Monday, November 07, 2005

The more things change…

I don't think I ever encountered this in my historical readings, but I'm glad I learned about the Pennsylvania Bible riots:
[In the 1840s,] Pennsylvania's public schools reflected generic Protestantism. The school day began with the recitation of the Lord's Prayer, readings from the King James Version of the Bible, and often group singing of Protestant hymns. In addition, the Bible was frequently used as a textbook in spelling classes and to teach other secular subjects.

Bible reading occurred "without comment." The teacher simply read a set number of verses – usually 10 – without elaborating or interpreting them. Most Protestant groups found the practice acceptable, because it echoed their own theology. But Catholics – who look to church leaders to interpret the Scripture – considered the practice alien and heretical.

As the Catholic population increased, the Protestant majority decided to draw a line in the sand at the public school door. In 1838 the state legislature passed a law mandating that the Bible – and by that everyone knew they meant the King James Version – be used as a public school textbook. The new law was a deliberate slap in the face to Catholics, because it was unnecessary: public schools all over the state were already relying on the King James Bible for daily instruction.

Also, some textbooks had a clear anti-Catholic bias. One even referred to the pope as the anti-Christ. Catholic clergy finally began planning a protest.
So people reacted the way they tend to, with violence. In May of 1844, there was a rally by Protestant nativists (nativism was an anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement recently seen in Gangs of New York). They were fighting to keep the (Protestant) King James Bible in schools, while Catholics were agitating to have Bible devotionals removed from schools (though replacing them with sermons from the Douay Bible would have worked, too).

Someone pushed someone in the crowd, someone pushed back, and pretty soon the guns came out. A bunch of the Protestant protesters fell, and police managed to drive the crowds off. At least until that night, when a mob started attacking the homes of Catholics (mostly Irish).

The fighting raged for days, as churches and neighborhoods were razed.

All of which is to say that the conflict we face today over church-state issues is a lot better than it could be.

That said, consider this testimony from Dover, PA.

Later [attorney for the Dover parents] Steve Harvey asked [creationist Scott] Minnich whether it was possible that there was more than one designer, or possibly an "evil designer" and a "good designer." Minnich replied that that was a theology question. He stated that the intelligent design theory only takes one to the point that there is some kind of intelligent designer, after that, "theology or philosophy takes over."
And we've seen where that gets us.

"Teen Age Riot" by Sonic Youth from the album Daydream Nation (1993, 6:55).