Sepia Saturday: Religious Wars

Here’s an interesting sepia (well, old newsprint at least) glimpse into my own past, illustrating that the right-wing American fundamentalist Christian war on “liberal” intellectualism (cf. Rick Santorum et. al. ad nauseum) is not a new development. Cast your mind back to the fraught year of 1968. Here in our dank corner of the world a tempestuous teapot was steaming.

One of my “deeply Christian” (his words) father’s favorite classes to teach at the University of Washington was the popular “The Bible as Literature.” He used the class, as part of the English and Creative Writing program, to bring out the poetry, the humor, and the historical, sociopolitical aspects of the Bible, as well as its linguistic and thematic influence on the whole of Western literature.

Out of the blue, a couple of Presbyterian ministers decided to sue the University, claiming that the course was unconstitutional.

From the legal proceedings (which you can read here, and it's actually a pretty good read!):

Although the constitutional violations are urged, the major premise of plaintiffs' argument, as alleged in their amended complaint, is: That the manner in which said presentation is made [of English 390] is contrary to the religious beliefs of Plaintiffs, both individually and as church organizations and congregations. [emphasis mine] That said manner of presentation is in itself the presentation of a religious point of view, being one of several theological positions within the Protestant faith.

The trial, as one might imagine, went on for some time. So, to the sepia bit: here’s the newspaper article that appeared just before the verdict was given. First off, I love the bizarre coincidence of the story playing second banana to the infamous Jack Ruby.

Happily, with only two recusants and one dissenter, the majority of the court ruled in favor of the University.

The trial court found: that English 390 concerns itself with the literary features of the Bible and, as a necessary part thereof, the history of ancient Israel; the authorship and treatment of the various books of the Bible, and their interpretation from a literary and an historical point of view, employing the same techniques of scholarship used in the study of any other literary or historical text; that the course is offered as part of a secular program of education to advance the knowledge of students and the learning of mankind; that it is taught by members of the English department who are competent literary scholars, qualified to teach in their respective fields of specialization. The course is not taught by theologians. One professor uses the Revised Standard Version of the Bible; another the Oxford Annotated Edition of the Revised Standard Version; a third, the King James version. Each makes his choice of the English translation for his own professional reasons.

...The trial court dismissed plaintiffs' complaint with prejudice.

And I also love these caricatures. I have to say, the one of my father is spot on.

Here’s my favorite part:

There can be no doubt that our constitutional bars are absolute against religious instruction and indoctrination in specific religious beliefs or dogma; but they do not proscribe open, free, critical, and scholarly examination of the literature, experiences, and knowledge of mankind. If they did, many fields of scholarship — anthropology, zoology, the theory of evolution, astronomy, the germ theory of disease and medical cure, to mention only a few — would have to be removed from our university. It might be said that the objective examination of these theories conflicts with the religious beliefs of certain persons entertaining contrary beliefs based upon their religious convictions. This would, indeed, be true "sectarian control or influence," which is prohibited by article 9, section 4 of our constitution. It would, as Mr. Justice Brennan said so recently,

    cast a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom. Keyishian v. Board of Regents,385 U.S. 589, 17 L.Ed.2d 629, 87 Sup. Ct. 675 (1967).

The result advocated by plaintiffs would be catastrophic in the field of higher education. Would plaintiffs have us strike the works of Milton, Dante, and the other ancient authors whose writings have survived the ages, because they wrote of religious theories with which plaintiffs quarrel? Our constitution does not guarantee sectarian control of our educational system.

In Illinois ex rel. McCollum v. Board of Education,333 U.S. 203, 92 L.Ed. 649, 68 Sup. Ct. 461 (1948), Mr. Justice Jackson, in a concurring opinion, pointed out that:

    Music without sacred music, architecture minus the cathedral, or painting without the scriptural themes would be eccentric and incomplete, even from a secular point of view.... Even such a "science" as biology raises the issue between evolution and creation as an explanation of our presence on this planet. Certainly a course in English literature that omitted the Bible and other powerful uses of our mother tongue for religious ends would be pretty barren.


  1. Interesting to read the stories on the newspaper page. 1968 was indeed a year to remember. Glad your father was able to continue teaching the course.

  2. I'm glad about the way this turned out. I wonder what would happen today?
    Deliver us from the likes of Santorum...and the people who like him.

  3. I just noticed you have a great quote about art by Ed Ruscha on your side panel. I knew him at Chouinard Art Institute in L.A. in 1958.

  4. I wonder if the theory of evolution is still being taught everywhere? Love he cartoons, very 1960s :-)

  5. Isn't it amazing how so many people are so anxious to prove their ignorance. They're almost proud of it.

    Fascinating post. And I too love the line drawings.