January 2006 Church & State | Books & Ideas

When The Bible and Its Influence was unveiled at the National Press Club last September, promoters of the new textbook hailed it as a great way to introduce Bible classes into America’s public schools.

Chuck Stetson, chairman of the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), gave the lavishly illustrated 390-page volume an endorsement of biblical proportions.

“There has never been a public high school textbook like this,” he said. “It was created to satisfy all constituencies involved in the heated debate about the Bible in public schools. It treats faith perspectives with respect, and was examined by 40 reviewers for accuracy, fairness and the highest level of scholarship. At the same time, it meets consensus standards for fulfilling First Amendment guidelines in that it informs and instructs, but does not promote religion.”

To prove his point, Stetson enlisted some diverse voices to bless the book: Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress and Leland Ryken, a professor at Wheaton College, one of the leading evangelical Christian colleges in America.

That was an impressive rollout, but I’m very wary of the project for several reasons. Here are some of them.

In the first place, there is something troubling about al\xadlowing a well-funded religious pressure group to initiate Bible classes in our public schools. Public schools exist to serve the widest possible range of students from many faith perspectives and none. While the courts have never ruled against objective study about religion, in\xadvolvement in that sensitive subject is always controversial. Red flags should go up when religious groups seek special classes for their holy scriptures.

It seems clear to me that Stetson, the 59-year-old founder of the BLP, has a sectarian, rather than an academic, motive for his campaign. Stetson, a wealthy Manhattan private equity investor, has long been active in conservative religious and political causes. Although he is often described in news stories as an Episcopalian and a registered independent, his record seems less mainline and more partisan than that description merits.

The Stetson family apparently has been devoted to conservative Republican politics for some time. The Sacramento Bee reports that Stetson donated funds to “faith-based” candidate George W. Bush. Stetson’s father, Charles P. Stetson, supported far-right GOP candidates Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer, both Religious Right zealots. (The newspaper says Stetson’s grandfather was a banking colleague of Prescott Bush, the president’s grandfather.)

According to the Boston Globe, Stetson is the “main organizing force” behind the National Bible Association, which sponsors National Bible Week and promotes the Bible as the path to salvation. In November 1998, he told the newspaper he wants to turn Bible Week into a ceremony as grand as the Fourth of July. Other Stetson causes include School Ministries, an outfit that promotes released-time religious education for public school students, and the Network of Biblical Storytellers, a group that communicates “the sacred stories of biblical tradition.”

Stetson attended the October 1997 Promise Keepers rally on the mall in Washington, D.C. He told one reporter, “Obviously, it’s a big event. But what’s important is what happens afterward. Where do the people go from here?”

Perhaps most telling, Stetson is a disciple of Charles Colson, the Wa\xadter\xadgate-figure-turned-Reli\xadgious-Right activist. Ac\xadcor\xadding to a Sept. 28 column by Colson, Stetson is a “Wilberforce Cen\xadtur\xadion,” a graduate of Col\xadson’s year-long training program in\xadtended to recruit Christian men and women who will “restore our culture by ef\xadfec\xadtively thinking, teaching, and advocating a biblical world\xad\xadview as applied to all of life.” Cen\xadturions “make a life\xadlong commitment to…shape culture by living out a biblical worldview in their spheres of influence.”

Stetson completed the indoctrination program in 2005 and now serves on the advisory board of Colson’s Wilberforce Forum. As might be expected, Colson is an enthusiastic backer of the BLP’s proposed Bible class in public schools.

“This represents a rare opportunity for us,” Colson told followers. “The Bible and Its Influence is a great resource for anyone looking for a comprehensive academic understanding of the roots of modern civilization. So I hope you let teachers, administrators, and school board members in your community know that they can teach the Bible without fear of being sued….”

In another column, Colson touts the BLP’s work as helping open the door to another “Great Awakening” of evangelical religious fervor. He concludes, “That’s why Christians must be the ones to lead the way, teaching a love for the Bible in our homes, our churches, and anywhere else we can, including classrooms, when we provide these kinds of resources for teachers.”

The advisory board of Stetson’s BLP also has a distinctly rightward tilt, featuring conservative Christians such as Mary Ann Glendon, Os Guinness and George Gallup Jr. Kevin Seamus Hasson of the right-wing Becket Fund for Religious Liberty serves on the BLP’s Board of Directors alongside David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values.

Although Stetson seems to recognize that the Constitution and the federal courts do not permit overt proselytism in public schools, he appears to be hostile to the concept of separation of church and state. In a Sept. 9, 2003, speech posted at the Web site of the Institute for American Values (www.americanvalues.org), Stetson complains that character education classes in public schools are inadequate because they omit religion.

“Why haven’t we included religion in character education when it works?” asked Stetson. “This would only make sense.”

Is Stetson’s “biblical worldview” reflected in the BLP’s new book?

Yes and no. The book was apparently compiled by a committee, and the ideological tilt varies. Readers will find it an interesting mix of conservative and liberal concepts. Stetson was apparently willing to include progressive voices in the volume as the price he had to pay to get endorsements from the moderate end of the civil liberties spectrum.

The book credits Joanne McPortland, Marjorie Haney Schafer, Marc Stern and Eve Tushnet as “content contributors.” Stetson is “general editor,” although he seems to have no particular academic qualifications for the role — other than deep pockets. Some 40 religious leaders and professors from a variety of academic fields were asked to review the work. A few public school teachers also were asked to weigh in.

