All it takes these days is one stray tweet from President Donald Trump to upend an entire week. That’s what happened last week after Trump, inspired by a “Fox & Friends” segment, decided to tell the world that he thinks it would be a good idea for public schools to offer “Bible literacy courses.”
Americans United President and CEO Rachel Laser was quoted about this matter in the media extensively, from outlets such as USA Today and Newsweek to The Huffington Post and even TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.
One of the more interesting stories appeared in Sunday’s Washington Times, a conservative publication owned by the family of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church.
I’ve been saying all along that while these classes can be objective in theory, in practice they are often not – and that many of the legislators pushing them don’t really want objective instruction about the Bible; they want Sunday School lessons that reflect biblical literalism
Consider this statement by former Kentucky state Rep. D.J. Johnson, who told The Times, “I don't think it’s the lightning rod that everyone says it is. This wasn’t a big deal in the ’60s. I had a grade school teacher who read to our class out of a children’s Bible book, and that time of her reading to me was what motivated me to become the reader that I am.”
Actually, it was a big deal in the 1960s. In fact, people went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court to put a stop to mandatory, coercive forms of prayer and Bible reading in public schools. More to the point, a teacher reading Bible stories to children in class is not objective and fair study about the Bible. That is a devotional practice.
In Florida, state Rep. Brad Drake said he supports Bible literacy classes because, “A study of a book of creation by its creator is absolutely essential. So why not? It’s the book that prepares us for eternity, and there’s no other book that does that.”
Again, we have a problem here. A true “Bible literacy” class isn’t going to refer to the Bible as authored by God and portray it as something that helps you prepare for the afterlife. That’s for Sunday School.
But perhaps the most telling comments came from Ken McKenzie, CEO of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., an attraction funded by Steve Green of the Hobby Lobby Corporation. McKenzie told The Times that it’s possible to teach the Bible in a “nonsectarian” way, and as an example, he offered the story of David and Goliath from 1 Samuel.
“We’ll read the story, and then we’ll study the material around it. Archaeological excavations have found the stone that was used of 1.5 to 2 pounds, and we’ll review some ancient texts about life at that time and watch a video that shows how a sling could be accurate,” McKenzie said. “This is not [an assignment that says], ‘This is what we believe.’”
Um, actually it is. McKenzie’s telling of this story clearly promotes a fundamentalist, literalist spin. Yet many people, including lots of progressive and moderate Christians, look at that story as a powerful metaphor: If your belief is strong, God will empower you to overcome even the most fearsome adversaries. But to the biblical literalists of the Religious Right, there had to be an actual giant, a real rock and a sling – and here’s a video that shows how David actually made the sling! It’s akin to the creationists who have spent countless hours attempting to “prove” that the Earth is a mere 6,000 years old and that the story of Noah is literally true as well.
Through their own words, some backers of “Bible literacy” courses are making it clear that objectivity is not what they’re after. Instead, they’re seeking a way to slip fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible into public schools through the side door. Is it any wonder those of us who promote separation of church and state are skeptical?