Just in time for Holy Week and Passover, new fights are breaking out in states across the nation about how to teach the Bible in public schools. Competing "Bible bills" are popping up everywhere, with Republicans and Democrats vying to see who can thump the Bible the loudest.
First prize goes to Georgia Republicans. Late last month the Legislature voted 151-7 in the House and 50-1 in the Senate for the first-in-the-nation "Bible bill" calling for Bible electives to be taught in Georgia's public schools. Gov. Sonny Perdue is expected to sign it.
Although Georgia schools are already free to offer Bible electives, this bill provides state funding and curriculum to encourage widespread adoption of Bible courses. Similar legislation has been proposed in Alabama, Tennessee and Missouri; proponents promise more states to come.
If this were only about Bible literacy, the flurry of Bible bills might pass unnoticed. After all, without some knowledge of the Bible, students can't decode The Da Vinci Code, put the Gospel of Judas in context, or distinguish the scriptural Moses from the one on ABC. And that's just this month in the media. How are they going to understand much of what they see in museums, read in literature or encounter in history? At a time when most kids identify Easter with a bunny rabbit, Bible electives could fill an educational gap.
Unfortunately, the unseemly rush to pass Bible bills appears to be less about education and more about partisan politics and stealth attempts to promote one religious view of the Bible in public schools.
It started in Alabama, where Democrats in that Legislature proposed Bible electives that would use a new textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, published by the Bible Literacy Project. Because the textbook has broad support from Jews and Christians, was reviewed by 41 scholars (disclosure: I was one of the reviewers), and successfully field-tested, the Democrats saw this as a golden opportunity to do something both religion-friendly and constitutional.
Not surprisingly, Alabama Republicans weren't about to let Democrats steal their biblical thunder. Although in the minority, GOP legislators have thus far managed to block passage of the Democrats' bill.
Georgia is a different story. Once again, the Democrats went first, proposing Bible electives using The Bible and Its Influence. Once again, Republicans fought back, accusing the Democrats of "trying to put a wolf in sheep's clothing." Since GOP lawmakers control both legislative houses, they scuttled the Democratic bill and passed an alternative.
Beyond the fact that they were put forward by Democrats, why did Republicans in Alabama and Georgia reject the original Bible bills? It turns out that the dispute is about much more than partisan jockeying over which party is on God's side. It's really about how public schools should teach about the Bible.
The Democrats in both states had no sooner proposed their bills when supporters of an alternative approach from a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools mobilized to defeat it with a political two-step: First, discredit the textbook in the Democratic bill. Then get Republicans to endorse an alternative approach that just happens to reflect the National Council's own curriculum.
National Council advisory board member (and prominent evangelical minister) D. James Kennedy labeled the textbook "anti-biblical" and claimed it was supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council on Islamic Education. In reality, The Bible and Its Influence has been praised by many Jewish, Catholic and Protestant leaders — including evangelicals such as Chuck Colson. Neither the ACLU nor CIE has endorsed it. But the smear campaign worked.
What many religious leaders and scholars like about The Bible and Its Influence is that it puts the Bible in historical context, exposes students to how Jews and Christians understand the Bible in various ways, and illustrates how the Bible has shaped history, literature and the arts. Contrary to the National Council's claim, students using the textbook are required to read the Bible itself. But both teachers and students are given sound scholarship and historical context for studying it.
By contrast, the National Council's curriculum doesn't have a student textbook (the Bible, they say, is the textbook), but provides a lengthy workbook for teachers that, in places, treats the Bible like a history book. Most of the secondary sources recommended for classroom use are from an evangelical Christian perspective.
According to a report from the Texas Freedom Network, by biblical scholar Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University, the council's curriculum "advocates a narrow sectarian perspective taught with materials plagued by shoddy research, blatant errors and discredited or poorly cited sources" (full report at www.tfn.org).
The Bible bill just passed in Georgia doesn't mention the National Council by name, but GOP lawmakers there and in Alabama have cited the group's "successful approach." The Georgia bill mandates the Bible as the "basic text," calls for teaching "the history recorded there," and lists topics to be studied that are consistent with the council's curriculum.
My own view is that legislation isn't needed, as local districts are already free to propose Bible electives. But if state legislatures do pass Bible bills, they shouldn't mandate any particular textbook or curriculum — but should include safeguards to ensure the Bible courses are both constitutionally and educationally sound. This means setting high academic standards for classroom materials and requiring adequate teacher preparation.
If lawmakers in Georgia or anywhere else are serious about biblical literacy, then there are ways to teach about the Bible that pass constitutional muster. But if politicians continue to play politics with the Bible, the fights and lawsuits will continue — and all the kids will get are chocolate bunnies and colored eggs.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.