on this point is unambiguous in wording and meaning.
If my visitors persist and ask whether men of the cloth have any role at all in Sparrowhawk, I will say that the role is entirely incidental and subsidiary. There is only one benign minister in the whole epic; the other clerics do not appear in a very flattering light, since they all wish to impose tyranny over the minds of my heroes. I freely paraphrase Thomas Jefferson in such instances; if my auditors cannot abide the sentiment, it is not my problem.
That usually convinces many such visitors that Sparrowhawk is not for them. I do not volunteer the information without a query, and if no one asks about the role of religion or priests in the series, my policy is one of caveat lector; readers will discover my overall regard for religion and clerics as they progress through the series. Facts do not matter to them, nor the record. Their minds are impervious to reason, proof against rational persuasion. They are of the same mentality as Muslims. As far as they are concerned, God dictated the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to apostles sporting frock coats and wigs.
Often such visitors are parents who are home schooling their children. Some of these people are home schooling with a general, secularized course of instruction. Others are home schooling because, they say, public schools are “Godless.” Religious parents make up most of the people who want assurances from me that Sparrowhawk credits religion with the founding of the country. I give them no such assurances. In these instances, it means a loss of sales.
So, it was with great interest and with not a little surprise that I opened the Sunday, August 12th Newport News, Virginia Daily Press and on page 3 found an article reprinted from the Los Angeles Times under this headline: “How do you teach the Bible without preaching?”
My snap mental answer was: Well, you don’t – unless you are Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and then you are not so much teaching the Bible as exposing it as pure balderdash and bunkum.
It was a long article about the controversy of Bible studies in public schools.
In public schools?? Bible studies? Apparently, public schools are not as “Godless” as many parents assume.
“Exact numbers are unavailable, but experts agree that the number of Bible classes in public schools is growing because of new state mandates, increased attention to religion in public life, and the growing prominence of two national Bible curricula.”
Earlier, the article states:
“There’s broad agreement across the social, political and religious spectrum – and most important, the Supreme Court – that the Bible can be taught in public schools and that knowledge of the Bible is vital to students’ understanding of literature and art, including Moby Dick, Michelangelo, and The Matrix.
“But battles are raging in statehouses, schools and courtrooms over how to teach – but not to preach.”
Several questions occurred to me as I read further into the article. How many politically correct, multiculturally skewed, diversity-laden public schools are still introducing their students to Shakespeare, or even to Herman Melville? And, given the appalling level of semi-literacy which public schools are notorious for imbuing in their law-mandated charges, is it too cynical to assume that most of these students are too intellectually stunted or undeveloped to apprehend and appreciate the subtleties of textual distinctions?
Isn’t “Bible studies” more appropriate for an accomplished graduate student planning a career in literary studies that would, for example, require him to conceive of a purpose or theme to tackle the 1,300 biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays or study the Old Testament in conjunction with Milton’s Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes?
The Los Angeles Times article states:
“In 1963, a landmark Supreme Court decision declared school-led Bible readings and prayer unconstitutional. But Justice Tom Clark emphasized in the ruling that the court didn’t intend to discourage academic study of religion.”
Justice Clark wrote in his opinion:
“It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”
On the premise that public school Bible studies truly do not try or intend to “preach” religion, I maintain there is no justification in intellectually arrested or otherwise lobotomized students studying the texts of the Great Grumpy Gremlin as related by a group of ancient true believers and whose words and tales and morality the living are expected to take on faith. They may as well study the magical world of Harry Potter novels or the electronic intricacies of The Matrix or the blathering language of a James Joyce novel.
But I do not think these courses are merely “academic” or that the motive behind them is so innocent or blameless. And I had to laugh when I read this sentence in the article:
“High school English teachers and university professors say this lack of exposure to Bible tales has led to an education gap.”
It is an education gap evident in the Western canon being discarded in favor of Third World literature and the scribblings of “minority” writers, in students who think that George Washington helped found the United Nations, or that the Triple Entente is either an ice cream flavor or a video game, and in math and science test scores that are among the lowest in the world. These teachers and professors imply that such a “gap” can be compensated or corrected by a study of the Bible (or the Koran, or Buddhism, or American Indian mythology). Which is as absurd a notion as claiming that one can master calculus by a close study of numerology.
The “gap” in American education can be ascribed to the complete absence of the advocacy of reason in public school philosophy – except when reason is being attacked by nihilists or sabotaged by multicultural subjectivists.
Biblical allusions and references doubtless occur in much Western literature; they even appear in Ayn Rand’s novels. Some day, if the world does not descend into another Dark Age, the Bible and its companion texts from other faiths will exert as little influence on men’s minds and on the culture as Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Nostradamus’s Centuries do today. For the time being, however, children and adolescents should not be made to study the Bible. They are already assaulted in their education by criminally irrational pedagogical policies; Bible studies simply underscore the arbitrary eclecticism. No individual should attempt to study the Bible unless he is a full-grown, mature, rational adult. Then he will have a chance to grasp its utter irrationality.
And, taxpayers who are forced to pay for public schools, whether or not they have children in them, should oppose Bible studies, regardless of their “objective, nonsectarian” intent. Promoters of Bible studies can claim that since God and religion are ubiquitous values in our society, they deserve serious academic examination. Not refutation or rebuttal, mind you. That is “preaching.”
The question remains: Why is the Bible appearing in public schools? Why not teach Shakespeare or Melville or Victor Hugo without making Scripture the primary literary referent? Is there an organization behind it, or is it a general cultural phenomenon? I do not think there is an overall, conscious conspiracy to bypass the First Amendment, although I would not discount the influence of the religious right, which is pushing for the acceptance of “intelligent design” as a legitimate course of study, as well.
As a cultural phenomenon, the growing number of Bible studies in public schools can be likened to water leaching out of cracks in an asphalt parking lot. If the lot were properly paved, no leaching would occur at all.
I suppose that with diligence and enough time, one could ferret out the culprits ultimately responsible for the growth of Bible studies in public schools (not to mention the growth of teen Bible study groups, and of Bible camps for teens). The places to start would be the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and the Bible Literacy Project, competing organizations cited in the Los Angeles Times report.
But philosophically, and historically, the ultimate culprit is Immanuel Kant. At this year’s OCON conference at Telluride, Leonard Peikoff warned that, thanks to Kant’s influence, Western culture is headed for total disintegration, and that if trends are not corrected and reversed soon, the United States could indeed become a theocracy inside of forty years. The growth of Bible studies in public schools is simply one premonitory manifestation of the trend that substantiates his prediction.
Objectivists, Peikoff said, are in the same historical circumstance as the Spartans at Thermopylæ. We are the only ones who advocate reason. Or perhaps we could see ourselves as Athenians and aim for a Marathon. Either way one looks at our dilemma, however, we should not let the enemy pass without a fight.