Preparation or proselytizing?

“What are we going to do about that guy?”

That’s what some of the folks at UNC-Chapel Hill are asking about Joe Glover. He’s the president of the Virginia-based Family Policy Network, which calls itself “a conservative Christian group.”

Glover and his Network have sued the university to stop a summer-reading program that requires new students to read a designated book about Islam — and be prepared to participate in discussion groups on the topic soon after their arrival on campus.

I have an answer to the question about Joe Glover: Put him on the payroll.

Thanks to Mr. Glover, the summer-reading program, which always struggles for attention, is now front-page news. And this year’s book selection, Approaching The Qur’an: The Early Revelations — a little-known, somewhat scholarly work — is being thoughtfully discussed in editorials and newspaper columns across the country.

OK, there’s a hiring freeze, and Carolina can’t put Glover on the payroll. But they ought to at least send him some token of appreciation for his help in promoting the reading program.

In fact, thanks to Glover, I bought the book and read it myself.

The core of Approaching the Qur’an (or Koran, as we usually call it) is a translation of a few selections from the Islamic holy book. For the most part, these excerpts are lyrical and poetic. But they show a firm commitment to the notion of a single God who is in charge of the universe and who requires human beings to live their lives in preparation for Judgment Day. They condemn the accumulation of wealth and ostentatious living and praise those who care for others and work for justice.

The selections are translated by Michael Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford College. His introduction puts the selections in context; Sells also includes a postscript to help the reader understand the great power of the Arabic language, which is used by Muslims throughout the world to read and recite their scriptures. The book even comes with a CD containing some of the selections read in Arabic.

Mr. Glover’s lawsuit alleges that the university is “infringing upon the religious free exercise of its students and violating the establishment clause of the United States Constitution by forcing incoming freshmen and transfer students to study Islam against their will.”

It seems to me that there are three important questions to ask about this reading requirement and the lawsuit that has been filed in response to it.

First, is it a good idea for a college or university to require all new students to read the same book and discuss it during their first days on campus?

I don’t have any doubt about this one, even though I know that most 18-year-olds don’t like to be told they have to do anything. But providing a common experience and reference point for these students — many of whom will spend at least four years together — is a wonderful gift. And the greatest benefit will be not what they learn from reading the assigned book but the discussions they’ll have with their fellow students — conversations that will continue throughout their college careers and beyond.

Second, is Islam an appropriate topic to require for all students?

These days, Islam is one of the most important topics for Americans to deal with. An army officer who’ll be spending six months in Afghanistan told me that he wished his college had required some instruction in the beliefs of Islam. If it had, he noted, he would now be better prepared to understand that country’s dominant religion. As the rest of us formulate our national policies toward the countries of the Muslim world, we would do better if we knew more about their underlying religious beliefs.

Finally, does the Constitution protect students from being required to learn about the beliefs and approaches of a particular religion?

Clearly, if the university were using this reading program to promote Islam as a religion, the Constitution would not permit it.

But the book itself does not promote Islam; it merely explains some of the religion’s key features.

Mr. Glover, however, says his “long-term goal is to make sure the precedent is affirmed that you cannot force people to take a class about a religious text at a state university.”

And if he should win on this point, the university would have to remove all references to scriptures of all religions from all required courses. This prohibition, of course, would also include the Bible. It is hard for me to see how the university could do a good job of teaching its basic courses in literature and history if all references to “religious texts” were prohibited.

We’ll see how all this turns out.

But wouldn’t it be an ironic victory for Glover and his “conservative Christian organization” if he succeeded in doing what the most radical civil-liberties groups have been unable to accomplish — forcing the university to remove every reference to the Bible and other religious texts from every required course?

[Chapel Hill resident D.G. Martin is Carolinas director of the Trust for Public Land, a national conservation organization.]

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