August 1, 2005

Pushing Bible study in public schools.

Here's an article about the push by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools to do what its name says: add the study of the Bible to public school curricula. The program, according to the organization, has been adopted by 312 school districts in 37 states.

While there is clearly nothing wrong per se with studying the Bible in public schools -- a local high school here in Madison has a "Bible as Literature" course, for example -- there are some ways of teaching about the Bible that violate the Establishment Clause.

The program discussed in the article is accused of concealing a "religious agenda":
The critics say it ignores evolution in favor of creationism and gives credence to dubious assertions that the Constitution is based on the Scriptures, and that "documented research through NASA" backs the biblical account of the sun standing still....

According to Charles Haynes of the Freedom Forum, which published "The Bible and Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide" five years ago, "The distinction is between teaching the Bible and teaching about the Bible - it has to be taught academically, not devotionally."

The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools says its course "is concerned with education rather than indoctrination of students."

"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," it says....

A highly critical article in The Journal of Law and Education in 2003 said the course "suffers from a number of constitutional infirmities" and "fails to present the Bible in the objective manner required."

The journal said that even supplementary materials were heavily slanted toward sectarian organizations; 83 percent of the books and articles recommended had strong ties to sectarian organizations, 60 percent had ties to Protestant organizations, and 53 percent had ties to conservative Protestant organizations, it said....

Some of the claims made in the national council's curriculum are laughable, said Mark A. Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who spent seven weeks studying the syllabus for the freedom network. Mr. Chancey said he found it "riddled with errors" of facts, dates, definitions and incorrect spellings. It cites supposed NASA findings to suggest that the earth stopped twice in its orbit, in support of the literal truth of the biblical text that the sun stood still in Joshua and II Kings.

"When the type of urban legend that normally circulates by e-mail ends up in a textbook, that's a problem," Mr. Chancey said.
When people want to use the study of the Bible as a way to inculcate public school kids with religion, they tend to go about it in a way that reveals this intention. They light a fire under critics and make it easy for them to bring successful lawsuits. They alienate people who simply care about good education, who ought to want children to learn the historical and cultural significance of the Bible. What a shame!

UPDATE: Kevin Drum is really irked by the quality of the journalism in the linked NYT article. He has a point!


Smilin' Jack said...

I think Bible study, creationism, etc. in the schools would teach kids (at least the smart ones) a valuable and important lesson: Don't believe everything they try to teach you in school.

Menlo Bob said...

Of course educators can always make the case that their reading lists are intended to serve their propaganda objectives and just happen to skirt legal restrictions.

Considering the founding and history of this country, not studying the Bible also has implications. A great number of biblical references we use in literature and daily life would make no sense. Excluding literature and history central to the lives of the majority of a countries citizens reveals an effort to re-educate a population.

Ann Althouse said...

Menlo Bob: The legal doctrine has an intent element, so that if the evidence shows they intended to promote religion, they have violated the Establishment Clause. They have to actually have a secular intent, which is certainly possible with respect to teaching the Bible. The problem is that the proponents of these things usually are actually trying to put God back in the schools, and they just can't help leaving evidence of that intent. So they lose the case.

Dirty Harry said...

With no religious upbringing I came to Christianity late in life based solely on facts. When I looked at what archeology, secular history, and secular science was finding I found it impossible to not believe.

The people teaching this should have a little more faith in their faith.

Sloanasaurus said...

While I agree that we should not be teaching the Bible as a religious text in public school it may come to a point where we need to teach about the Bible merely because kids are no longer learning about it in church. I am not talking about the religious message per se... but the use of the Bible as a basic point of knowledge.

Our culture assumes a basic knowledge of the Bible. There are constant references to persons and events in the Bible which are used as analogies or points of references for everyday life. These references are used everywhere from academia to MTV. If kids have no basic understanding of the Bible, they will be "undereducated" when compared to their parents.

Freeman Hunt said...

Who are these people who believe that the Sun or Earth stood still and that evolution is wrong/evil? I go to an extremely evangelical church in Arkansas. The people in this church are almost obsessed with Bible study. But many (probably most) of them also know evolution to be true and don't find it to be inconsistent with the Bible, and I don't know of a single one who thinks that a planet stopped in its orbit.

Who are the people writing these curriculums?

Bruce Hayden said...

As usual our Constitutional Scholor (and esteemed hostess) points to the obvious Constitutional problems here.

But something to think about. If this is implemented, then what about teaching the Book of Mormon in Utah?

