Nearly 50 years ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided School District of Abington Township v. Schempp, and held that public school courses that use the Bible in a purely secular manner, and which do not cross the line into religious instruction or present the subject from a particular religious viewpoint, are acceptable.
Ever since, religiously fervent school teachers, stubborn school districts, and even posturing politicians have done their level best to show their contempt of the high court.
“The Bible as Literature,” “Biblical History,” and similarly-titled electives occasionally popped up. The content of these courses has always been suspect, but in recent years the prevalence of these courses has ramped up.
We are in the era of laws directing that the Bible to be taught in schools. Texas is famous for having done it first. Other states followed: Georgia, Tennessee, Oklahoma, and, most recently, Arizona. Other states have bills pending that would permit it, including Arkansas. Notably absent from these laws are directives on teaching non-Biblical religious texts. Also notable about these laws is that they purport to make legal something that is already legal. They are pointless posturing for the religious right, except as a rallying cry and a way to legitimize proselytizing in the public classroom.
The Texas Freedom Network is an activist coalition of religious and community leaders dedicated to fighting the religious right’s agenda in that state. Its Education Fund sponsored a study of the Bible classes permitted by Texas law in public schools. The study was conducted by Mark A. Chancey, a Religious Studies Professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman College of Arts and Humanities. Prof. Chancey has been active with the Texas Freedom Network for years, and has published a lot of material about the prevalence of religious instruction in supposedly secular classrooms.
The study found that at least 60 Texas school districts teach Christian creationism as science, and teach the Bible from a religious viewpoint.
Most of the teachers have no specific training in how to teach the Bible in a secular framework; some of the teachers of these classes are actually ministers. Of the ten school districts that did provide some training for the teachers of these classes, most used a one-day session geared toward the Bible Literacy Project’s textbook whether or not that textbook was actually used. The study found that quite often, the texts used to supplement the Bible itself were those “written specifically for Christian audiences for purposes of strengthening their faith.” (Those whose class curriculum stayed close to the Bible Literacy Project tended to be of the highest quality, according to the study.)
The content of the courses were rife with factual errors. Many relied on rote memorization of biblical passages, and eschewed critical thinking entirely. Those that supplemented the textbook with something other than the Bible usually did so with books designed to bolster religious faith. Mitch Albom and C.S. Lewis featured prominently, and even Hal Lindsey’s absurd icon of eschatology, The Late Great Planet Earth, gets time and serious study.
Unsurprisingly, given the lack of training and lack of a coherent curriculum for these courses, conservative Protestant theological claims and interpretations are often presented as widely accepted – and true – in Texas classrooms.
I expect to see the conservative evangelical Christians in Texas howling that the report is biased, and that may be true.
While the report does have some positive things to say about the Bible Literacy Project’s curriculum, it is definitely not an independent report. The Texas Freedom Network is a group of both secularists and religious leaders who want to maintain the integrity of a secular public classroom. It doesn’t come from an organization that is solely secularist, which lends it more credibility than if an anti-theist group (read: we, us, the atheists) produced it. Nevertheless, the group works hard to fight the religious right, so I expect the report to be perceived by them as an attack on baby Jesus.