U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Georgia) is trying to get his so-called Bible bill made into law. And while it’s not likely to happen any time soon, it’s a wonderful idea…at least in theory. What’s wrong with a law which would declare 2010 the “year of the Bible”? Given that we already have days for secretaries, months for reading and have parsed the calendar for just about every other purpose and cause from artichokes to zebras, it’s almost silly that we have not already done this.
Would it really be so wrong to honor the most influential book, for better or worse, in America? Comfortable or not with that reality, that is the way it is. And for that reason alone, the year of the Bible should be a good idea.
Let’s face it, the bible is the 800-pound gorilla in American political, literary and cultural life and it needs to be addressed in ways that rescue the conversation from both the rabid secularists and the coercive religionists. And a year honoring the good book could do just that. In fact, the year of the Bible should be a no-brainer. But because we are so divided as a nation and so stupid in our approach to religion in American public life, we can not even have an intelligent conversation about the bill itself, let alone about how to acknowledge the importance of the Bible in our culture and in our politics.
The language being used by politicians taking sides in this debate, demonstrates both why this idea should move forward and why it can not. Witness the language used by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and
Gerald Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) who oppose the bill, and Rep. Broun who is leading the charge for its passage into law.
Congressman Frank commented, “Does that mean 2009 is not the year of the Bible? What is 2012 the year of? The Qur’an?” And what if it was Congressman? Would that be so bad? And if so, why? Do you have a problem with Islam in particular or is it all religion? Either way, Frank’s hostility violates not only his usual commitment to government protecting and endorsing the free exchange of all ideas, but marks him as remarkably foolish.
Given the place of Islam in the world today, I think that a serious engagement with its most sacred text is pretty important. It’s one of the reasons I am especially proud of my 15-year-old daughter whose Arabic is now better than mine, thanks to both her hard work and the Orthodox Jewish high school she attends.
And Gerry Nadler just doesn’t get it at all. He actually hates the idea of any religious expression by public officials, which is why he does not place a mezuzah on his office door even though he has one at home.
Congressman Nadler fails to realize that however much he bases his conclusion on the laudable fear of “making anyone uncomfortable”, his approach actually contributes to a culture in which people are ashamed of self-expression. He needs to figure out how to have a mezuzah on his door and still make people comfortable, whether they are mezuzah-hangers or not.
Then there is Congressman Broun. “This doesn’t have anything to do with Christianity,” he said in an interview with Politico. Rather, he says, “it seeks to recognize that the Bible played an integral role in the building of the United States, including providing the basis for our freedom of religion that allows Muslims, Hindus and even atheists to vocalize their own beliefs.” It’s the words beginning with Muslims, and continuing to the end of the sentence that worry me.
His first claim regarding this not being about Christianity would need to be true for this to be a good idea. And his second claim about the centrality of the Bible is American history is beyond dispute. But both the language of the bill itself and the second half of Rep. Broun’s comments make me wonder.
Broun indicates that those other groups (ital. mine) and “even atheists” should be free to express their beliefs. These comments unmask Broun as one who really does believe that there are two religious tracks in this country: legitimate faith (as a Jew, I probably make it in this world but not in the next) and tolerated beliefs. That’s so wrong, it’s not even wrong.
Finally, there is the language of the bill itself. It calls upon the citizens of this country “to rediscover and apply the priceless, timeless message of the Holy Scripture…as well as its rich spiritual heritage, and which has unified, healed and strengthened its people for over 200 years.”
The presumption that the Bible has but one message, marks this bill as evangelical, not educational. And its claim about the unifying and healing capacity of scripture, without also acknowledging both its historic and current capacity to do just the opposite, should be of even greater concern – indicating that far from the good idea it could be, this bill is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
But rather than focus on whether or not this bill makes it into law, which is not at all likely in any case, we should raise the bar on how we have the conversation about whether or not it should. Let’s see if the true believers on both sides of this issue can transcend their own triumphalist tendencies, and actually welcome the ideas and texts which shape our nation and its culture – all of them in all of their wonderful permutations.
I know that won’t help as many people get elected, and I mean every bit of the double entendre, but it’s better than beating each other up in the name of ideas that are supposed to serve all people, isn’t it?