By STANLEY FISH
The New York Times
March 31, 2007
In 1992, at a conference of Republican governors, Kirk Fordice of Mississippi referred to America as a “Christian nation.” One of his colleagues rose to say that what Governor Fordice no doubt meant is that America is a Judeo-Christian nation. If I meant that, Fordice replied, I would have said it.
I thought of Fordice when I was reading Time magazine’s April 2 cover story, “The Case for Teaching the Bible,” by David Van Biema, which also rehearses the case for not teaching the Bible. The arguments are predictable.
On the one side, knowledge of the Bible “is essential to being a full-fledged, well-rounded citizen”; also, if you get into a debate with a creationist, it would be good if you knew what you’re talking about.
On the other side: bring the Bible into the schools and you are half a step away from proselytizing; and besides, courses in the Bible typically play down the book’s horrific parts (dashing children against stones and the like), and say little about the killings done in its name.
As the Time article reports, the usual response to those who fear that allowing the camel’s nose under the tent will sooner or later turn the tent into a revival meeting is to promise that the Bible will be taught as a secular text. Students will become familiar with the Bible’s stories and learn how to spot references to them in works of literature stretching from Dante to Toni Morrison.
There may be a bit of instruction in doctrine here and there, but only as much as is necessary to understand an allusion, and never to a degree that would make anyone in the class uncomfortable.
Stephen Prothero of Boston University, who is cited several times by Van Biema, describes the project and the claim attached to it succinctly: “The academic study of religion provides a kind of middle space. … It takes the biblical truth claims seriously and yet brackets them for purposes of classroom discussion.” But that’s like studying the justice system and bracketing the question of justice. (How do you take something seriously by putting it on the shelf?)
The truth claims of a religion — at least of religions like Christianity, Judaism and Islam — are not incidental to its identity; they are its identity.
The metaphor that theologians use to make the point is the shell and the kernel: ceremonies, parables, traditions, holidays, pilgrimages — these are merely the outward signs of something that is believed to be informing them and giving them significance. That something is the religion’s truth claims. Take them away and all you have is an empty shell, an ancient video game starring a robed superhero who parts the waters of the Red Sea, followed by another who brings people back from the dead. I can see the promo now: more exciting than “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “The Matrix.” That will teach, but you won’t be teaching religion.
The difference between the truth claims of religion and the truth claims of other academic topics lies in the penalty for getting it wrong. A student or a teacher who comes up with the wrong answer to a crucial question in sociology or chemistry might get a bad grade or, at the worst, fail to be promoted. Those are real risks, but they are nothing to the risk of being mistaken about the identity of the one true God and the appropriate ways to worship him (or her). Get that wrong, and you don’t lose your grade or your job, you lose your salvation and get condemned to an eternity in hell.
Of course, the “one true God” stuff is what the secular project runs away from, or “brackets.” It counsels respect for all religions and calls upon us to celebrate their diversity. But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims. Thou shalt have no other God before me.
This is what Governor Fordice meant. He understood that if he prefaced Christian with “Judeo,” he would be blunting the force of the belief he adhered to and joining the ranks of the multiculturalist appreciators of everything. Once it is Judeo-Christian, it will soon be Judeo-Islamic-Christian and then Judeo-Islamic-Native American-Christian and then. … Teaching the Bible in that spirit may succeed in avoiding the dangers of proselytizing and indoctrination. But if you’re going to cut the heart out of something, why teach it at all?
Stanley Fish is the Davidson-Kahn professor of law at Florida International University.