Public Schools

The Threat Behind Public School ‘Bible Literacy’ Courses

  Rob Boston

President Donald Trump this morning tweeted about how pleased he is that several states are considering “Bible literacy” bills. “Starting to make a turn back? Great!” Trump proclaimed:

It appears that Trump was motivated to tweet about the issue after watching a segment about these courses on “Fox & Friends.” (Surprise!) But as usual, his instant Twitter analysis of a complex issue leaves much to be desired.

So-called “Bible literacy” courses may look all right on the surface, but you don’t have to probe too deeply to expose serious problems. Often, these courses are just a cover to bring a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible into public schools. Essentially, they’re Sunday School lessons masquerading as legitimate instruction.

Texas passed one of these bills in 2009, and the resulting classes offered in many districts have been very problematic. Six years ago, Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University, surveyed courses in 60 districts around the state. Only 11 districts, Chancey found, were “especially successful in displaying academic rigor and a constitutionally sound” approach. The other 49, he found, “were a mixed bag, some were terrible.” Chancey singled out 21 districts as offering “especially egregious” instruction. According to Chancey’s research, public school students in these courses were taught that “the Bible is written under God’s direction and inspiration,” Christians will at some point be “raptured,” and that the Founding Fathers formed our country on the principles of the Holy Bible. (Kentucky passed one of these laws as well and has had similar problems.)

This isn’t surprising since Texas, like many other states that have passed or considered Bible literacy bills, allocated no money for teacher training in this sensitive subject.

To be clear, the classes are not per se unconstitutional. But Bible classes must be taught in accordance with constitutional requirements set out by courts. These courses must be taught in a nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of biblical accounts. The courses should not be taught from the perspective that the Bible is a literal historical record, and such courses must expose students to critical perspectives on the Bible and a diversity of scholarly interpretations.

All of these requirements have proven to be a challenge for public schools. Can we really expect a teacher who has received no training in this area to accurately convey complex debates like this in a high school classroom?

In fact, that type of nuanced instruction is the last thing many of the groups and individuals promoting the new flock of Bible literacy bills want to see. Over the years, they have promoted fundamentalist-oriented curriculum materials and used these classes as a cover for inappropriate forms of instruction.

USA Today recently quoted “Christian nation” revisionist “historian” David Barton on the matter, who said, “Bible literacy is a good thing to have. For me, the issue is that many schools don’t [offer Bible studies courses] because they think they can’t legally. We are saying, ‘Well, yes, you can.’”

Americans United and its allies are on alert. AU President and CEO Rachel Laser put it well, telling USA Today, “State legislators should not be fooled that these bills are anything more than part of a scheme to impose Christian beliefs on public schoolchildren.”

Let’s not be misled: Barton, the backers of Project Blitz and other far-right groups behind this new push aren’t interested in truly objective classes about the Bible in public schools. They want classes that indoctrinate children in a specific religious perspective – theirs.

Congress needs to hear from you!

Urge your legislators to co-sponsor the Do No Harm Act today.

The Do No Harm Act will help ensure that our laws are a shield to protect religious freedom and not used as a sword to harm others by undermining civil rights laws and denying access to health care.

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