WASHINGTON, Jan. 26 — Democrats in Georgia and Alabama, borrowing
an idea usually advanced by conservative Republicans, are promoting
Bible classes in the public schools. Their Republican opponents are
in turn denouncing them as "pharisees," a favorite term of liberals
for politicians who exploit religion.
Erik S. Lesser
for The New York Times
Democrats in both states have introduced bills authorizing school
districts to teach courses modeled after a new textbook, "The Bible
and Its Influence." It was produced by the nonpartisan, ecumenical
Bible Literacy Project and provides an assessment of the Bible's
impact on history, literature and art that is academic and detached,
if largely laudatory.
The Democrats who introduced the bills said they hoped to compete
with Republicans for conservative Christian voters. "Rather than
sitting back on our heels and then being knocked in our face, we are
going to respond in a thoughtful way," said Kasim Reed, a Georgia
state senator from Atlanta and one of the sponsors of the bill. "We
are not going to give away the South anymore because we are
unwilling to talk about our faith."
Charles P. Stetson, Jr.
Agins/The New York Times
In Georgia, the proposal marked a new course for the Democratic
Party. The state's Democrats, including some sponsors of the bill,
opposed a Republican proposal a few years ago to authorize the
teaching of a different Bible course, which used a translation of
the Scriptures as its text, calling it an inappropriate endorsement
of religion. The sponsors say they are introducing their Bible
measure now partly to pre-empt a potential Republican proposal
seeking to display the Ten Commandments in schools.
In Alabama, a deeply religious state where Democrats support
prayer in the schools and a Democratic candidate for governor
recently introduced her campaign with the hymn "Give Me That Old
Time Religion," the Bible class bills reflect Democrats' efforts to
distance themselves from the national party.
"We have always had to somewhat defend ourselves from the national
Democratic Party's secular image, and this is part of that," said
Ken Guin, a representative from Carbon Hill, leader of the
Democratic majority in the State House and a sponsor of the measure.
Democrats in other states are moving in the same direction, jumping
into a conversation about religion and values that some party
leaders began after the 2004 election, when President Bush and the
Republicans rode those themes to victory.
In Indiana, Democratic legislators are among the leaders of a
bipartisan effort to preserve the recitation of specifically
Christian prayers in the Statehouse. In Virginia, Gov. Timothy M.
Kaine relied heavily on religious themes and advertised on
evangelical radio stations to win election last fall; Democratic
Party leaders have called his campaign a national model.
In an interview, Howard Dean, chairman of the Democratic National
Committee, promised that Democrats would do a better job talking
about values to religious voters. "We have done it in a secular way,
and we don't have to," he said, adding, "I think teaching the Bible
as literature is a good thing."
Christian conservatives, however, say they have been pushing public
schools to offer courses on the Bible for decades, and Republicans
in both Alabama and Georgia say some schools already offer such
"Their proposal makes them modern-day pharisees," State Senator Eric
Johnson of Georgia, the Republican leader from Savannah, said in a
statement. "This is election-year pandering using voters' deepest
beliefs as a tool."
Saying he found "a little irony" in the fact that the Democratic
sponsors had voted against a Republican proposal for a Bible course
six years ago, Mr. Johnson added, "It should also be noted that the
so-called Bible bill doesn't use the Bible as the textbook, and
would allow teachers with no belief at all in the Bible to teach the
Betty Peters, a Republican on the Alabama school board who opposed
the initiative in that state, also dismissed the initiative as
"pandering." Democrats, she argued, had adopted a new strategy:
"Let's just wrap ourselves in Jesus."
For the last dozen years, most efforts to promote teaching the Bible
in public schools have come from the National Council on Bible
Curriculum in Public Schools, a conservative Christian group based
in Greensboro, N.C., that advocates using the Bible as the primary
textbook. The group says about 380 school districts in 37 states
offer its curriculum.
But its curriculum often draws attacks from civil liberties groups.
Democratic sponsors of the Bible class bills say their efforts would
help shield local school districts from First Amendment lawsuits, in
part by recommending a more neutral approach.
The textbook they endorse was the brainchild of Chuck Stetson, a New
York investment manager and theologically conservative Episcopalian
who says he was concerned about public ignorance of the Bible.
Mr. Stetson helped produce "The Bible and Its Influence" as the
centerpiece of a course that seeks to teach about the Bible and its
legacy without endorsing or offending any specific faith.
The textbook came to the attention of Democratic legislators in
Alabama and Georgia through the advocacy of R. Randolph Brinson, a
Republican and founder of the evangelical voter-registration group
Redeem the Vote.
Mr. Brinson, who said he was working with legislators in other
states as well, described his pitch to Democrats as, "Introducing
this bill will show the evangelical world that they are not hostile
Some liberals are unhappy, however. Barry W. Lynn, executive
director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State,
argued that "The Bible and Its Influence" was "problematic" because
it omitted "the bad and the ugly uses of the Bible," like the
invocation of Scripture to justify racial segregation.
Conservative Christian groups have been skeptical, too. "This
appears to be a calculated effort by the Democrats to try to
out-conservative the conservatives," said Stephen M. Crampton, a
lawyer for the American Family Association, a conservative Christian
group that supports the National Council on Bible Curriculum in
"To mention any curriculum by name is suggestive of some back-room
deal cut with the publishers," Mr. Crampton said.
For his part, Mr. Stetson, founder of the group that produced the
textbook, said a political fight was not what he wanted. "We are the
first English-speaking generation to have lost the biblical story,"
he said, lamenting that studying the Bible had become "a political