The resulting volume devotes half its pages to the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians usually call the Old Testament) and half to the New Testament. The material is richly illustrated with full-color pictures of noted religiously themed artwork. The text tends to treat Bible passages straightforwardly as stories, poetry, proverbs and theological concepts. Three versions of the Bible are used: the King James Version (often preferred by evangelical Christians), the New Revised Standard Version (produced by the mainline National Council of Churches) and The Jewish Bible, The Tanakh (produced by the Jewish Publication Society).

I will leave it to experts in religion, history and archeology to say whether the text fairly and accurately describes the creation of the Bible, its content and its authors. But even a layperson can see some significant problems with the book.

For example, it sometimes blurs the line between academic study and scripture promotion. A chapter on Proverbs includes this assertion: “In 1992, the Associated Press evaluated 4000 self-help books” and “concluded that the oldest and best of the how-tos of happiness are in the oldest self-help book the Bible.”

The Bible is repeatedly promoted as having an overwhelmingly positive impact on individuals, American history and, indeed, the whole world. The scriptures are heralded as the inspiration of great art, music and literature and as the basis for extraordinary advances in social justice.

A dozen pages trumpet the role of the scriptures in the anti-slavery movement and the drive for African-American civil rights. The role of women in the Bible is celebrated, with a sidebar on the women’s suffrage movement and a chapter on “Women of Valor: Ruth and Esther.” A “unit feature” treats farm workers’ rights advocate Cesar Chavez, Holocaust author Elie Wiesel and the peace-promoting American Friends Service Committee as examples of modern-day prophets!

All of this may be commendable (and perhaps hard for some of the book’s conservative supporters to swallow), but at the same time, there is little acknowledgement that the Bible has also served as a major resource for pro-slavery and pro-segregationist forces or that women have been — and still are, in many cases — treated as subject to male authority because of fundamentalist interpretations of the Bible.

A textbook should offer objective study about both the positive and negative uses of the Bible. Where is the analysis of the role of the Bible in the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials? There is no mention at all of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible, a version the third president produced that omitted the miracles in the New Testament and treated Jesus as the world’s most sublime ethicist. Instead, we are treated to some excerpts from George Washington’s speeches with rather deistic terminology that is miraculously transformed into biblical allusions.

Church-state separationists will be especially appalled at the book’s concluding “unit feature” on “Faith and Freedom in America.” The two pages are a wholly inadequate treatment of this important issue.

The book offers a very short section on each of the centuries of America’s life as a nation. The 1600s appropriately address Roger Williams. The 1700s talk about the First Amendment but suggests it was only intended to “prohibit the establishment of a national religion,” a poor description of the sweep of the Establishment Clause. The section also mentions the Northwest Ordinance, a government document touted by the Religious Right because it calls religion “necessary to good government.”

The 1800s miraculously include a long quote from Alex de Tocqueville that attributes America’s genius and power to the flaming righteousness of church pulpits. The last paragraph often makes its way into political speeches and Religious Right propaganda, but it does not appear in Democracy in America or any other known Tocqueville work. (If a horde of college profs and other experts reviewed this book, how did this howler get past them?)

The 1900s include no reference to important church-state decisions on Bible reading in public schools, but do feature short excerpts from speeches by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt that have little relevance to the topic other than mentions of God’s help and guidance.

The “Today” section concludes with an excerpt from David Aik\xadman’s book Jesus In Beijing. Aikman, an evangelical Chris\xadtian, quotes an unnamed professor from the Chinese Academy of Social Science who attributes the pre-eminence of the West to “your religion: Christianity.” This is ideology, not scholarship, and it is entirely inappropriate in a public school class.

So where do we go from here?

Two influential Alabama legislators have already introduced a bill recommending the BLP’s book and its Bible class. According to the Religion News Service (RNS), House Majority Leader Ken Guin pre-filed a bill that would authorize public school systems to offer the elective in grades 9-12. House Speaker Seth Hammett endorsed the measure as well.

Other legislators and school board members in other states are likely to follow suit.

This situation illustrates part of the problem with the BLP project. The curriculum at public schools should be insulated as much as possible from political and religious intrigues. While usually governed by elected school boards, public schools are not meant to be caught up in sectarian agendas.

Public school textbooks should be produced by respected scholars in their various academic fields, not Religious Right “centurions” fighting to present students with their “biblical worldview.” When religious politics intrudes, the classroom can easily become subject to majoritarian pressures.

Are teachers in Alabama public schools ready to offer objective instruction about the Bible? Will there be funds to provide such training? Is this a proper priority when many public schools in the state are already woefully underfunded and core subjects such as math, science, history and civics get inadequate treatment?

A recent poll of Alabamians by the Mobile Regis\xadter/Un\xadiversity of South Alabama found that three out of four profess to be “born-again Christians,” and two-thirds choose the Genesis account of creation over evolution. Seven out of ten said creationism and “intelligent design,” its latest iteration, should be taught in science classes. According to the RNS, fewer than half think evolution should be offered!

In a climate where one religious tradition holds such extraordinary sway, what are the odds that a Bible class in Alabama public schools will be taught objectively?

Ironically, the Guin Bible class bill is meeting opposition from some religious conservatives who want a more fundamentalist approach to the scriptures. They favor a course by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a North Carolina outfit with a pronounced Religious Right agenda.

Neither political faction seems interested in a course in comparative religion that might be more appropriate for the public school system.

The growing crusade to introduce Bible classes into public schools is deeply worrisome to those of us who support church-state separation. We have a responsibility to see that elected officials and the general public are aware of the larger agenda at work here.