PUBLIC SCHOOLS have been a primary battleground between the despisers and defenders of religion. The forces of secularity have pounded steadily forward on the prayer front, pushing into a tiny meditative corner those who want schools to reflect and teach spiritual, and even specifically Christian, values. They have succeeded in their aggressive tactics because it is genuinely debatable whether sponsoring prayer in a classroom or at an athletic event constitutes coercive support for (if not an establishment of) religion. The battle becomes considerably subtler, though, when religion is advocated not as a way of life but as something to be studied as an integral part of American culture, and is made part of a high school curriculum.
Last year in these pages Mark A. Chantey reviewed the vigorous--and successful--efforts being made by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a conservative Christian organization, to place its textbook, The Bible in History and Literature, in the curriculum of public schools (see "Lesson plans: The Bible in the classroom," August 23). Given the way the culture wars divide religious folk among themselves on the question of how to respond to modernity, it was only a matter of time before the conservative Christian effort was matched by one from an ecumenical group of Christians and Jews.
The Bible Literacy Project offers serious competition with the publication of The Bible and Its Influence, which is to be accompanied by a teaching manual and a university-based, online teacher-training program. This effort, like that of the NCBCPS, relies heavily on the distinction made by Justice Thomas Clark in the 1963 Supreme Court decision forbidding devotional reading of the Bible in public schools: "Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment."
Whereas the NCBCPS has a list of advisers that reads, in Chaneey's words, "like a Who's Who of religious, social and political conservatives," the Bible Literacy Project seeks to represent a much broader spectrum of religious views, and the book's reviewers and consultants include Jews as well as Christians of virtually every stripe. Clearly, the desire is to present the project as a consensus effort. The distinguishing feature of those involved seems to be less a uniform religious position than a deep commitment to the proposition that education in the humanities must include the serious study of religion. The corresponding conviction is that ignorance of religion is unacceptable among those a culture regards as educated. The direct corollary is that an American education that systematically ignores the biblical religion so obviously formative of this culture is necessarily a shabby and second-rate education.
The entire Bible Literacy Project, in fact, bases itself squarely on the Bible Literacy Report (2005), which is subtitled, "What do American teens need to know and what do they know?" The Templeton Foundation put up the money, and the Gallup organization polled approximately a thousand teenagers and conducted interviews with 41 high school teachers. The findings are predictably sobering.
We may not be surprised to learn that only 10 percent of teenagers can name all five of the world's major religions, or that 66 percent cannot name the Qur'an as the sacred book of Islam. It is more disconcerting to learn that 20 percent do not know what Easter commemorates, or that 28 percent cannot identify Moses as the man who led the Israelites out of bondage. And while there is some comfort in knowing that 74 percent of teenagers know that "Do not divorce" is not one of the Ten Commandments, it is diminished by the realization that another 26 percent think "Do not steal" or "Do not kill" or "Keep the Sabbath holy" is not in the Decalogue. That 49 percent of American young people can identify what happened at Cana is good; that 51 percent got the answer wrong is troubling. …