What must be remembered is that a lot of the early history of that state is intimately tied to that religion, its flight from persecution in, for example, Ill., and then their continuing persecution throughout the later half of the Ninteenth Century.

It took a half a century from when they first applied for admission as a state before it was finally granted, and that was only after apparently bribing a bunch of New England papers, doing a deal with the Republicans guaranteeing them eight Senators, the President / Prophet having a revelation on polygamy, and then including a prohibition of that practice in the state consitution.

The problem is that there are a lot of non-Mormons in Utah these days, esp. in the SLC area. I am sure that the majority LDS would be more than happy to use the public school system to prostelize their kids. It is apparently somewhat of a problem already, as in many schools, popularity requires LDS membership.

In short, if the argument is made for the country as a whole that we should be teaching about our Christain roots and heritage, then that argument is much stronger in Utah where the dominent religion and the state's history are even more tightly woven.

Bruce Hayden said...

I should add to Utah history the declaring of martial law to round up polygamists, how the populace actively twarted this, and a successful attack on the U.S. military. All integral to Utah state history, and all intimately involved with the Mormon Church.

Bruce Hayden said...

Another problem with teaching the Bible, and that is whose Bible do we teach? For the most part, this wasn't a problem 200 years ago, as it would have been a Protestant Bible. But times change, and there are a lot of Roman Catholics here now, and their Bible differs slightly.

Ok, how about just the Old Testiment? Again, some differences between the Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic versions. Indeed, even in something as basic as the Ten Commandments, I have seen what appears to be a slightly different Catholic version. (not being Catholic, I can't verify this).

Freeman Hunt said...

I'm not sure that I buy the analogy between the Book of Mormon and the Bible. I would have no problem with teachers bringing up the relevance of passages in the book of Mormon to decisions made regarding Utah's history and statehood.

But I do think that while the Book of Mormon is relevant only to relatively recent history, the Bible has affected most all of western civilization for nearly 2000 years.

It seems asinine to leave out a book (the Bible) when studying western civilization simply because it is religious. We certainly don't leave out the religious texts of other civilizations when we study them. (At least we didn't when I was in school.)

I do not, however, agree with having church-type devotional Bible study in school. I think it should be introduced as a work relevant to the historical and philosophical development of the West.

Freeman Hunt said...

Another problem with teaching the Bible, and that is whose Bible do we teach?

I don't think that this is a problem. I would think that one would go over different versions as they relate to history. For example, the influence of the Latin Vulgate and the historical and philisophical effects of later having Bibles available in other languages (How this affected the influence of the Catholic church, how this affected political relationships, how this affected theologians, etc.)

Also as the the Ten Commandments, they are listed twice in the Bible in different places. The two versions differ somewhat. Also because they aren't numbered, different churches divide them into ten differently.

Ann Althouse said...

Freeman: Historically, there have been immense fights between Protestants and Catholics over which translation of the Bible to use in American schools. Avoiding fights like these really is one of the best reasons for supporting the strong separation of church and state positions.

Elizabeth said...

As for studying the Bible as a source of allusions in fiction and non-fiction, I'd go with the King James, since it would be the main reference for centuries of English literature and essays.

Sloanasaurus said...

Everything taught in schools is a potential controversy. For example, if we a want "secular humanist" agenda for our children, should we prefer a secular humanist agenda written from a Christian perspective (i.e. traditional western) or from some other more radical perspective (a Marxist) perspective. In teaching Communism, should we assume that Communism is bad, or that Mao and Stalin were bad Communists.

Freeman Hunt said...

Avoiding fights like these really is one of the best reasons for supporting the strong separation of church and state positions.

I am supporting separation of church and state. I am not advocating a Sunday school type Bible study. I am only saying that the historical significance of the Bible should not be left out of history.

Translation issues are not a problem since the Bible should only be studied as to how it relates to the development of history and philosophy. This study would include the influence of different translations. (As I mentioned in one of the posts above in regards to the Latin Vulgate and effect of having many other culturally specific translations post-Reformation.)

DannyNoonan said...

The intent element is key in these kinds of cases. If the intent really is to learn about history or literature by way of an influential book, that's great. We should look at the Bible the same way we look at Greek or Norse mythology. Afterall, they were once considered religions too. Who's to say we won't put the Bible in the same catagory in a hundred years.

Menlo Bob said...

Prof. Althouse may have read this statement in a way I hadn't intended;

'Of course educators can always make the case that their reading lists are intended to serve their propaganda objectives and just happen to skirt legal restrictions."

I wanted to say that those who make propaganda claims against any instruction based on the Bible are also admitting that their non-biblical reading lists also serve propaganda purposes.

