The GOP Platform on Bibles in Public Schools: Some Historical Context

Bible in SchoolI case you haven’t heard, the Republican Party wants to bring the Bible back into public schools.  The GOP platform encourages public high schools to teach elective courses about the Bible.  The Washington Post‘s Emma Brown has a great piece on this effort.  Here is a small taste:

Several GOP delegates said that they aren’t seeking to inculcate schools with Christianity, but they are trying to make sure that young people are acquainted with a document that has played a significant role in shaping Western culture.

“This is not designed to teach religion in the schools as a means of proselytizing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and a GOP delegate from Louisiana who supported the Bible-in-schools provision. “You can’t really fully understand the American form of government and society without some understanding of the Bible.”

The article goes on to cite Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey‘s study of already-existing Bible courses in Texas public schools.  Another taste:

In 2013, the Texas Freedom Network used public records requests to study the curriculum, lessons and assignments given to students in Bible-related courses in 57 districts and three charter schools.

For example, the preface of a book used in the Dayton Independent School District reads: “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.’”

In contrast, Chancey described other assignments and curriculum as academically rigorous and constitutionally sound. Students in the Grapevine Independent School District, for example, were asked to show their understanding of literary devices — such as simile, metaphor, allusion and personification — by writing about how those devices are used in Psalm 103.

Chancey, who is now working on a book on the history of Bible courses in public schools nationwide, said that teaching about the Bible in a legal fashion is easier said than done.

“Even with the best of intentions, people’s own biases creep into their presentation of the material,” Chancey said. And occasionally, he said, “some teachers use these courses deliberately as Trojan Horses to promote their own religious beliefs over others.”

In Chancey’s view, the call for teaching about the Bible is the Republican party’s response to the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion, or with religions other than Christianity.

“The timing of this is not accidental. It’s a reaction to the current demographic trends and the increasing Christianization of party elites,” he said. He said he believes that an “educated citizenry” needs an understanding of all major world religions, not just Christianity.

Some districts were doing a good job treating the Bible’s contents as the subject of academic study, according to the organization’s analysis, conducted by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. But many were not.

“Unfortunately, a fair number of courses are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views,” Chancey wrote.

Courses were rife not only with religious bias but also with factual errors, he found, and most were taught by teachers who had not taken any college-level courses in biblical, religious or theological studies. Some schools were using curriculum materials that presented the Bible as historical fact, and others used materials that explicitly called on students to adopt one particular faith.

As some of you know, the Supreme Court removed mandatory devotional Bible reading from public schools though the 1964 Abington v. Schempp decision. Interestingly enough, the largely Protestant American Bible Society, the largest distributor of Bibles in the United States in 1964, supported the Supreme Court’s decision.  This, however, did not stop them from getting more Bibles into public schools.

Here is how I described it all in The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society:

Perhaps the most significant political and cultural issue that the ABS had to deal with in the early 1960s was the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Abington v. Schempp the decision that struck down the mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools. Abington v. Schempp followed on the heels of Engel v. Vitale, the verdict that made prayer in public schools unconstitutional.  Both of these decisions drew heavy fire from American Christians.  In August 1963, George Gallup concluded that 70 percent of Americans supported prayer and Bible reading in public schools.  The debate over religion in public schools heightened over the course of the next several years as legislators, the most prominent being Illinois Republican Everett Dirksen, proposed a constitutional amendment that would allow prayer in public schools, essentially overturning the court’s decision in Engle v. Vitale.  The so-called Dirksen Amendment…did not directly challenge Abington v. Schempp, but many ordinary Americans believed that if Engel v. Vitale could be overturned, so could Abington v. Schempp  Dirksen was their champion.

The American Bible Society did not make any formal statement about Abington v. Schempp…until popular support for the Dirksen Amendment began to find its way into letters Bible Cause Coveraddressed to the Bible House.  About one month before the amendment reached the Senate for a vote, Mary Peabody of Hancock, New Hampshire, wrote to the ABS to call attention to the “valiant effort” that Dirksen was making to bring the Bible back into public schools.  (She obviously misunderstood that the Dirksen Amendment was about school prayer, not Bible reading).  Her letter was stapled to a postcard with an image of Jacob Duche, the chaplain to the First Continental Congress, praying in Christ Church, Philadelphia, with several of America’s founding fathers on their knees surrounding him.  Peabody was present in Washington during hearings on the proposed amendment and was astonished to learn that the Methodist Church and the Seventh Day Adventists opposed it.  As representatives from both of these Protestant denominations made their cases before the Senate, Peabody lamented that there was no one present to “oppose or answer their wicked arguments.”  Unless an organization like the ABS was committed to “rouse the nation” to protest against the “atheism” and “immorality” that Engel v. Vitale and Abington v. Schempp represented, the amendment would fail and “Freedom of Religion” would be lost….

The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about Abington v. Schempp by putting a positive spin on the Supreme Court decision. [Secretary Robert] Tayl0r’s response to [a writer from Reseda, California] was typical: “The American Bible Society is…trying to get people to understand that the Supreme Court decision did not rule out the teaching of the Bible in the public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as Secretary Homer Ogle wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools,” and the ABS was planning to launch a nationwide program to make sure that children would have access to the scriptures.  The ABS answers to these letters must have been confusing to members who did not understand the complexities of the Supreme Court decision.  Rather than seeing Abington v. Schempp as a blow to Bible reading, the ABS saw it as an opportunity.

In January 1966, the [Bible Society] Record ran a news report on a recent meeting of the ABS Advisory Council.  The Society asked the members of the Council a simple question: “Should the Bible be included in a public school curriculum?”  This, of course, was a very different kind of question than the one taken up by the Supreme Court in Abington v. SchemppThe issue for the ABS was not whether the Bible could be used in public schools for devotional purposes, but whether it could be part of a school curriculumThe article quoted from Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion in the Schempp case:

“It might well be said that one’s education is not complete without the 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 religious 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 consistent with the First Amendment.”

With the use of the Bible in the curriculum as a very real option, the ABS was ready to embark on a program to bring Biblical literacy to public school children by providing schools with resources to help them teach the Bible as literature.  When it came to this issue, Taylor was a realist.  He was willing to accept the fact that the days of devotional Bible reading in schools were over.  The ABS would thus throw its resources behind the cause of Biblical literacy.  In an interoffice memo titled “The Objective Teaching of the Bible in Public Schools,” Taylor informed his staff that Schempp offered the ABS an “unusual opportunity.”  If any organization was equipped to advocate for the Bible in the school curriculum is was the ABS.  He announced that a program of “research and experimentation” devoted to this issue was already under way in the state of Indiana, supported by the Lilly Endowment.  Taylor was not willing to completely write off the possibility that the academic study of the Bible could lead to spiritual transformation among young readers. He ended his letter to one concerned ABS members by reminding him that “God works in mysterious ways…and it is quite possible for us to move from a rather perfunctory Bible reading and prayer period in schools to a vital study of the Holy Scriptures.  If this is to occur, it demands the dedicated wisdom of many Christians.