by JewsOnFirst.org, April 6, 2007
Texas legislators are moving full speed ahead with a bill mandating elective Bible classes in the state's public high schools that appears crafted to facilitate use of a fundamentalist Protestant curriculum. Jewish groups have opposed that sectarian curriculum, but they were unable to testify at a hearing scheduled during Passover.
The bill is moving at a time of heightened interest in public school Bible classes sparked by a new book advocating such courses and a Time Magazine cover story about it.
Texas House Bill 1287 requires all school districts in the state to establish "elective courses in the history and literature of the Old and New Testaments eras." It also requires the use of those two books as texts.
Specifications tailor-made for religious right curriculum
This configuration is made-to-order for a Christian right organization's sectarian curriculum, according to the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group on religious freedom issues. The network's Communication Director Dan Quinn told JewsOnFirst that Georgia legislators used a similar strategy last year to side-step efforts by Democratic lawmakers to mandate a relatively moderate text and the Texas bill "is designed for that" strategy.
In its April 2nd cover story, Time Magazine offered this comparison of the curriculum of the religious right National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools and the Bible Literacy Project's textbook, The Bible and its Influence, beginning with the moderate text's author, Chuck Stetson:
He is a graduate of [Watergate felon and prison evangelist Chuck] Colson's Wilberforce Centurion project, a study group pledged to "restore our culture by effectively thinking, teaching and advocating the Christian world view as applied to all of life." Yet he claims his commitment to his textbook's constitutionality determined its secularity. In late 2005 he unveiled The Bible and Its Influence, which was vetted by 40 religious and legal scholars, including Jews, Protestants and a Roman Catholic bishop. Meant to be read alongside a Bible, the book's 373 oversize pages provide a clearly written--if selective--theme-and-style analysis of key passages in most of the biblical books. Its sidebars--"Cultural Connections," "Historical Connections"--do much of the heavy lifting in transforming a Bible commentary into a textbook.
It seems more legally palatable than its competition. The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, which has offered its curriculum since 1993, claims a bigger market (382 schools in 37 states) than the newcomer (85 school districts in 30 states). But its 1999 edition reportedly recommended materials from something called the Creation Evidence Museum; a "question for reflection" in the 2005 version suggested that the logistics of Noah's Ark would have been more manageable if some of the animals were babies or hibernating. In 2002 a Florida district court ruled unconstitutional a course that critics claim was loosely based on its New Testament portion (the Council denies a connection). Its spokespeople claim it is refining itself as it goes and its most recent edition, which came out last month, eliminates much literalist bias--but still devotes 18 lines to the blatantly unscientific notion that the earth is only 6,000 years old.
The North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS) promotes a teacher's guide with a curriculum widely criticized as exclusively conservative Protestant. The NCBCPS curriculum calls for students to use the Old and New Testaments as textbooks.
The more moderate Bible Literacy Project distributes a textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, which has been endorsed by The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress, along with some mainstream Christian groups.
"Because we have a moral standard"
In testimony to the Texas House Education Committee last week, the author of HB 1287, Republican Rep. Warren Chisum (pictured at left), revealed an evangelizing interest in the legislation. "If we don't have a moral people, our laws are not sufficient to govern an immoral body of people," he said, according to an editorial in the San Antonio Express-News.
He also said: "I would hope that we get a better-prepared student to go out into the world and understand what they believe, ... how it's [this country] put together, why we are different from some others on this planet.
"The United States doesn't have more resources, but we do better. A lot of it's because of what's written in that book, because we have a moral standard. Not everybody has a moral standard," Chisum added, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
As chair of the chamber's appropriations committee, Chisum is the second most important member of the Texas House. In February he circulated a memo to all his colleagues condemning evolution as a long-secret Jewish religious text (information he obtained from the fixedearth.com website).
Bill's co-author does not believe in church-state separation
Chisum's co-author and fellow Republican, Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler told a local television station he does not believe in the separation of church and state. Reported KLTV:
Representative Leo Berman says, "Today, with Christian symbols being taken out of everything, off our county squares, manger scenes, crosses, I think it's time that we put something back, and give kids who want to study the Old and New Testament an option on campus to actually elect that to study."
"I don't believe there's such a thing as the separation of church and state. In fact, the First Amendment to the Constitution actually calls on the United States Congress to make sure, to ensure that people are allowed to practice their religion," says Berman.