Nevermore said...

I know of several high schools that already offer Muslim Religion classes -- not only the Koran as Literature, but also a class teaching the tenent of the faith. Seems that the precedent has been set.

Diane said...

As a devout agnostic, but a thoroughly anti-Christian one, I have to say that I see nothing wrong with studying the bible in school as a literary tool.

It is useful. There are thousands of literary allusions that children of atheists just won’t get. Even the children of Christian deists will get something useful out of it, because I think it is tragic how woefully ignorant most Christians are of their own holy book. Learning about it as a tool to look at society is a great idea.

But being white trash myself, and going to a school that was predominately Christian-white-trash I can just imagine what this course is going to become. It will become a “lets lynch the atheist” hour where the child with hippy parents will be publicly ridiculed whether they open their mouth or not.

I’ve seen teachers of physics, economics, and history use every excuse they can to preach.
“And the third law of thermodynamics is proof that evolution is not possible-“
“Sir, aren’t we supposed to be talking about wavelengths-“
“Quiet sinner!”


“And that is why homosexuality is wrong and they all die at the age of thirty.”
“Please! I just want to learn about Wilson’s twelve point plan-“
“That’s enough attitude out of you missy!”

With a class like this available, I shudder to think of what will happen. The biased curriculum will help them, and make it harder for the atheist child to defend themselves or even learn something. They’d do it with unbiased curriculum, though.

In summary, the idea behind the course is not a bad one. I don’t like this particular course, though. And even if the course is perfect, it will be used by *someone* abusively. Even if you have an atheist teacher, I wouldn’t count on them to be unbiased. I can just imagine me doing it and being unable to resist spending an hour on Elijah and the bears, or the verse where God recommends an abortion. I like to hope I’d remember being the target of my teacher’s in school and leave the poor Christian children alone, but I can’t say I wouldn’t feel the temptation.

Ann Althouse said...

Diane: Great comment. Thanks. You might enjoy this old post of mine describing my high school biology class, where the teacher, in response to my expression of belief in evolution, snapped "You're not a good Christian."

Diane said...

Great post!

Our school solved the evolution problem by moving the teachers with religious objections to physics, history, and economics. *smiles* Our biology teacher taught evolution, and commented briefly on creationism as a possibility. And she got spitwadds thrown at her for even bringing up evolution.

BTW, in response to "I bet they don't do that in public school anymore."

I am 24. I was in high school from 1994-1999. It was in a small town in Kansas, and they moaned and whined whenever they had to have a *student* stand up at the beginning of an assembly and say a prayer rather than just letting the teacher do it. Calling the ACLU would have gotten me ostracized, plus given the Christians a martyr complex they didn’t need. I heard enough moaning and groaning about “Poor Persecuted Christians,” I didn’t want to feed their egos. It did more for my case to smile and show them that atheists are nice people who don’t stoop to their level.

ploopusgirl said...

Oh, Diane. I think I'm in love.

muttmutt1978 said...

the bible should be destroyed and ill be happy when the angelic ones get their head out of their ass and do soemthing about the christian disease

muttmutt1978 said...

the bible should be destroyed and ill be happy when the angelic ones get their head out of their ass and do soemthing about the christian disease

muttmutt1978 said...

if they bring the bible into public schools they MUST bring in the bahgvad gita and the tao te ching oh lets include the dhammapada and other buddhists text If christians want to play that game remind them there is other religions out there besides thier own. I suggest if they want the bible in public schools they HAVE TO no questions asked put in the Koran the tao te ching the dhammapada and other religious mythology

hyde said...

Teaching the bible as literature is a new concept to me... and a touchy subject. Straight forward, I don't think the bible should be taught in grades k-12, in public institutions. A childs mind is vulnerable to suggestion, and has to be taught how to think critically and objectively... teaching a child to think critically and objectively through the lense of Christianity or any religion, in a 'free society' in a public school system, is wrong and even dangerous...I understand the reasoning behind relating to it in reguards to western development/history but too often our history texts are laden with glorified accounts of how our nation was born... reality is that Christianity was often used as a tool to conquer people... I agree that it seems the real reason behind wanting to teach from any religious text in grades k-12 is just another way to bring 'God' (or whomever) into the lives of children... get em while there young and moldable? In my opinion College is a more appropriate place for the bible (or any religious texts) to be studied as Literature, studied by adults who can be objective/subjective more easily and who can choose to take the course or not. I don't have children, but I wouldn't want them to be taught directly from the bible for any reason in a public school... it is a powerful tool.