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.

Mark Chancey on How to Teach the Bible in Public Schools

I met Mark Chancey a few years ago in Durham, NC.  I was speaking at a conference he helped organize at Duke University on the Bible in the public square.  Since then I have turned to his work for help in making sense of the thorny issue of religion in public schools.

Over at Religion & Politics, Mark has a helpful essay entitled “How Should We Teach the Bible in Public Schools?”  Here is a taste:

The issue of how public schools teach about religion is relatively under-studied, but it is clear that confusion abounds on the question of how to meet the Court’s benchmark of objective, secular presentation. For these reasons, I welcomed an invitation to study public school Bible courses for the Austin-based Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, a watchdog group. Using open records requests, TFN obtained course materials from sixty Bible courses taught in Texas high schools in the 2011-2012 school year; they asked me to examine them for academic quality and adherence to the legal guidelines offered by various federal courts. 

The resulting report, Reading, Writing & Religion II: Texas Public School Bible Courses in 2011-2012 (a follow-up to an earlier study), found that most Texas Bible courses crossed the constitutional line by promoting certain religious perspectives over others and religion over non-religion. While many problems appeared to be missteps by well-intentioned and otherwise well-trained teachers, others reflected overt sectarian agendas. 

The syllabus for one course, for example, identified its objective as “to consider the teachings of the New Testament through the lens of faith,” and students read books on Christian apologetics. Many courses depicted the Bible as straightforward, unproblematic history—even the miracle stories. A PowerPoint slide from one district illustrates this approach, instructing students that “Christ’s resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space – that it was, in reality, historical and not mythological (cf. 2 Pet. 1:16)” [sic]. Many courses presented traditional Christian theological interpretations of scripture as normative readings, going so far as to teach students that the Tanakh/Old Testament supernaturally predicted the coming of Jesus. (When a New York Times reporter questioned this approach, pointing out to one teacher that Jews do not believe that Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecies, the teacher curiously countered, “In New York, they don’t.”) Pseudoscience made its way into some courses, such as those that advocated creationism or the belief that racial origins can be traced to Noah.  

The good news is that other Texas courses succeeded admirably in treating the biblical material in ways that respected constitutional limits and diverse religious sensibilities. How did they do it? 

Read the rest here, including some suggested readings on the topic.

What David Barton May Get Right

For over a decade David Barton has been arguing that school textbooks have been hostile to religion or have removed religion from the story of American history.  If a talk I heard this week at the Duke conference on the “Bible in the Public Square” is correct, then Barton’s complaint may have some merit.  Let me explain.

In his lecture entitled “The Good Book as Textbook in Historical Perspective,” Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey described the textbook industry’s reaction to the Supreme Court’s decisions in Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District vs. Schempp (1963).  (Now that I recall–this discussion may have taken place during the Q&A session). The Vitale case made it unconstitutional for state officials to compose an official school prayer and encourage its recitation in public schools.  The Schempp case declared school-sponsored Bible reading in public schools to be unconstitutional.

According to Chancey (and I am paraphrasing his lecture here), publishers responded to these Supreme Court decisions by downplaying religion in American history textbooks.  Things got so absurd that several popular textbook authors avoided the mention of religion in discussions of the Pilgrims and Puritans.  As Chancey pointed out, the textbook companies misunderstood these Supreme Court decisions to mean that religion was not permitted in the curriculum.  Because they feared that public schools (which in many cases also misunderstood the decisions) would not purchase their books if they had too much religion in them, textbook companies chose instead to take it out.  After Vitale and Schempp, school districts and textbook companies became unnecessarily paranoid about violating the First Amendment’s religious clause and thus erred on the side of caution.

So when Barton complains about religion being missing from the story of America, he may have a point. 

But by the 1980s and 1990s a new wave of scholarship emerged that took (and continues to take) religion seriously in the story of the American past.  From what I have been able to tell, this new scholarship has found its way into school textbooks, offering a more religious-friendly narrative of American history than what may have been offered in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is very interesting stuff.  At this point I can only call attention to Chancey’s lecture, but I would like to learn more.