A friend of mine who writes for the Daily Kos sent me a link to something he posted recently about the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act, a bill recently passed by the Missouri legislature. It is a piece of legislation that gets to the heart of the conflicts documented in Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy book, and my own motivations in creating this blog.
You can read the text of the Missouri bill online. In short, the legislation is directed towards universities and collegse, and it sets out a series of teaching and administrative requirements designed to protect intellectual diversity: "such concerns shall include but not be limited to the protection of religious freedom including the viewpoint that the Bible is inerrant." This, then, is a piece of legislation that goes far beyond previous attempts to introduce creationism and/or intelligent design into science curriculums. The American Association of University Professors has expressed its grave concerns about the consequences this legislation could have. The bill has yet to be approved by the Missouri Senate or Governor.
The bill is named after Emily Brooker, a social work student who sued Missouri State University in federal court, claiming that her Christian beliefs had been discriminated against. You can read more about that online (USA Today, Washington Post, Inside Higher Ed). It appears that in one of her classes she was required to write a letter to the state legislature supporting gay adoption (although the professor in question says he did not require students to sign or send their letters). In addition, Brooker claims that she is unable to endorse, as required, the National Association of Social Work's code of ethics, because this would require her to change her religious beliefs. Missouri State University settled with her, out of court.
This entire situation is one that I find incredibly discouraging, since it seems to indicate a complete breakdown in dialogue, with folks on the different sides of this question reacting with extreme prejudice and fear, emotional states which are hardly conducive to learning. For some people, the student is a hero for defending her views and the professor is a villain for trying to impose his, while for others, the professor is a hero for defending his views while the student is a villain for trying to impose hers.
Either way, the problem seems to be the perception that some people are trying to impose their views on other people. That is clearly going to raise hackles. Dialogue, on the other hand, is always possible, and always leaves open the possibility of education, which is supposed to be the goal in this particular environment.
I'll share quickly here my own personal experience with Biblical inerrancy in the classroom, because it was a very positive learning experience for me. I used to be in the Classics department at the University of Oklahoma, and I modified the traditional Greek language class to include both a Biblical Greek textbook (Croy's wonderful Primer of Biblical Greek) together with the Attic Greek textbook that the department had been using (the equally wonderful Athenaze textbook series). As a teacher, I found that the two books worked really well together, and I was delighted by the fact that a large contingent of students arrived for my class from the Baptist Student Union. These were students who had avoided the Greek classes previously because of the virulently anti-Christian views expressed by the Greek professor who had been teaching the first-year Greek class before I arrived.
So, as we went through the class together, the students and I both learned a lot from each other. I was the one who knew Greek, so that was my contribution to the discussion and dialogue. I had some valuable knowledge, and the students respected me for wanting to share it. In turn, the students had a desire to learn and a willingness to work hard, and I respected that. On the days when we worked with the Biblical Greek textbook, they would arrive with these huge backpacks full of different Bibles and commentaries, and would spread these all out on the table so that they would have access to the reference tools they respected and valued as we discussed the Biblical text.
And our views of the Biblical text were decidedly different from one another! My training was as a classical philologist, and so for me the Bible is quite simply one of the most fascinating and complicated texts that has survived from the ancient Mediterranean world. There are many adjectives I could use to describe the Bible - beautiful, confusing, inspiring, shocking - but "inerrant" is definitely not one of those words. For the students, on the other hand, translating and interpreting the Biblical text was determined by a belief in Biblical inerrancy. So, during our work together, they showed me how they approached the text, and I showed them how I approached the text. It was a wonderful learning experience for all of us. Some of them asked me to go to church, and they surely had grave concerns for the state of my soul. Yet they were not threatened when I declined their invitation to attend their church and, perhaps just as importantly, I was not threatened by the fact of their inviting me.
So: Biblical inerrancy. It is something I do not find threatening, as long as I do not have to believe it. Yet just as faculty members, understandably, feel threatened if they think they are going to be required to believe in Biblical inerrancy, students also feel threatened if they think they are going to be required to not believe in it.
The climate of threats (real and imagined) and of intimidation, hypersensitivity, prejudice, etc. is a very real problem at American universities today when the subject of religion is involved. Is there anything we can do about it?
Whatever the framers of the Emily Brooker Intellectual Diversity Act thought they were going to accomplish, there is nothing about this bill that is going to make people feel less threatened. It can only contribute to the already vicious cycle of threats and intimidation which has ensnared people on all sides of this issue. That is how it seems to me, in any case. I will definitely keep an eye out for more about this piece of legislation in the news and report back here on what I learn.