by Rabbi Nancy Kasten
In his press release following the Texas State Senate’s passage of bills requiring public schools to display the Ten Commandments in every classroom and allowing school districts to require the offering of daily prayer and Bible study, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stated, “I believe that you cannot change the culture of the country until you change the culture of mankind. Bringing the Ten Commandments and prayer back to our public schools will enable our students to become better Texans.”
The Lt. Governor takes his religion seriously. He has written a book about reading the Christian Bible and produced a Christian film. He also serves as a guest preacher at Second Baptist Church in Houston. When he writes, makes films, and preaches, he is free to offer his perspective to anyone who chooses to listen, exercising the religious liberty granted to all Americans.
At Faith Commons, we believe in bringing faith into the public arena. We don’t believe in imposing our faith on others. Public space is a place for contentious debate about what is the greatest good for our neighbors as well as ourselves.
When Patrick proposes legislation driven by his personal religious perspective, and then conflates that perspective with being a “better Texan,” he drifts from spiritual persuasion into moral coercion. Sadly, many of our Texas legislators agree with him, disregarding the convictions of Texans of other faith or no faith. They proudly display Bible verses in their offices to show that they are “good” Texans; that is, Texans who take the Bible and prayer seriously.
At the same time, the legislative priorities and personal behavior of some of these people belie their purported piety. In this session:
- A seminary-trained representative who advocated for strict moral codes to be imposed upon others, was forced to resign on threat of expulsion for having sexual relations with a staffer.
- Bills became laws that will reward wealthy individuals and private corporations at the expense of public goods such as education, health care, and housing.
- A bill was passed that will put more guns in schools.
- Another new law will allow untrained religious “chaplains” to replace highly trained school mental health professionals, at a time when the growing mental health crisis in children and teens is widely recognized.
- Innocent, defenseless, desperate migrants were demonized and dehumanized, deemed unworthy of any protection whatsoever.
- Doctors, parents, and even clergy can now be prosecuted for acting in the best interest of patients and children in matters as sensitive as unwanted or life-threatening pregnancies and gender-affirming care.
- Elections officials have had their authority questioned or taken away.
- School officials are more vulnerable to those who would undermine and intimidate them in the name of parental rights, especially in what they teach about America’s racial history and what books should be available in school libraries.
The leaders in Austin this session created a culture that was more toxic than ever before, more angry, more spiteful. One can only pray that this is not the culture change that our elected officials are advocating for.
Here is a different religious perspective. Rabbi David Saperstein, former U.S. Ambassador-At-Large for International Religious Freedom once said: “If we inscribe the meaning of the Ten Commandments on the hearts and minds of our children through our religious schools and our families it can be an important guide to them. If they just hang, like visual muzak, on our school walls, they will do as much for morality in our classrooms as the Gideon Bibles have done for morality in our hotel rooms.”
Dictating and promoting religion in schools is no substitute for role models who practice what they preach. If the government is going to shape culture, let it be with love, compassion, and humility rather than judgment, animosity, and arrogance.
The coming years are going to test Texans of faith, who will have to find creative ways to live out our values in a culture of violence and retribution. We must help each other shape a culture that allows each person to feel valued and protected, capable of finding meaning and purpose as the person they were created to be.