The Bible Literacy Project: Chuck Stetson's Trojan Horse?

Article excerpt

Wr hen The Bible and Its Influence was unveiled at the National Press Club last September, promoters of the new textbook hailed it as a great way to introduce Bible classes into America's public schools.

Chuck Stetson, chairman of the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), gave the lavishly illustrated 390-page volume an endorsement of biblical proportions.

"There has never been a public high school textbook like this," he said. "It was created to satisfy all constituencies involved in the heated debate about the Bible in public schools. It treats faith perspectives with respect, and was examined by 40 reviewers for accuracy, fairness and the highest level of scholarship. At the same time, it meets consensus standards for fulfilling First Amendment guidelines in that it informs and instructs, but does not promote religion."

To prove his point, Stetson enlisted some diverse voices to bless the book: Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress and Leland Ryken, a professor at Wheaton College, one of the leading evangelical Christian colleges in America.

That was an impressive rollout, but I'm very wary of the project for several reasons. Here are some of them.

In the first place, there is something troubling about allowing a well-funded religious pressure group to initiate Bible classes in our public schools. Public schools exist to serve the widest possible range of students from many faith perspectives and none. While the courts have never ruled against objective study about religion, involvement in that sensitive subject is always controversial. Red flags should go up when religious groups seek special classes for their holy scriptures.

It seems clear to me that Stetson, the 59-year-old founder of the BLP, has a sectarian, rather than an academic, motive for his campaign. Stetson, a wealthy Manhattan private equity investor, has long been active in conservative religious and political causes. Although he is often described in news stories as an Episcopalian and a registered independent, his record seems less mainline and more partisan than that description merits.

The Stetson family apparently has been devoted to conservative Republican politics for some time. The Sacramento Bee reports that Stetson donated funds to "faith-based" candidate George W. Bush. Stetson's father, Charles P. Stetson, supported far-right GOP candidates Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, both Religious Right zealots. (The newspaper says Stetson's grandfather was a banking colleague of Prescott Bush, the president's grandfather.)

According to the Boston Globe, Stetson is the "main organizing force" behind the National Bible Association, which sponsors National Bible Week and promotes the Bible as the path to salvation. In November 1998, he told the newspaper he wants to turn Bible Week into a ceremony as grand as the Fourth of July. Other Stetson causes include School Ministries, an outfit that promotes released-time religious education for public school students, and the Network of Biblical Storytellers, a group that communicates "the sacred stories of biblical tradition."

Stetson attended the October 1997 Promise Keepers rally on the mall in Washington, D.C. He told one reporter, "Obviously, it's a big event. But what's important is what happens afterward. Where do the people go from here?"

Perhaps most telling, Stetson is a disciple of Charles Colson, the Watergate-figure-turned-Religious-Right activist. According to a Sept. 28 column by Colson, Stetson is a "Wilberforce Centurion," a graduate of Colson's year-long training program intended to recruit Christian men and women who will "restore our culture by effectively thinking, teaching, and advocating a biblical worldview as applied to all of life." Centurions "make a lifelong commitment to ... shape culture by living out a biblical worldview in their spheres of influence. …