Will new textbook bring peace in school Bible wars?

Sunday, October 2, 2005

New high school textbooks don’t ordinarily make headlines. But The Bible and Its Influence is no ordinary textbook. Published by the Bible Literacy Project, it’s the first attempt in many years to get the Bible back into the public school curriculum — without a fight. When the book was unveiled last week, the news media took note.

Is this a false promise or a breakthrough? According to the more than 40 scholars, teachers and theologians who reviewed drafts of the textbook, it’s the real thing. The list includes people representing secular, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox perspectives. All agree that this book is an academically sound presentation of the narratives, themes, and characters of the Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament. And all agree that the textbook accurately covers how the Bible has been used in art, literature, music and history, exposing students to a wide range of topics from “Handel’s Messiah” to “Abraham Lincoln and the Bible.”

But can any textbook, however scholarly and well-done, end the conflict over the Bible that has plagued public education for more than 160 years? It won’t be easy. Unfortunately, plenty of people on both sides still push failed approaches to the Bible in the classroom.

Imposing one religious view of the Bible in schools is both unjust and unconstitutional — but it’s still being done in some school districts. This approach appeals to folks who want to return to the “good old days” when we all got along because the Protestant Bible was taught in the schools. What they forget (or choose to ignore) are the Bible wars that broke out between Protestants and Catholics in the 19th century over whose version of the Bible would be read each morning. So much for the good old days.

Keeping the Bible out of public education hasn’t worked, either — but that’s what still happens in many schools and much of the curriculum. True, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state-sponsored devotional Bible reading as unconstitutional in Abington School Dist. v. Schempp in 1963. But the Court never intended to banish the Bible from public schools. In fact, the justices repeatedly made clear that teaching about the Bible (as distinct from religious indoctrination) is fully constitutional as long as it’s done right. But many schools continue to ignore the Bible as much as possible in a misguided effort to avoid controversy and conflict.

If any textbook can overcome this bitter history and provide an alternative to both the imposers and removers, The Bible and Its Influence may be it. Why? Because it’s written to conform to the constitutional and educational standards laid out in The Bible and Public Schools, a consensus guide published six years ago by the First Amendment Center and the Bible Literacy Project and endorsed by a wide range of groups — from the National Association of Evangelicals to People for the American Way Foundation. In a concerted effort to meet these standards, the editors left little to chance. Scholars from across the religious spectrum reviewed draft after draft.

The result is the first textbook of its kind in American history. At long last, here is an answer for beleaguered school districts that want to offer a Bible course, but don’t want to get sued. Until the release of this book (along with the promise of a university-based, online teacher-training program), there wasn’t any Bible textbook or curriculum guide that I would recommend for use in a public school. Now there is.

Whether or not it’s a good idea to offer a Bible elective and just how much students need to learn about the Bible in literature and history are issues for school boards and educators to decide. But any public school that contemplates a Bible course must keep the First Amendment in mind. That means looking for student textbooks and materials that are scholarly, age-appropriate and objective. This new text is a good place to start.

Given the long history of conflict in America over the Bible in schools, no approach — and no textbook — is entirely risk-free. But The Bible and Its Influence is the closest educators can get to a constitutional and academic safe harbor for teaching about the Bible in a public school classroom.

Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 22209. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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