Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David

Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David April 17, 2014

After carving apart so many journalism-challenged articles, it’s nice to be able to throw laurels every now and then. This one — a whole bouquet, actually — goes to David Van Biema of Religion News Service for his thorough, balanced article on the newest project of the Green family: a Bible course to be taught in public schools.

We at GetReligion have long noted the fine work of Van Biema, a veteran religion writer for Time magazine. Three years ago, our George Conger mentioned Van Biema’s 2006 article on the prosperity gospel. Eight years later, he’s just as good.

I like Van Biema’s RNS story just for the lede. Only there does he mention the Supreme Court case where the Greens, who own the Hobby Lobby store chain, are fighting the Affordable Care Act because of its contraception requirement. That would likely have been the focus of many other media reports.

Instead, Van Biema moves quickly to the still-developing Bible course, which has been accepted in the Greens’ backyard, Mustang, Okla. He offers an introduction, saying the program would examine the Bible’s “narrative,” its development and its impact on civilization.

The article extensively quotes Jerry Pattengale of the Green Scholars Initiative, who of course pumps the product. He cites Green for wanting young Americans to understand the Bible and its significance. Pattengale describes the first year of the four-year task as a “multimillion-dollar effort involving more than 170 people.”

Van Biema offers a gee-whiz item: pictures in a textbook that “come alive” when a smartphone is held over them. The feature sounds like “augmented reality,” which I wrote about in May when I saw it in a Catholic high school yearbook.

Great touch also in getting input from a veteran expert on church and state:

The Green curriculum “is like nothing we’ve seen before,” said Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center and editor of a booklet sent out to all schools by the U.S. Department of Education in 2000 on teaching religion in public schools. “It’s unique in its ambition and its scope and its use of the latest technologies. I think school districts far from Oklahoma will take note.”

Yet another laurel for Van Biema reminding us what the Supreme Court says and does not say about teaching the Bible:

Contrary to popular assumptions, there is nothing unconstitutional about teaching about the Bible in public schools. The same Supreme Court ruling that outlawed school-sanctioned prayer in 1963 qualified that “Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible … when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.”

The key words, of course, are “objectively” and “secular.” Haynes suggested that, constitutionally, “the bar is actually low — I think it’s hard for judges to get beyond the surface to questions of what a sound academic course looks like — but much more difficult to develop materials that actually both reflect constitutional principles and are academically solid.”

So the RNS story avoids reading like a pitch for the new curriculum. Van Biema also alertly links to a YouTube video of Green’s speech last April before the National Bible Association. In the speech:

Green explained that his goals for a high school curriculum were to show that the Bible “is true,” that it’s “good” and that its impact, “whether (upon) our government, education, science, art, literature, family … when we apply it to our lives in all aspects of our life, that it has been good.”

If realized, these sentiments, although shared by millions of Americans, could conflict with the court’s requirement that public school treatment of the Bible be taught in a secular, academic fashion.

Even in Mustang, Van Biema notes, support wasn’t unanimous. One board member abstained from the vote that approved the Bible course. And during the meeting, “one former pastor spoke out against adopting the curriculum, citing the innate difficulty of finding common language about the Bible.”

Still, the story reports the respect that the town’s residents hold for the Greens, even quoting a couple of locals. Especially remarkable is a comment from the Oklahoma’s ACLU leader, praising Hobby Lobby for how treats its employees.

As one more measure of the story’s balance, check the reader comments at the end. First comment: “Godspeed Mr. Green!” Second comment: “God save us from more of the Green’s theology.”

Two people of opposite viewpoints who read the article, then made up their own minds. You young journalists, put that in your notebooks.

Video: Steve Green, a member of the family that owns the Hobby Lobby chain, explains his aims for a new Bible museum last April before the National Bible Association.

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3 responses to “Ahhh … a balanced article on religion … thanks, David”

  1. I remember having a section on Bible stories in my 10th-grade English class. The section covered select stories – such as Ruth and the Good Samaritan – that were commonly referenced in popular culture, the idea being to ensure that students could appreciate Biblical allusions and references in other works.

    So I’ve seen secular Bible study in place before.

  2. Certainly the article is balanced towards both viewpoints and that is too the good. However, I found it wanting in describing whether or not the Bible would be taught from a literal or fundamentalist point of view. Such a view, without rehashing the history, would be counter to the empirical evidence of the earth’s history that the students would presumably also receive in their science classes. How would this course propose to mesh with the science classes?
    That’s something I would have liked to have seen in the article should I have lived in the school district in Oklahoma where this was approved. I am not necessarily opposed to discussion of the Bible in public schools but in these time when religion has been used as the political tool that it has been and the Green family (which may mean well by all this) has been involved in this, I am afraid that I cannot be as sanguine regarding their project

  3. Darren Blair: I would hope the class would be for high school students. A class like you describe would be a great way to do it. Kids and adults who don’t know about Jonah and the whale/fish, Moses, the Sermon on the Mount, etc. miss out on a lot of what’s going on in literature and poetry and even movies. It sounds like Mr. Green wants the class to impart ethical lessons. I think that’s pushing the envelope.
    The reporter doesn’t get into whether he thinks it’s a good idea or not. Great choice of quotes to give people the issues in the debate.

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