Religious Right Steps Up Censorship Efforts

Religious Right Steps Up Censorship Efforts
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The People
November 22, 1986

Religious Right Steps Up Censorship Efforts

Rightwing fundamentalist Christian groups are stepping up their efforts to censor or alter the curricula used and reading material available in the nation's schools and libraries.

They have already won some significant battles, and U.S. workers should take heed. For the religious right's victories are victories of ignorance and dogma over science and reason, of authoritarian, rigid thinking over free, critical inquiry, and of narrow-minded conformity over open-mindedness and tolerance of different lifestyles.

On Oct. 24, seven fundamentalist Christian families won a suit in federal court against the Hawkins County, Tenn., school district and the State of Tennessee. The families charged that their First Amendment right to free exercise of religion had been violated by the schools' use of the Holt, Rinehart and Winston series of first- through eighth-grade reading texts. Those texts have been used by nearly 10 million students nationwide since 1973.

'Secular Humanism'

The plaintiffs argued that these are "heathen" texts promoting "secular humanism," an ill-defined set of beliefs that they contend constitutes a religion. They contended that the state's advocacy of this "religion" violated their own "right" to indoctrinate their children as they see fit. Accordingly, they demanded that the state provide alternative textbooks for their children

The plaintiffs claimed a wide array of specific offenses. Fairy tales and stories mentioning or alluding to witchcraft were objected to on religious grounds, though not without stretching credulity. For example, "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" was said to encourage breaking and entering.

The plaintiffs also objected to a number of texts that merely mentioned the existence of other religions. They said their children might get "confused" by that.

Other objections raised by the parents clearly reflected their reactionary political, social and philosophical views. Significantly, they objected to the books as being "anti-American" as well as "anti-Christian."

Stories allegedly critical of the capitalist system - hardly a prominent feature in the curricula of U.S. schools - were objectionable since "capitalism is ordained by God." A depiction of a boy cooking and a story of a woman challenging her husband's authority were objectionable since, the plaintiffs say, God meant women to be subservient. A story about Leonardo da Vinci is objected to since "a central idea of the Renaissance was belief in the dignity and worth of human beings."

Clearly, the "secular humanism is a religion" argument is not only self-contradictory; it is a smokescreen under which the fundamentalists can attempt to suppress virtually any body of ideas that they dislike.

Nonetheless, federal Judge Thomas Hull bought the plaintiffs' obscurantist arguments although his decision was more limited than the plaintiffs would have liked. Hull did not order that the state provide alternative texts but ruled instead that the children should be excused from reading instruction so that parents could provide their own reading instruction at home.

A Dangerous Precedent

If upheld on appeal, Hull's ruling that the plaintiffs' freedom of religion had been violated would set a dangerous precedent. A wave of similar challenges from the rightwing fundamentalist groups that backed the plaintiffs could have a serious chilling impact on textbook publishers and school administrations. Curricula and reading materials could be constricted to satisfy the fundamentalists' objections.

Meanwhile, in Mobile, Ala., another federal judge is deliberating over a similar suit against the Alabama Board of Education, in which a group of parents and teachers has charged that the state's use of a group of 50 home economics and history texts constitutes advocacy of "secular humanism" to the detriment of fundamentalism.

As in the Tennessee case, most of the plaintiffs' case is built around the fact that the texts simply expose the reader to facts and ideas that the plaintiffs don't like. To acknowledge the simple fact that people have different personal values and ultimately make their own decisions, for example, is taken to be a threat to fundamentalist Christian values. To acknowledge the fact that divorce is more widespread and less widely condemned today than in years past is viewed as approval of divorce.

An even wider coalition of fundamentalist groups than in the Tennessee case is backing the Mobile case, with supporters including television evangelist and presidential aspirant Pat Robertson. Testimony has ended in the case, though a verdict isn't expected for a number of weeks.

In still another major test case: the fundamentalist groups and the State of Louisiana are on the same side, defendants in a suit against a 1981 law requiring the teaching of creationism in the public schools. Creationism means teaching an account of the origins of the universe, of life, and of human existence based on a literal reading of Genesis. Whereas in the other cases the fundamentalists argued that secular humanism is a religion, here many of the same forces are arguing that a religious dogma is a science.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the law (by a narrow 8-to-7 margin) on First Amendment grounds after it was challenged by a member of the Alabama Board of Education, a local school board and the American Civil Liberties Union.

That decision is now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

'Creationism' and Science

That "creationism" is religion masquerading as science is obvious. Science is based on observable fact and on reasoning on the basis of those facts to determine the physical laws governing the object or phenomena observed. By definition, it cannot be based on faith in a set of scriptures. Thus, if the Louisiana law is upheld, it will be a major blow against science as well as the First Amendment.

These three court cases are the most prominent battles in the right-wing fundamentalist campaign to force the public education system to conform to its narrow views, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. Efforts to censor books and curricula - mainly, though not entirely, coming from the religious right - have risen 35 percent in the last year and have more than doubled in the last four years, according to one survey. Thirty-nine percent of the attacks occurring in the last year have led to the actual removal or restriction of the "offending" material.

Curricula dealing with subjects like nuclear war and the Nazi holocaust have been attacked. Literature from Homer to Hemingway has been attacked and sometimes removed from library shelves. Texts mentioning evolution have been vetoed by school boards. Some science text publishers are already practicing "self-censorship." One study found that half of all biology texts today don't cover evolution adequately and one-sixth don't cover it at all.

No Defensive Campaign

The wide scope and nature of the rightwing fundamentalists' assault clearly demonstrates that, objectively, theirs is not a campaign todefend their children from the alleged influence of another "religion," but an offensive campaign to impose their own social, political and religious views. With their growing political clout, including an evidently growing inclination of judges to support their warped interpretation of the First Amendment, they have made considerable headway.

There are still strong segments of the capitalist class that oppose this campaign. Many ruling-class voices have expressed alarm over the impact it may have on U.S. capitalism's ability to compete worldwide if education in general and the teaching of science in particular is crippled.

On the other hand, the capitalist class has an interest in raising future generations of wage slaves who are schooled to obey authority without question, not to think independently, to support capitalism and hate socialism, to keep women "in their place," to view their own earthly lives as not very important, etc. The growing political influence of the religious right and its growing ties to the ruling class are no accident, but signs of U.S. capitalism's growing willingness to embrace such reaction.

This fight over the content of our children's education is not a religious struggle, but a political struggle that in turn reflects the class struggle. While education under capitalism has always had inherent shortcomings and has always served capitalist objectives, workers have an interest in resisting the right's campaign to turn the schools into even worse centers for mindless obedience training than they already are.

At the same time, the very existence of this campaign provides yet another urgent reason for workers to organize against the decaying social system giving rise to such extreme reaction.