PERIODICALLY AN ORGANIZATION comes along promising to defuse the long-running battle over religion in public education by increasing instruction about religion as an academic discipline. At first glance, such proposals have great appeal. The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled that objective study about religion is unconstitutional. In fact, in its landmark 1963 Bible-reading decision, Abington Township School District v. Schempp, the court majority lauded such instruction, writing: "It might well be said that one's education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization."
Fair enough. But the effort to introduce religion into U.S. schools in an objective manner isn't as simple as it first sounds, as recent events have proven.
Currently, two organizations are roaming the country, proposing that school boards adopt their "Bible-as-history" and "Bible-as-literature" curriculums. One of these organizations--the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools--was in the news recently after the school board in Odessa, Texas, adopted its curriculum amid much controversy. The second group--the Bible Literacy Project--made headlines when it rolled out a glossy textbook entitled The Bible and Its Influence.
The National Council's curriculum is, to be blunt, a constitutional train wreck. The group is tied to a number of televangelists and relies on religious right revisionist historian David Barton, who peddles claptrap arguing that the United States was intended to be a "Christian nation:' The National Council's curriculum might be fine for a conservative church's Sunday school but it has no place in a public school. (Indeed, litigation is already being threatened in Odessa.)
The backers of the Bible Literacy Project seem to be aware that the National Council's materials are problematic. In fact, the Project's major selling point is that its book is balanced and supposedly more objective than what the National Council puts out. However, while the Bible Literacy Project's book may be preferable to what the National Council offers, this doesn't mean it is without its own flaws. In fact, the book has several.
For starters, the tome is saturated with the assumption that the Bible's influence has, more or less, been overwhelmingly positive. This sugarcoating is a major and rarely discussed pitfall of the "teach about religion" movement. In an overwhelmingly religious society, it is fair to ask if it's even possible to teach a "warts-and-all" approach to the dominant faith.
Yet we know plenty of warts exist. The Bible was used to rationalize slavery in the South. It was--and continues to be--used to justify the oppression of women. The Bible and Its Influence simply glosses over these inconvenient facts. It also contains no mention of the Salem witch trials and other less-than-appealing religious fallout.
In analyzing the book and its backers, my colleague Joseph Conn at Americans United for Separation of Church and State uncovered some disturbing facts. Many of the project's supporters are religious conservatives. Chuck Stetson, chairperson of the Bible Literacy Project, is a longtime backer of Republican candidates and advocate of fundamentalist forms of Christianity. Stetson is a close ally of Charles Colson, the former Watergate figure who turned evangelical activist. In fact, Stetson took special training from a Colson-run program to learn how to "restore our culture by effectively thinking, teaching, and advocating a biblical worldview as applied to all of life" Stetson apparently has no credentials as either a historian or biblical scholar, yet his name appears on the cover as coauthor of the book. …