September 2007 Church & State | People & Events

In an effort to address objections raised by fundamentalist Christians, the Bible Literacy Project (BLP) has removed from its textbook a Renaissance-era painting of Adam and Eve that showed the couple naked.

Last year, the BLP published a glossy textbook titled The Bible and Its Influence, for use in public school Bible classes. The Front Royal, Va.-based group says America is rife with biblical illiteracy and insists that public schools must do a better job of teaching about the Bible.

The BLP maintains that its approach is balanced, but critics have challenged that claim. Some fundamentalists have assailed the book for not going far enough in promoting their version of Christianity. Meanwhile, scholars and civil liberties activists have charged that the volume contains errors, lacks serious academic content and is tilted toward an evangelical perspective.

The BLP now appears to be caving in to the fundamentalists. In a press release, the group proudly noted that the new edition of the book replaces Masaccio’s “Expulsion from Garden of Eden” with “a more modest image.” (The new painting of Adam and Eve is Haitian folk art that shows the couple fully clothed.)

Scrubbing away nudity is not the only concession. A BLP press release also heralds the fact that The Bible and Its Influence no longer includes other material that fundamentalists questioned.

These moves, Americans United says, only underscore concerns that the effort to get The Bible and Its Influence in public schools is largely fueled by the Religious Right.

The Bible Literacy Project is run by a wealthy right-wing activist named Charles Stetson. Although his name appears on The Bible and Its Influence as co-editor, Stetson is not a professional educator or a religion scholar.

Stetson works hand in glove with Charles Colson, the Watergate-figure-turned-Religious-Right-activist whose views have become increasingly strident and theocratic over the years. The BLP notes that Colson has endorsed The Bible and Its Influence. This move undoubtedly pleases fundamentalists, but for church-state separationists, it is only cause for more concern.

Meanwhile, a biblical scholar has criticized the content of The Bible and Its Influence in a review published online by the Society of Biblical Literature.

Steven L. McKenzie of Rhodes College in Memphis said the book does a good job of discussing the Bible’s influence on the arts and culture, but he criticized its failure to incorporate the latest biblical scholarship.

“There is no real critical analysis concerning such matters as authorship, date, and historicity of biblical books,” McKenzie wrote. “The treatment of the biblical material is essentially a superficial summary of content. Statements in the text are, for the most part, accepted at face value without the recognition that such acceptance is in itself an interpretation.”

To give one example, McKenzie notes that although the authorship of the Book of Isaiah is disputed, The Bible and Its Influence glosses over this fact in a manner that endorses an evangelical and orthodox interpretation. He notes that none of the contributors who drafted the book is a biblical scholar by profession.

Efforts to create classes to “teach about” the Bible in public schools are ongoing. Laws encouraging Bible classes have already been passed in Texas, Georgia and South Carolina.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State has urged South Carolina education officials to make certain that two new public school courses designed to teach about the Bible meet constitutional requirements.

In an Aug. 3 letter to State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and other officials, Americans United advises South Carolina educators to follow specific steps to assure that the optional classes remain focused on objective education, not religious indoctrination.

The letter, signed by Americans United State Legislative Counsel Dena S. Sher and the Rev. Robert M. Knight, president of AU’s Charleston Chapter, advises Rex that in order to survive a legal challenge, the courses must present the Bible in a secular, objective and academic manner.