Monday, August 19, 2019

The Friendly Strangers

The historian Kevin M. Kruse has attracted some attention for his Twitter exchanges with the convicted felon and right-wing propagandist Dinesh D'Souza, as well as his educational threads on American history in general.  After following him for a while I decided to read some of Kruse's books, and began with One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (Basic Books, 2015).  Before beginning to read it, I looked around in the index and found references to the Gideons, the organization that gives away Bibles to hotels, hospitals, and (at least formerly) to public schoolchildren.

The Gideons prepared a special edition for distribution on the streets and in schools, consisting of the New Testament and the book of Psalms from the Hebrew Bible, later augmented by Proverbs, in the Authorized (King James) Version.   In the early 1950s they began to encounter some unexpected resistance to public school distribution:
While other religious innovations [such as adding "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance] had been relatively uncontroversial at the time of their creation, the Gideons' ministry to schoolchildren sparked a contentious debate.  Religion in the schools had long been considered a local concern.  Communities dominated by one faith traditionally instituted sectarian prayers or Bible reading to classrooms with little complaint.  More diverse locales often tried to avoid the issue of religion entirely, but the Gideons brought long-simmering tensions to the forefront.  Jewish leaders protested any effort to place the New Testament in public schools, while Catholic officials objected because canon law forbade members of their faith from using the King James Version.  "Most children will accept anything free," noted a priest in upstate New York, and thus they would inadvertently sin in taking the gift. In Boston, it became such a widespread problem that the archdiocese instructed priests to order all Catholic children who had accepted Gideon Bibles to return them immediately [166].
Catholic objections to use of the Authorized Version weren't idle nitpicking.  It was produced as Protestantism replaced Roman Catholicism as the official religion of England, and the translators were expected to make translation decisions that would support Anglican doctrine against Rome.  These decisions were subtle enough that most readers today wouldn't notice them, but among the AV's intended functions was that of anti-Catholic propaganda.  Dissenting English Protestants, like the Puritans, thought the AV was still too danged papist, and used other more theologically correct translations.  For more information on this, see for example God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible by Adam Nicolson (HarperCollins, 2003). 

This controversy paved the way for the 1962 Supreme Court ruling on official school prayer, which Kruse also discusses.  He reproduces this Herb Block cartoon from the period:

Whenever I get the chance, I ask advocates of official public school prayer why they don't think parents should be responsible for their own children's religious indoctrination.  Generally they'll say that many parents neglect that task, though why they trust the Dang Gummint with it is a problem.  In the end they admit that they want to get at other parents' children.

But back to the Gideons.  Once people began to think about the encroachment of evangelical Protestantism on public institutions, more and more spoke up.  In Rutherford, New Jersey, in 1951,
Mrs. E. K. Ingalls, for instance, reminded the board there had been a similar controversy in their high school over the state-mandated practice of Bible reading during morning assemblies.  Catholic students there had refused to read from the King James Version and were castigated by the principal.  Was it "good teaching," she asked, for a school to say "you will read the St. James [sic] version or else?"  The superintendent recognized "the right of each child in the Public Schools to use the religion of his choice" but maintained that the board had done nothing wrong [167-8].
Ah, the Saint James Version!  I wonder if Mrs. Ingalls was Catholic and knew the King James Version only by reputation.  Although there were several English versions of the Bible available in the US in those days, the KJV's dominance among American Protestants was overwhelming.  The Revised Standard Version was published in 1952, but it was controversial.  Among Catholics, who weren't encouraged to read scripture anyway, the Douay was supreme; the Jerusalem Bible wouldn't be published until 1966.  (Interesting trivia: J. R. R.Tolkien participated in the production of that version.)  Not until 1978 would the New International Version challenge the KJV's supremacy among conservative Protestants, and English versions have proliferated since then.

The important takeaway from this story is that objections to government-mandated religious observance in the US have not come only, or even primarily, from atheists: they've come from Christians of various denominations and Jews who protested being ignored by those who chose to ignore the variety of religious belief and practice in this country.  Atheists and other non-believers should bear this in mind no less than Christians.