Berman recently gained notoriety by proposing the denial of all government services to the citizen children of undocumented immigrants. 45
The Education Committee's hearing on the Bible study bill was on April 3rd -- the second day of Passover, so representatives of Jewish organizations were not able to testify. The committee hastened to make amends by scheduling a second day of hearings -- on April 10th, the conclusion of the Passover holiday.
Subsequently, the committee rescheduled the second hearing to April 12th. The committee's meeting notice here mentions the April 10th date in a note at the bottom:
Testimony on House Bill 1287 will also be taken on Tuesday, April 10, to ensure that persons participating in religious observations on April 3 have the opportunity to testify on this bill.
A microcosm of the problem
Dan Quinn of the Texas Freedom Network called the scheduling snafus a "microcosm of the problem" posed by the Bible study mandate. "If the legislators aren't sensitive to diversity in the population," he asked, "how can we expect teachers to be sensitive to the diversity in their classes?"
The Texas Freedom Network published a study last year of the two dozen bible courses being taught in Texas public schools. According to Rabbi Neal Katz of Congregation Beth El in Tyler, Texas, who works with the network (and is a member of the JewsOnFirst Advisory Board), "We found out that it's never taught correctly." He cited a test question in one course that asked: "What does it mean to say that the Bible was endorsed by Christ?"
Katz told JewsOnFirst that he supports proper teaching about the Bible, although he opposes mandating courses, as HB 1287 does.
He said he wasn't really blaming the school district where the endorsement question appeared on the quiz as much as illustrating that teacher training would be required to equip Texas' 1,000-plus school districts to offer the Bible courses.
Katz also expressed concern that teachers will have difficulty surmounting their grounding in "replacement theology," in which the Old Testament is viewed as a series of prophecies fulfilled in the New Testament. In this theology, said Katz, "The Old Testament is not understood as a text important to the Jewish people."
In statements quoted by USA Today (March 7, 2007), Pastor John Hagee, currently the most prominent Christian Zionist leader in the US, disparaged a textbook approved by Jewish organizations for use in public high school courses on the bible. Hagee reportedly called the book, The Bible and its Influence, "a masterful work of deception, distortion and outright falsehoods" planting "concepts in the minds of children which are contrary to biblical teaching."
According to USA Today, "Hagee wrote to the Alabama legislature opposing adoption of the text, citing points such as discussion questions that could lead children away from a belief in God. Example: Asking students to ponder if Adam and Eve got 'a fair deal as described in Genesis' would plant the seed that 'since God is the author of the deal, God is unfair.'"
According to the paper "Hagee prefers the Bible itself as a textbook for Bible classes, used with a curriculum created by a group of conservative evangelicals, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, based in Greensboro, N.C."
USA Today quoted the publisher of the more moderate text saying that changes had been made to sections he cited. However, two weeks later, the second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention (not Hagee's denomination) issued a news release saying that Hagee's concerns remain unaddressed.
Wrote Second Vice President Wiley Drake: "As Dr. Hagee said about the Bible Literacy Project textbook, 'distortions, deceptions and falsehoods never produce moral, emotional, political or intellectual health.'"
And then, expressing his own "concerns," Drake wrote: "This is especially true when the Bible is compromised with liberal interpretations, justification of communism, and implications that God's chosen people were deceptive liars."
The Texas Freedom Network has not endorsed HB 1287. But it is proposing changes to the current language, according to Quinn. One of the network's proposed improvements, he said, would add a requirement that the state monitor the implementation of its mandate.
The Texas Freedom Network is recommending that key, common-sense safeguards be added to H.B. 1287, including appropriate training for teachers, including training in the First Amendment and strong language prohibiting use of the classes for proselytizing. The network wants the mandate to districts to be removed from the bill. According to Quinn, they also advocate removing the requirement that the Bible itself serve as the primary textbook.
The Texas Freedom Network's recommendations have been widely reported by Texas papers, at least two of which carried editorials opposing HB 1287.
Christian right group's extremist backers
The NCBCPS, the group that advocates using the Bible's two testaments as texts accompanied by the fundamentalist Protestant teacher's guide that it distributes, is closely connected to some of the most extreme groups and individuals on the religious right. A banner that briefly appears as its homepage loads (see the screenshot below) shows sponsorship by the American Family Association and the Center for Reclaiming America.
