The Bible in Kentucky Schools

BevinMatt Bevin, the Governor of Kentucky, just signed a bill allowing the Bible to be taught in the state’s public schools.  Here is the text of HB 128:

AN ACT relating to Bible literacy courses in the public schools.
     Create a new section of KRS Chapter 156 to require the Kentucky Board of Education to promulgate administrative regulations to establish an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible; require that the course provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy; permit students to use various translations of the Bible for the course; amend KRS 158.197 to permit a school council to offer an elective social studies course on the Hebrew Scriptures, Old Testament of the Bible, the New Testament, or a combination of the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament of the Bible.

A few thoughts:

First, this is nothing new.  Several states have passed similar laws.  See Mark Chancey’s essay “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses in Public Schools.”  Chancey, who teaches at Southern Methodist University, is the nation’s leading scholar on such public school Bible courses. Check out his website for more resources.

Second, having a Bible course in a public school is constitutional.  Perhaps someone can help me out here, but I don’t understand why special laws are needed to teach the Bible in schools. It seems as if the only reason for passing such legislation is to make a political statement. The Government of Kentucky, or at least those men and women who have power in the government of Kentucky, want to let their constituency know which side they are taking in the culture wars and the fight to make the United States a Christian nation.

Here’s some history:

In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled in Abington v. Schempp that mandatory reading of the Bible in public schools as an act of religious practice or devotion was unconstitutional. But what many fail to recognize is that Abington v. Schempp did not completely remove the Bible from schools.  Here is a taste of Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark’s majority opinion:

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 effected consistent with the First Amendment.

As I argued in my book The Bible Cause, The American Bible Society (ABS), the largest distributor of Bibles in the world, actually supported the Abington v. Schempp decision in 1963. The ABS replied to nearly every letter that it received about the case from disgruntled supporters by putting a positive spin on the decision.  ABS General Secretary Robert Taylor’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 public schools.”  Taylor ripped into local school boards for giving people the opposite impression.  In fact, as another ABS Secretary, Homer Ogle, wrote to another correspondent, “the Supreme Court is 100% behind the idea of teaching the Bible in the public schools.” He added that 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 in schools, the ABS saw it as an opportunity to promote Biblical literacy.

Third, parts of Kentucky HB 128 should raise red flags.  The bill says that a proposed course on the Bible must “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.” This suggests that the course can and should move beyond the study of the Bible in its ancient context. It requires educators to apply the Bible’s teaching to current events.  And what does the term “prerequisite” mean here?  Are the lawmakers suggesting that the Bible is the only prerequisite for understanding these various dimensions of “contemporary society and culture?” The bill does not seem to realize that there is no scholarly consensus on the degree to which the Bible and its teachings influenced the American founding.

The architect of the bill, Representative D.J. Johnson, gives us a better sense of what HB 128 means when it says that the Bible is a “prerequisite” to “contemporary life and culture.” In a recent interview he said: “[The Bible] really did set the foundation that our founding fathers used to develop documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights…All those came from principles in the bible.”  This quote comes straight out of the David Barton Christian nation playbook.

In April 2017, during the debate over HB 128 in the Kentucky House of Representatives, Stan Lee of Lexington said, “This country–whether some people want to believe it or not–wasn’t founded as a Muslim nation, wasn’t founded as a Hindu nation, wasn’t founded as a Jari Krishna nation.  It was founded as a Christian nation.”  He added: “It’s been said on the floor today that teaching the Bible ain’t going to get it done.  Well, let me tell you what didn’t get it done: Kicking God out of school, kicking the Bible out of school, kicking prayer out of school.”  It doesn’t get any clearer than that.  Like D.J. Johnson, Lee is channeling Barton.  He is also, I might add, coming very close to violating Abington v. Schempp.

And then there is Dan Johnson (not to be confused with D.J.).  In addition to representing Kentucky’s House District 49 he is a bishop in the Heart of Fire Church in southeast Louisville.  In his 2016 campaign for a seat in the Kentucky House he came under fire for defending Southern secession, “white pride,” and posting a picture on Facebook of Barack Obama as an ape.  When confronted about the picture Johnson said, “It wasn’t meant to be racist. I can tell you that. My history’s good there. I can see how people would be offended in that.  I wasn’t trying to offend anybody, but I think Facebook’s entertaining.” My history’s good there?  Oh, by the way, Johnson won his election. He now sponsors HB 128.

Representative Tim Moore is also a sponsor of the bill.  He co-chairs the Kentucky Prayer Caucus.  According to its website, the members of the Kentucky Prayer Caucus are “state legislators committed to advancing policies and initiatives that promote religious freedom, America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, and prayer.  It is part of a larger “Prayer Caucus” movement in state legislatures around the country. There is nothing on the Caucus’s website that explains how it reconciles its support for religious freedom with its promotion of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage.  David Barton promotes the Prayer Caucus Movement on his Wallbuilders website.

David Barton peddles really bad history about the American founding, but more importantly his faulty understanding of the American past has influenced public policy in places such as Kentucky.  (Barton has made it abundantly clear that he is a big fan of Governor Bevin).  In the end, it appears that HB 128 is a subtle and shrewd attempt by the Kentucky government to promote a Christian nationalist agenda without violating Abington v. Schempp.  If they cannot bring Christianity and the Bible back into the schools in an overt pre-1963 way, they can at least bring it into the curriculum under the guise of history and social studies.

Watchdog groups have a close eye on how the bill will be implemented in Kentucky schools.  Kate Miller of the ACLU put it best: “A Bible literacy bill that, on its face, may not appear to be unconstitutional, could in fact become unconstitutional in its implementation.”

Miller and other critics should make sure the Bible is not being used in this class for devotional purposes or Christian preaching.  But they should also keep an eye on how the Bible is being used to teach civics and history in Kentucky schools.  On the later point, the defenders of the bill will ward off criticism by arguing that this is an issue about competing historical interpretations (David Barton and the Christian nationalist view of history versus mainstream historical scholarship written by real historians) and not a violation of Abington v. Schempp.

In closing, it is important to remember that the ultimate implementation of HB 128 rests with the educators who will be teaching this Bible course. (We are only talking about an Revisedelective course, so I imagine only a small groups of students will take it.). I hope many of these teachers turn to the resources page on Mark Chancey’s website to get a sense of what is permissible and what is not.  I also hope that they are responsible when they attempt to connect the Bible to “contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

As some of you know, I wrote a book called Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.  In that book I talk a lot about the Bible’s influence on the American founding.  I also spend a lot of time, both at Messiah College (an evangelical Christian college in Pennsylvania) and around the country, working with history and social studies teachers. I am happy to help Kentucky teachers think about all the ways the Bible has influenced, and has not influenced, American society and culture.