High Schooler says Barbara Ehrenreich’s Book Violates his Civil Rights

The Associated Press reports that that a Bedford, New Hampshire couple, Aimee and Dennis Taylor, object to the assignment of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about the horrific conditions endured by working Americans who labor full-time for poverty wages, Nickeled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America. In one section of the book, Ehrenreich describes her attendance at a revival at which she contends the preacher distorted the teachings of Jesus. Ehrenreich, the Taylors complain, “refers to Jesus Christ as a “‘wine-guzzling vagrant and precocious socialist.'”

On the website for her book, Ehrenreich answers the frequently asked question, “why did you go out of your way to insult Jesus as a ‘wine guzzling vagrant?'”:

I didn’t! In fact, Nickel and Dimed received a Christopher Award, which is given by a Catholic group in recognition of books “which affirm the highest values of the human spirit.” In the section at issue, I observed that the social teachings of Jesus went utterly unmentioned at the tent revival I attended. The revival preachers clearly preferred the dead and risen Christ to the living Jesus — who did indeed drink wine and could even make it out of water. As for the vagrancy charge: that’s what he was, a homeless, itinerant preacher.

Ehrenreich’s book was taught in the Bedford High personal finance class, and there is no indication in the reporting whether the sections on Jesus’s teachings were specifically discussed in class. As a whole, though, the book isn’t about Christianity or Jesus’s political philosophy but about the economic inequities and daily struggles faced by working Americans.

Could there be a more pointed aggregation of right-wing grievances about public education, religion, and the economy? I think not. For one thing, the claim that public school curricula “insult” conservative Christianity has played out in settings from the Texas textbook debacle to assertions that teaching tolerance of homosexuality to prevent bullying violates Christians’ religious freedom. And while Ehrenreich’s book isn’t principally about religion, it’s about economic inequality, a topic the religious right believes is resolved by laissez-faire Jesus, not the “statist” solutions that an actual socialist like Ehrenreich would propose. I don’t know what else Bedford High students read in that personal finance class, but given the job market likely to face today’s high school students, they should probably be attuned to the prospect of earning crap wages.

Even if Ehrenreich hadn’t written about Jesus’s teachings, her book probably would have still been subject to the McCarthy treatment — no doubt she’ll soon be appearing on Glenn Beck’s chalkboard as the embodiment of the twin evils of Christian social justice teachings and economic socialism. According to Fox News, Dennis Taylor, who is described as a conservative Christian and is calling for school officials to be fired over the curriculum, said, “We had almost PhD people letting this fumble through their fingers, and they all said it was grand.”  

The Teacher’s Guide for Nickeled and Dimed, also on Ehrenreich’s website, observes:

A few times in Nickeled and Dimed, the author refers to the “Sermon on the Mount,” which appears in the biblical book of Matthew. Ehrenreich refers to this sermon not as a religious tract but as a work of a political philosophy, as a treatise on social or economic revolution. What is this sermon about? What does it say or claim? (Do some research, if you are unsure.)

You don’t need a PhD to do that.

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