A Yankee Notebook, Columns

Backward Between 1300 and 3000 Years

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EAST MONTPELIER – The great state of Louisiana, not content with labeling mifeprestone a dangerous controlled substance, has, in a move stunning for its chutzpah just launched an attempt to vault its government backward between 1300 and 3000 years, depending upon different versions of the history of Western religion. Either way, you must admit that it’s a bold move. Labeled a testament of the faithful followers of Christianity (even though it was created at least centuries before its founder), it’s essentially a supremely cynical political gesture whose leaders must know that its most prominent feature can’t survive a court test, but who also know that hoi polloi will continue to eat it up and think their leaders champions of divine justice.

The Louisiana legislature has passed several socio-religious bills, among them one requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted, in a size and font sufficiently large and clear to be easily readable, in every public school classroom in the state. Governor Jeff Landry signed it with a gleeful flourish, asked for more, and averred that he could hardly wait to be sued. After all, he opined, in a country of laws like ours, the original lawgiver, Moses, should be honored.

One wag has already posted on the internet a reproduction of the original stone tablets allegedly given to Moses by God. Naturally, they’re in Hebrew and almost certainly inscrutable to any of the supporters of the bill. The favored translation of all but a few believers is the 1611 King James Bible, with its soaring Elizabethan English and air of authority reinforced by hundreds of years of repetition. If those who think it the true word (and words) of God could get a gander at the story of its translation and compilation, as well as the (shall we say) interesting habits, life style, and companions of King James I, they might have second or third thoughts about describing it as “the inspired word of the Almighty.”

But all that ignores the question of why it needs to be posted on the walls of the schoolrooms. To say that there are differing opinions on the subject would be a gross understatement. The proponents, including Dodie Horton, the representative who introduced it, want schoolchildren to see what God wants and what he doesn’t want. Opponents point out the obvious threat to the principle of separation of church and state and the fear that it will create pressure on schoolchildren to conform to a particular religion.

The growing body of citizens who believe that church and state should be entwined have exactly that in mind, occasionally quoting the old saying, “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined.” As a relatively uninformed old guy with no data to support that claim, I can’t speak to it. But I can recall the way we once saluted the flag each morning at the start of the school day. We stood at attention with our right arms extended toward the flag and pledged our allegiance (whatever that was) to the flag and its country. Early in the 1940s, however, somebody pointed out that our salute clearly resembled that of another bunch of youngsters, the Hitlerjugend, and we thereafter saluted with hands on hearts, Boy Scouts and military personnel touching the brow. This was, of course, before Joseph Stalin and his godless cohorts scared the pants off a Christian congress, which in response added “under God” in 1954.

We had daily Bible readings, too to start the day. It never occurred to me at the time, but looking back, I can remember that Mrs. Levi always read from the Old Testament and Miss McLaughlin, the following year, from the New.

I can’t honestly say whether that constant repetition made me a patriotic citizen, or the Bible readings made me more religious. I think Boy Scouts had more to do with that. Certainly now, 80 years and more after the sincere efforts of my evangelical elders and political representatives, the major discernible effects on me have been the ability and tendency to identify buncombe in principled or devout efforts to lead our body politic toward a heavenly paradise on earth.

It grieves me deeply that there are parts of our country where many of us can’t express our convictions, or even opinions, without risking vandalism to our vehicles or even our persons. This is probably the most pernicious effect of religious or political purity, as expressed so well by Louisiana: the need to conform to the values and practices of the majority. It happened in Nazi Germany; it happens today in some churches and legislative bodies. The land of the free it’s currently not.

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