Awry In Arkansas: How Public School Classes ‘About’ The Bible Can Go Astray

Cordoning off the Bible for special study in public schools and handing the task off to teachers who haven’t been trained and don’t have decent curriculum materials is a recipe for disaster.

Every year, you can count on state legislators coming along with proposals for public schools to teach “about” the Bible and its influence on art and literature.

It sounds good in theory. After all, the Supreme Court has never said that objective study about religion is unconstitutional.

In fact, in the landmark 1963 school prayer decision Abington v. Schempp, Justice Tom Clark observed, “[I]t might well be said that one’s education is not complete without a study of comparative religion or the history of religion and its relationship to the advancement of civilization. It certainly may be said that the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities. Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

But, they say, the devil is in the details. And some people who are promoting these classes seem to be trying to hide that devil.

In North Carolina, a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools offers schools a curriculum it insists is objective but, in fact, is little more than a fundamentalist Sunday School lesson. (A Florida federal court ruled in 1998 that the group’s curriculum is unconstitutional, and in 2008, officials at the Ector County Independent School District in Odessa, Texas, agreed to stop using the council’s materials to settle a lawsuit.)

In Arkansas, state Rep. Denny Altes (R-Fort Smith) is pushing H.B. 1032, a measure that would establish ostensibly “non-sectarian” and “non-religious” classes about the Bible in public schools.

I’d feel less concerned about Altes’ bill if he didn’t appear to so woefully misinformed about history himself.

Altes told the Arkansas News that he rejects the concept of church-state separation.

“They say – not me, but other people – say we need a separation of church and state,” Altes said. He added, “This nation was founded on Christian principles and most of the Founding Fathers were Christians.”

Altes added that he considers the Bible to be literally true and “the most accurate history book on the face of the earth.”

Altes said that he plans to make some revisions to his bill. Media accounts indicate that he may lift the requirement that the Arkansas Department of Education design a curriculum for the Bible classes. This would actually make the bill worse. If state standards are good for math, science and English, why not this course as well?

There is another problem with these classes that is frequently overlooked: I call it “the problem of scholarly research.” Altes, as a fundamentalist, has a clearly defined view of the Bible and how it came to be. Does scholarly research support his view?

Well, no. For example, fundamentalists believe Moses wrote the first five books of the Old Testament. But this view is rejected by most modern scholars, who attribute authorship of those books to four, possibly five, writers. (They point out, among other things, that Moses could hardly have described his own death in the Book of Deuteronomy.)

One way to deal with a problem like this is to present both views in class. But doing so suggests that both approaches are equally valid, when in fact the fundamentalist interpretation carries very little scholarly weight these days. Presenting it alongside a well-researched academic consensus and telling the students to choose is no better than presenting both creationism and evolution in science class. Yet imagine how Altes and his fundamentalist allies would howl if a teacher stressed the scholarly consensus.

A better way to handle this issue is to integrate all religions (all of them, not just Christianity and Judaism) into the curriculum when appropriate and to do it objectively. If students are reading a novel that contains biblical allusions, the teacher should explain them. If a history class is discussing the Middle Ages, a study of religious issues is crucial. Examinations of the cultures of China, India and Russia should include instruction about how Confucianism, Hinduism and Orthodoxy Christianity shaped those nations.

Cordoning off the Bible for special study and handing the task off to teachers who haven’t been trained and don’t have decent curriculum materials is a recipe for disaster. Of course, some people might not consider the problems that will arise to be disastrous because they want classes that indoctrinate their view as opposed to truly educating.

The courts may have something to say about that, and Americans United will be monitoring the situation as well.