The full name of the latter organization is the Center for Reclaiming America for Christ. It is part of the empire of Florida televangelist D. James Kennedy, one of the religious right's most forthright theocrats. (See our recent coverage here.)
The Mississippi-based American Family Association is best known for its virulent homophobia and its boycott of Ford Motor Company over the company's ads in gay and lesbian publications.
On its homepage the NCBCPS insists its curriculum is suitable for secular schools. It then uses two code words of the Christian right: reclaiming, as in reclaiming America for Christ, and restoring, a prevalent religious right reference to the mischievous notion that the United States was once a Christian theocracy.
The world is watching to see if we will be motivated to impact our culture, to deal with the moral crises in our society, and reclaim our families and children.
Please help us to restore our religious and civil liberties in this nation.
A cursory glance at the NCBCPS curriculum excerpt posted (here) on the the group's website, revealed three glaring problems.
Book on biblical literacy makes waves
HB 1287 is progressing just as publications across the country are featuring Prof. Stephen Prothero's new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know -- and Doesn't. Prothero chairs the religion department at Boston University.
His book makes the point -- reinforced by a snappy little quiz, which is included in most of the articles -- that Americans are surpassingly ignorant about religion in general and the Bible in particular. Time Magazine featured the book on the cover of its April 2nd issue.
In a recent opinion article in the Los Angeles Times, Prothero presents "biblical literacy" -- and public school classes to achieve it -- as a weapon against the political excesses of the religious right.
Biblical illiteracy is not just a religious problem. It is a civic problem with political consequences. How can citizens participate in biblically inflected debates on abortion, capital punishment or the environment without knowing something about the Bible? Because they lack biblical literacy, Americans are easily swayed by demagogues on the left or the right who claim — often incorrectly — that the Bible says this about war or that about homosexuality.
One solution to this civic problem is to teach Bible classes in public schools. By Bible classes I do not mean classes in which teachers tell students that Jesus loves them or that the Bible is the inerrant word of God, but academic courses that study the Bible's characters and stories as well as the afterlife of the Bible in literature and history.
But the Christian right is not pushing Bible courses as cultural enrichment. It is pushing the courses, in particular the curriculum of the fundamentalist NCBCPS, as part of its agenda to impose its brand of religion throughout society.
The religious right is anti-science, anti-culture, anti-enlightenment. A glance at the sidebar "Televangelist Hagee trashes moderate text," which quotes criticism of the relatively moderate Bible and its Influence, shows the frightening narrowness of the religious right.
The religious right wants schools to "teach" the Bible the same way it wants schools to teach abstinence-only, to teach that homosexuality is sinful, and to ban Halloween as "pagan."
David Van Biema, author of the Time article, missed this point altogether, when he wondered if conservative Christian teachers could be relied on to teach the moderate Bible and its Influence course evenhandedly.
Concerns about whether a Bible Belt Christian teacher could in good conscience teach a religiously neutral Bible course also plagued me. Was high school Bible study one of those great ideas that vaporizes when exposed to air?
Van Biema, Time's senior religion writer, determined that the one teacher whose class he visited was able to conduct the class without exposing her own conservative Christian beliefs. But he and Prothero, whom he interviews for the article, concede that teachers won't always avoid preaching.
Serving the religious right's agenda
Religious right publications are celebrating Prothero's book and the attention paid to it. The Center for Reclaiming America for Christ, one of the sponsors of the NCBCPS, currently has on its website a summary, dated March 28th, of the Time article, which concludes:
Still, it is exciting to see such a piece published in a major American publication. And the Time piece was not the only treatment of the issue. In a recent L.A. Times piece entitled “We Live in a Land of Biblical Idiots,” Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero makes the case that an understanding of the Bible can enhance the civic lives of all Americans, since many of the day’s civic discussion revolve around issues that are biblically inflected. He laments the lack of such understanding in contemporary culture.
He concludes his piece saying, “What makes sense is one Bible course for every public high school student in the U.S. This is not a Christian proposal…It serves our young people and our public life.”
As Christians, we understand the significance of the Bible in our daily discourse, and to the general education of the youth. Most likely, any Bible curriculum in public schools that sought to evangelize would likely be deemed “unconstitutional,” but we ought not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Trusting that it is not man’s effort that will save souls, but rather God’s doing through the Holy Spirit working through the Scripture that gives belief, any curriculum which teaches the Bible can still achieve redemptive ends while truly educating the masses.