What if public schools were mandated to teach Islamic creation in science class?
Conservative Christians intent on passing 'stealth creationism' bills are dangerously blurring the line between religion and state. If government endorses their religion, the door is open for teaching any belief – whether atheist or Islamic – in public schools.
In the first three months of 2011, legislators in at least seven US states introduced "stealth creationism bills" – legislation that, if it doesn't outright mandate the teaching of intelligent design in public schools, includes carefully-worded provisions that protect educators who do it. At the same time, over half of those states have also attempted to ban Islamic sharia reasoning from becoming a part of any American law. Often, it's the very same people trying to mandate public-school Bible classes and strong-arm local mosques out of the community.
The message in their actions is clear: we are all for government endorsing religion – as long as its ours and ours alone.
The (un)intelligent design of creationists
Most of the lawmakers pushing Christianity on public schools don't admit they are asking government to legislate their religion into a place of preference; they typically argue that their view is a valid scientific alternative. But "intelligent design," which many of these new bills advocate, is not much more than biblical creationism deliberately restated in non-religious language. (The term was coined by a group of Christian creationists trying to circumvent state education laws.)
In some states, more explicit legislation gives up the game: Kentucky law authorizes "the theory of creation as presented in the Bible" and to "read such passages in the Bible as are deemed necessary for instruction on the theory of creation." The influential Texas Board of Education, which has been a champion of teaching creationism in public schools, also approved requirements that force public high schools to teach Bible classes.
Even framed as "intelligent design," creationism is a distinctly Christian idea that commands no respect in the scientific community, including among most credentialed scientists who are Christian. Asking that this particular religious narrative be taught alongside serious science should strike Americans as no less alarming than US courts looking to the Quran for their legal reasoning.
It's dangerous not only because it's hypocritical to welcome government collusion with one religion while banning it from interacting with another. Religious believers of all types should be concerned that government stay out of their business, because getting government mixed up in your religious affairs in ways you like is the surest route to having it involved in ways you don't.
Freedom of religion means keeping religion out of government
Americans' freedom of speech and religion are protected to an extent almost unheard of elsewhere in the world, even in the democratic West. This month, France's ban on Muslim women wearing traditional religious dress in public – a shocking infringement on individual and religious freedom – went into effect. The fact that we can scarcely imagine something similar happening in the US is a testament to how vigilantly the courts have guarded those freedoms in our country.
But the flip side of keeping the government out of religious practice is keeping our religious practice out of the government. One cannot exist without the other; change that balance, and the state becomes the tool of religious interests, or vice versa – the exact situations the American Constitution was devised to prevent.
It is on behalf of this deeply American idea, one that has served us so well for so long, that I hope conservative Christians can be persuaded to abandon their creationism bills and campaigns to reinstitute school prayer. They should realize that not only are those pursuits an attack on American ideals, but that supporting those American ideals, rather than crusading for preferential treatment, is very much in their own interest.
The tyranny of the majority: how tables can turn
While Christian sects have always collectively made up the majority of the population, key parts of the American system were designed precisely to keep this type of majority from tyrannizing minority groups. The English conservative thinker Edmund Burke wrote that "the tyranny of a multitude is a multiplied tyranny." Christian political activists often hold up their faith's majority status to dismiss the rights of others. But to see the pernicious nature of this line of thought, we need only to imagine a massive influx of Muslims that suddenly made Christians a fractional minority. Under different circumstances, Christians would be clamoring to keep the state and the courts free of religious bias.
In some parts of the country, this won't be mere thought-experiment much longer. Christians are likely to remain in the majority for many decades, but American demographics are changing rapidly. People who identify as nonreligious are one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country, and the US Muslim population is expected to double in the next 20 years. It is realistic to imagine that, in some communities, either of these minorities could become the new majority.
What if local representatives suddenly decided that public schools should teach the Islamic creation story in science class? Or that, in addition to evolution, students should be informed they are fools for believing in a Creator? In response to the outcry from the new Christian minority, they could fairly ask, "How do you suddenly have a problem with biased education? And what do you mean we can't ban Christian principles from the courts? Haven't you been trying to do that to us for decades?"
Fortunately, most attempts to Christianize the state never make it very far. Most of the creationism bills were dead on arrival, and not a single sharia ban has been allowed to stand. But over the past year, crusades against mosques and sharia have been loud and bellicose, while a not-insignificant number of Christians happily teach their religious views in public schools. I desperately long for a country where Christians respect not only believers of other faiths, but the unique American ideals that allow us all to live together in peace.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. His writing has appeared in Slate, New York, Politics Daily, and others. He currently works for The Daily Beast. Follow him on Twitter. His column, "Sessions on American Culture," is published on alternate Wednesdays at Patheos.com, where this piece first appeared.