CHANCES ARE you have never heard of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools or its textbook, The Bible in History and Literature. But if you are a member of a school board, you may be hearing about it soon. Over 1,000 schools in 308 school districts in 36 states from Alaska to Florida currently utilize the curriculum, and over 175,000 students have taken courses based on it, according to the NCBCPS Web site (www.bibleinschools.net). It's not a huge number, but it's on the increase, says president and founder Elizabeth Ridenour. Seven years ago, only 71 school districts were using the curriculum.
The NCBCPS has not listed the schools using the curriculum so its geographic impact is difficult to measure. Over a fifth of the schools are in Texas and Louisiana, and it's likely most of the others are in the rural south and midwest.
The NCBCPS's list of advisers reads like a Who's Who list of religious, social and political conservatives. It includes two U.S. representatives, the chaplain to the U.S. Senate, and two of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals"--Joyce Meyer and David Barton. The group has been endorsed by Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, the Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family and a host of similar groups and figures. The NCBCPS uses such organizations to advertise, and then looks to grassroots supporters to push the curriculum in their school districts.
That's what happened this past spring in Odessa, Texas, where the NCBCPS registered 6,000 signatures in support of the cause. The debate there drew attention from the national media. One of the people voicing concern was David Newman, an English professor at Odessa College and father of a 12-year-old student. Newman is Jewish, and he told the Dallas Morning News that his daughter already was occasionally made uncomfortable with questions from classmates. "They'll ask her why "your people' killed Jesus. Or if she knows that Jesus is her savior.... I don't think it's hate. It's just kids being kids. But I worry what will happen if a pronounced Christian viewpoint is taught in the class."
The school board unanimously approved offering a Bible course, reportedly receiving a standing ovation from the audience. The board has apparently not finalized its choice of curriculum. Many in the city advocate using NCBCPS materials.
Courts have ruled clearly that teaching the Bible in a nonsectarian manner is legal and appropriate in public schools, and the NCBCPS insists that its course is indeed nonsectarian. "The program is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students," says the Web site. "The central approach of the class is simply to study the Bible as a foundation document of society, and that approach is altogether appropriate in a comprehensive program of secular education."
Ryan Valentine of the Texas Freedom Network takes a different view: "Academic study of the Bible in a history or literature course is perfectly acceptable," he says, "but this curriculum represents a blatant attempt to turn a public school class into a Sunday school class. Even that may be giving it too much credit--this curriculum wouldn't even pass muster in most churches I know."
The curriculum does make occasional efforts to be evenhanded. It nowhere urges students to become Christians. A separate CD offers perspectives from multiple religious traditions. Some pedagogical components are quite helpful, such as map exercises, reading comprehension questions, quizzes and recommendations of classic musical works inspired by biblical stories. Creative activities include preparing foods that are traditionally associated with Passover and writing a monologue describing Jonah's inner feelings. The book is well illustrated and parts of it are visually appealing.
Nevertheless, the curriculum does present a distinct theological perspective. Discussions of science are based on nonscientific literature, Jesus is presented as the fulfillment of "Old Testament" prophecy, and archaeological findings are cited as evidence of Bible's complete historical accuracy. …