An interesting test case regarding the separation of church and state in the public school system has popped up in Chicago. A group called the “Total Living Network” is passing out book covers to schoolchildren in that city. These book covers are religious in nature, featuring the Ten Commandments and a number of inspirational quotes. While the religious right might thing that all of us card-carrying ACLU types want to eradicate all trace of religion from public life, I think I speak for many, if not most, of us when I say I don’t have any legal problem with this. If teachers or school officials were passing out the book covers, or if the group was allowed to pass them out on school grounds, then there would be a serious First Amendment conflict. But the group passes them out off of school property, and they promise to give them only to those who want them, so that’s kosher. (No pun intended.) There can’t be a church/state conflict when the state is not involved.

But even if it passes the legal test, that doesn’t mean it’s not a pretty damn silly idea. It’s also a bit disturbing, because school officials are stumbling all over themselves to praise the program. One of them, deputy chief of staff Wilfredo DeJesus, wore a collar to a press conference; he is an Assembly of God minister. This display makes a mockery of the concept of separation of church and state. The school system cannot, and should not, prohibit the program, but they shouldn’t be in the business of endorsing religious projects either.

Despite the obvious paradox, religious groups have started to adopt the tactic of claiming that the Commandments are not a religious document, but a secular one, couching the argument in terms of history, culture, and “universalvalues. This time is no exception, and the school system has bought it hook, line, and sinker. Paul Vallas, the CEO of the Chicago school system, said “I view the Ten Commandments as history’s value statements. They’re certainly universally accepted.”

This is, frankly, bullshit. There is absolutely no question that the Commandments are of great historical value, but they are first and foremost undeniably a religious document. Just look at the first four; they are specific to Christianity and Judaism, but could be stretched to fit any monotheistic religion in a pinch. Idol worshipers and polytheists would object to these “universal” values, and contrary to the myopic view of Americans, there are plenty of them out there in the world, and even in this country.

Even the other, non-religious values plenty of people could take issue with. Many Christians regularly ignore “Thou shalt not kill” when it comes to the death penalty. Abusive parents don’t deserve to be respected. Polyamorists enjoy the company of many lovers. And so on.

Regardless of the value of these “universal” values, the justification for this program is rather tenuous, and produces some rather ridiculous statements from its proponents. Take, for example, this line from the Associated Press news report:

DeJesus and a city council member conceded that the district is walking a fine constitutional line, but said a recent spate of killings and other crimes involving youth people have left them no choice.

No choice? Yep, we’ve got a real dire problem on our hands here, and only God can save us. “Code Blue! Code Blue! We’ve got a theological emergency! Get some dogma up here, stat!”

What do these people thing that the book covers will actually accomplish? Sure, if you want to advertise your faith, why not? Book covers have sported corporate advertising for years. If you use it for self-inspiration, more power to you. But to stop killings? Are you smoking crack?

Take your typical gang member or disaffected trench coat wearing suburban kid. We have plenty of both in the school system, but the latter scares me more. He (when do the girls ever commit mass murder?) is sitting there in class, contemplating the murders he will commit during lunch. Then he spies his classmates’ book, wrapped in God’s powerful message, and suddenly dedicates his life to Jesus. Right.

There are some problems with this idea. One, you are assuming the kid can read, which in today’s school system is not a safe assumption. They did take the step of dumbing down “Thou shalt not kill,” because kids these days are not down with that “thou” shit, replacing it with the blander “Do not murder.” Still, a tricky two-syllable word like murder might pose a problem for our hypothetical underachiever. Perhaps “Don’t be bustin’ a cap in nobody’s ass” might work better.

Even if he gets past all that book learnin’, the Commandments, however much wisdom and power you think they might contain, are not magical incantations capable of stopping a murderer in his tracks. I don’t blame these Christians for spreading the word, but I just wish they would dedicate their money and effort towards a program that was a bit more practical than empty proselytizing. “Faith without works is dead.” – James 2:17

If the Commandments are not to your taste, then the other side of the book cover features a selection of inspirational quotes from great theologians like Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. Enlisting the dynamic duo of hometown heroes was a good idea in Chicago, even if their quotes don’t seem to be religious in any way whatsoever, merely Hallmark style empty platitudes.

What infuriates me is their appropriation of Mark Twain. Twain’s sharp edges have been muted, replaced with the image of a crusty old man in a white suit, spinning charming yarns about kids on rafts. Twain wrote that a classic was "a book which people praise and don't read,” and it is Twain’s fate to be quoted, but never read, appropriated but never understood.

The Twain you don’t hear about in school is the vicious and unsparing wit, the crusader against American imperialism, and the satirist of that most sacred of cows: religion. You won’t hear about that Twain from the Total Living Network, the Twain who wrote Letters from the Earth, so scandalous it was unpublished until 1962, fifty two years after his death. The Letters from the Earth are missives from Satan to his fellow angels regarding the stupidity, pride, and foolishness of, according to the title of one Twain story, “The Damned Human Race”. You can imagine this not being popular Sunday school reading. Here is a very small sample of Twain’s caustic wit from that book:

“{Man} has imagined a heaven, and has left entirely out of it the supremest of all his delights, the one ecstasy that stands first and foremost in the heart of every individual of his race - and of ours – sexual intercourse!”

“{The Bible} is full of interest. It has noble poetry in it; and some clever fables; and some blood-drenched history; and some good morals; and a wealth of obscenity; and upwards of a thousand lies.”

Now there’s some quotes for your book cover.


The text of the book covers:

The Ten Commandments (dumbed down for public consumption):

-- Only worship the one true God
-- Do not worship idols
-- Do not misuse God's name
-- Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy
-- Show respect to your father and mother
-- Do not murder
-- Be faithful in marriage
-- Do not steal
-- Do not tell lies about others
-- Do not want anything that belongs to someone else

``Good Thinking'':
-- ``A man may die, nations may rise and fall, but an idea lives on.'' – John F. Kennedy
--``You have to expect things from yourself before you can do them.'' -- Michael Jordan
-- ``If you tell the truth, you don't have to remember anything.'' -- Mark Twain
-- ``We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.'' – Martin Luther King Jr.
-- ``Hold the highest vision possible for your life and it can come true.'' -- Oprah Winfrey
--``You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading today.'' – Abraham Lincoln

Published today on Maxed and posted here with the permission of the author, which wasn’t very hard, because I wrote it.

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