Is the Push for Public School Bible Courses an Excuse to Spread the Gospel?

Bible in Schools

University of Pennsylvania historian Jonathan Zimmerman thinks so.  Here is a taste of his recent piece at USA Today:

The Supreme Court barred devotional Bible reading and recitations of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools in 1963. But the ruling also said courses about the Bible were permissible, so long as they were “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”  

Evangelical Christians promptly began a full-court press for Bible classes, which were hardly objective or secular. As I noted in my 2002 book, “Whose America?: Culture Wars in the Public Schools,” a Florida teacher of “Bible history” said his class had helped recruit more than 100 new members into an after-school “Youth for Christ” course. And in South Carolina, a graduate of her own school’s “Bible survey” said the course had persuaded her to become a missionary. “I want everybody to have what I have,” she told her teacher, “And I’d like to spend my life sharing it with them.”

Both of these accounts appeared in the evangelical press, which didn’t disguise the purpose of the Bible classes: to spread the Christian Gospel. And that seems to be the same goal behind a recent round of state legislative proposals to enhance “Bible literacy” in our public schools.

Read the rest here.

I agree with Zimmerman.  I see no other reason why evangelicals, and mostly evangelicals, are pushing for these Bible classes.  At the heart of all of this is the longstanding evangelical idea that God does not need human agents to spread his message in the Bible.  Just give kids a Bible and “let the Bible do its work.”  In other words, if kids are exposed to the Bible, God will miraculously illuminate the text and some will embrace its life-changing and live-saving message.  This is Evangelicalism 101.  And it has a long history.

For example, the American Bible Society regularly described its mission in terms of the “Bible doing its work” without a teacher or preacher.  Here is a passage from my book The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015):

The ABS believed that the Bible had the spiritual power to send people…on an entirely new trajectory of life….The agents working on behalf of the Bible Cause were appointed to deliver the word of God wherever it was needed, but they also believed that the Bible was a supernatural book that could lead people to salvation without the aid of a preacher or teacher….The Bible, without any commentary, could bring people into the Kingdom of God, defeat a growing Catholic menace, and advance the cause of Protestantism in America.  Though ABS agents often took opportunities to preach and teach, most of the time they just dropped off a copy of the Bible at a house, on a train or ship, or to someone they met on the road–and let the Spirit do the rest….Bible Cause Cover

ABS publications were fond of using the phrase “the Bible doing its work” to describe the effects the book had on sinners and potential converts.  For example, as he prepared to send his son off to college a Christian father worried that the young scholar would lose his faith during the course of the experience.  So he purchased an “elegant copy” of the Bible and, without his son’s knowledge, placed it at the bottom of the trunk.  Shortly after the son’s arrival at college the father’s worst fears were realized.  “The restraints of a pious education were soon broken off,” and the young man  “proceeded from speculation to doubts, and from doubts to denial of the reality of religion.”  One day, while “rummaging through his trunk ,” he found the “sacred deposit” that his father had placed there.  In a spirit of indignation, the young man decided that he would use the Bible to clean his razor after his daily shave.  Each day, he used the blade to tear a leaf or two out of the “Holy Book” until half of the volume was destroyed.  But one morning, as he was “committing this outrage”  to the text, several verses met his eye and struck him “like a barbed arrow to his heart.”  These verses were like a “sermon” to him, awakening him to the wrath of God and leading him to the “foot of the cross.”  There was no need to provide rational answers to the young man’s skepticism–the “Sacred Volume” had “done its work.”  It has led him “to repose on the mercy of God, which is sufficient for the chief of sinners….”

The managers and agents of the ABS lived in an enchanted world where books in barns could convict men of sin and those who burned sacred scriptures suffered negative consequences.  This was  a world in which men and women could pick up a copy of the Bible on a ship or a railcar and immediately turn to a verse of passage that spoke to a specific need.  Though there were some who probably believed that the Bible was a kind of talisman or amulet, most ABS agents believed that the Bible’s apparent magical powers could be easily explained by an appeal to the third person of the Trinity–the Holy Spirit.  When those in charge of the ABS talked about the Bible “doing its work,” what they were really saying was the Holy Spirit was illuminating the Bible in such a way that touched the hearts of those who encountered it and its message.  Though the influence of the Spirit’s work in shedding light on the message of the Bible could come quickly and abruptly, as in the case of an evangelical revival, it usually had a “slow, silent, effective influence” on the reader.  This was the same kind of spiritual power that “moved the deep tides of the ocrans and holds and guides the planets in their spheres.”  If the ABS could just get the pure word of God, without note or comment, in the hands of every person in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

Today the final sentences in the paragraph above could be rewritten this way:  “If the Christian Right could get the pure word of God, even without spiritual or proselytizing teachers, in every school in America, a slow and steady spiritual and moral transformation would capture the nation.”

The Bible Never Left Public Schools

Trump and Bible

No one knows more about Bible courses in public schools than Southern Methodist University religion professor Mark Chancey.  Today Chancey weighed-in on the recent Donald Trump tweet about the Bible.  (Some of you may recall that we posted on this yesterday).

Here is a taste of Mark’s piece at The Washington Post:

I can’t heartily endorse Trump’s tweet because its words reflect a deep misunderstanding about the way the Bible, in the present and the past, has been handled in public school.

In fact, the measures to which he seems to be referring, state-level bills promoting study of the Bible in public schools, aren’t new and aren’t necessary. It’s already legal to teach about the Bible in U.S. public schools, but the topic has been swallowed in recent decades by politics and culture war that blur that fact. What American public (or private) schoolchildren in 2019 desperately need is broad religious literacy. The backstory of the measures Trump cites, unfortunately, instead makes clear that our youth are sometimes being subjected more to culture war than cultural literacy.

A little history: Courses like the one Trump mentioned, focused on teaching the Christian and Jewish Bibles, have been around for a century, and in most states, at least some schools teach them. But even in their heyday, they were never omnipresent. The president’s expression of nostalgic longing (“Starting to turn back? Great!”) reflects misconceptions of the Bible’s historical role in the schoolhouse.

But perhaps that’s not a coincidence. The idea that a certain Christian-centric view of the Bible was always taught to American public schoolchildren until very recently feeds into a narrative of loss and restoration popular with his base.

Read the entire piece here.

What Should We Make of Trump’s Tweet About Bible Classes in Schools

Here some context from

I have written about these Bible classes before.  So has Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who is an expert on such classes.

I would refer you to these posts:

post on Kentucky’s attempt to start Bible classes in public schools.  It draws from my own work on the Bible in America, including The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society (Oxford University Press, 2015).

post on Mark Chancey’s work.

Finally, I have written extensively about this idea of “turning back” in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Believe Me 3d

Today’s Religion News Service Commentary: “Kentucky’s shrewd move to promote a Christian nationalist agenda”

Kentucky.  Map courtesy of Creative Commons

Regular readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home will be familiar with a longer version of this piece.

Here is a taste of a shorter version syndicated today through Religion News Service:

(RNS) Matt Bevin, the governor of Kentucky, recently signed House Bill 128 requiring the state Board of Education to establish an elective social studies course on the Old and New Testaments.

Kentucky lawmakers believe a course will “provide to students knowledge of biblical content, character, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory, and public policy.”

Bible courses in public schools are perfectly constitutional. 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. Consider 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.”

If Kentucky has every constitutional right to hold “objective,” content-oriented Bible courses, why was it necessary to pass HB 128?

The passing of this law has little to do with the United States Constitution. It has everything to do with politics.

Parts of HB 128 should raise red flags. The wording suggests that the course 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 assumes that the Bible informs virtually every area of American culture.

Read the rest here.

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.

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.