El Salvador: The congressmen and the Bible

[Translation of an article from ContraPunto of El Salvador for July 5 concerning passage on July 1 of a bill to require that Salvadoran school children be read passages from the Bible for at least seven minutes at the beginning of every school day. The measure, supported by the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Arena, the former ruling party) and other rightist parties and opposed by the leftist Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional , received the votes of 45 members of the 84-member unicameral legislature. President Mauricio Funes initially supported the bill but said later he would consult religious leaders before deciding whether to sign it into law or veto it. As of this posting, he has yet to decide.]

by Julián González Torres

San Salvador – More than a century ago, Julio Interiano, secretary of public education, development and welfare, wrote in his report on efforts concerning primary education, “A school is a model of society. And society is heterogeneous; there is no uniformity of beliefs. The state, then, which recognizes the rights of all and guarantees the fullfillment of them, cannot teach the practice of any specific sect, much less of a number of them, nor can it instill dogmatic beliefs outside the domain of reason”…

A hundred and twenty years later, the congressmen of the Right ignored that wise liberal principle of respect for diversity of religious beliefs in society, especially in the schools. They argue that the aim of reading the Bible in schools is to “restore” to children some “lost” values. So that once children listen attentively to certain Bible passages, they will regain those values, which they lost who knows where or when, and they will turn out to be good children, obedient and respectful of the laws. This, they say, will contribute to lowering the level of delinquency and crime. What is interesting is that they want to attain this goal by requiring teachers and pupils to listen to readings from one book of one particular religion. So what happened to respect for constitutional order?

If it is a question of combatting crime, what this country needs, in the short term, is an excellent criminal investigation service, honorable prosecutors who are genuinely professionals in the prosecution of criminals, a National Civil Police force free of corruption, a body of competent judges, a 911 system with up-to-date technology and swift reaction and better jails. In the medium and long term: strengthen and broaden socio-economic policies aimed at reducing the enormous social inequalities.

It may sound trite, but it is beyond doubt that one of the factors that has made possible the growth of gangs, the social reality that has us so concerned, is the imposition of socio-economic policies that widen the gap between the rich and the poor. It will not be the reading of the bible in the schools that will bring peace and well-being but the struggle to establish a socio-economic order centered on human life in its fullness, the people and their needs; an order that does not make a few people “successful” and the great majority “losers.” Otherwise, we run the risk, to quote Marx, of making of religion the “opium of the people” while it can be, and has been, a liberating principal.

The trite argument about the “loss of values” comes and goes. What I would ask first is, which values? Gang members are very loyal to one another, they keep their word; when they agree to kill, they kill. Furthermore, many of them want to be successful people, a value deeply ingrained in our societies. The other question is, if it is values that have been lost, why go to the Bible? A key value for democratic life is tolerance, respect for differences. Is the Bible the best book for learning to be tolerant? In his brilliant book Imágenes de Dios Spanish theologian and philosopher Juan Antonio Estrada shows how all monotheistic religions, religions by the book, are violent and intolerant. The belief in a single god implies scorn and war against belief in any other god. We are obviously no longer in the middle ages, but the distinguished congressmen of the Right have revealed their religious fanaticism and consequently their intolerance.

On the other hand, if the home and the church itself have failed to teach these supposed values taken up in the Bible, what reason is there to believe that the state will manage to do it through the schools? Most Salvadorans believe, or at least claim to believe, in the principles and values of Christianity. So what sense does it make to propose for the public sphere what has failed in the private sphere? In the face of the failing political vision of a group of congressmen, work done this year by the Ministry of Education in donating school supplies, uniforms and shoes to children has been praiseworthy. This type of meausure does contribute to the dignity of the students.

More than a century ago, the Catholic church was fighting against the elimination of Christian education from the schools, while intellectuals and state officials like Julio Interiano and David J. Guzmán were defending lay education tooth and nail, arguing that a Christian upbringing was the job of the parents, not of the state. One hundred and twenty years later (the ironies of history!) congressmen on the Right approve the obligatory reading of the Bible in schools and receive the support of the president of the republic, while the highest representative of the Catholic church in El Salvador, Monseigneur José Luis Escobar, declares that the law, besides being unconsitutional, violates parents’ rights to raise their children in the faith they consider appropriate. He adds as well that, “Hearing the word of God requires an atmosphere that doesn’t exist in the public schools.”

So the religious hierarchy comes close to Julio Interiano when he affirmed that “the state is a heterogeneous collectivity. Faith is incompatible with it and what lacks faith cannot transmit it.”

Not long ago, theologian José María Castillo recognized in atheist José Saramago a worthy defender of values like justice, liberty and peace. Castillo affirmed that Saramago professed “the faith of the Centurion,” that is, he was a man of deep humanity, “a good person in every respect.” We should remind the congressmen that agnosticism and atheism can give us persons of deep humanity. Religious fanaticism creates idiocy and generates violence; critical thinking frees us from dogmatism and makes us more tolerant while it makes our beliefs relative.

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One Response to “El Salvador: The congressmen and the Bible”

  1. Leslie C. Says:

    These arguments are certainly nothing new, but they are well put. Unfortunately they need to be repeated over and over as this situation rears its ugly head in many nations and communities.
    What as Funes thinking??? What kind of electoral compromises is the FMLN making?