The place of the Bible in public-school classrooms has been a
flashpoint in the culture wars in recent years, with Christian
conservatives, particularly Protestant evangelicals, taking the
lead. At the same time, the courts, as well as civil liberties
groups, have objected, arguing that giving Scripture a place in
public schools violates the separation of church and state.
The Bible Literacy Project attempted to bridge the divide late last
year by publishing “The Bible and Its Influence,” the first-ever
Bible textbook designed specifically for the public high school
classroom. The effort will by no means end the controversy, but it
marks a new turn in a debate that has its roots in the 19th century.
Though it may not seem that way, the place of the Bible in
public-school classrooms reaches back to the first days of public
schools. Horace Mann, the father of American public education,
believed that moral education was essential to instill democratic
values and that the Bible was central to that education.
Though Mann’s position was a good one, its implementation created a
firestorm of controversy. The problem was that the Bible used in
public schools was the King James Version, a Protestant translation
that reinforced Protestant beliefs. The famous McGuffey Readers used
in many public schools incorporated the King James Version,
essentially force-feeding Catholic students with Protestant
The vigorous objections of Catholic leaders fell on deaf ears. The
controversy over Scripture, among other issues, convinced American
Catholics that they needed a separate system of schools where their
beliefs could be protected.
Catholic education was the result of a conflict that still raises
questions today. Though Catholics may find themselves on the same
side as evangelical Protestants in the debate over the Bible in
public schools, history suggests that the problem isn’t just over
whether students should be allowed to read the Bible, but also which
Bible students read and how.
The current Bible debate, of course, is in a completely different
time, in which secular values are ascendant in culture. Though
forbidding Scripture from public classrooms seemed to resolve the
earlier Catholic-Protestant debate, it has created several
generations of children who have little, if any, knowledge of the
According to a Gallup survey commissioned by the Bible Literacy
Project of Fairfax, Va., in April, 10 percent of public high school
students thought Moses was one of the 12 apostles. Half didn’t know
what Jesus did at the wedding in Cana. One in four didn’t know David
was king of Israel.
At the same time, the report said nearly all of the teachers
surveyed in the study believed that basic biblical literacy was
necessary for educational success. “From the standpoint of academic
success, it is imperative that college-bound students be literate,”
the report quoted a teacher from Illinois as saying. “For the
others, I think it’s important for them to understand their own
culture, just to be well-grounded citizens of the United States — to
know where the institutions and ideas come from.”
The lack of basic biblical knowledge, the Biblical Literacy Project
has argued, leaves students ignorant of terms and concepts that are
essential to basic cultural literacy. At the same time, the presence
of the Bible in public schools has a long history of conflict that
has yet to be resolved.
In 1999, the project joined with the First Amendment Center of
Nashville, Tenn., to research the constitutional issues involved.
The result of their research, “The Bible and Public Schools: A First
Amendment Guide,” argued for a “third way,” in which the Bible would
be studied for its cultural and literary content, not its devotional
or spiritual value. If a textbook walked this line, they argued, it
would be acceptable to both those who wanted to study the Bible and
those who were concerned about civil liberties.
Finding a third way
“The Bible and Its Influence,” written for public high school
students in grades nine through 12, attempts to bridge the gap using
the “third way” solution. The editors of the book emphasized the
cultural importance of the Bible, and they consulted with 40
reviewers from every major Jewish and Christian tradition.
The reviewers included Catholic intellectuals such as Mary Ann
Glendon, the Learned Hand professor of law at Harvard University,
and two bishops, Aux. Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, Wis., and
Aux. Bishop Emil Wcela of the Diocese of Rockville Centre.
Though the book doesn’t carry the imprimatur or the nihil obstat
that certifies it is free from doctrinal error, many Catholic
leaders have greeted it with approval.
“Familiarity with the literary allusions of the Jewish and Christian
Scriptures has been the classical mark of a well educated person in
Western society,” Bishop Sklba has said. “The Bible Literacy
Project’s textbook, solidly researched and professionally written,
enables those enrolled in our nation’s public schools to savor that
heritage in a way which respects religious freedom and prepares for
the rigors of the very best of university education in the arts and
sciences. I am pleased to endorse this effort wholeheartedly.”
“The Bible and Its Influence” surveys the broad themes of Scripture
from the Old and New Testaments and how those themes have influenced
the arts, Western culture and politics. From Genesis to the
prophets, from the Gospels to Revelation, some of the greatest ideas
in Western society come through.
Students, for instance, learn about the Passover and Israel’s
history of slavery in Egypt and learn how to connect those concepts
with literary motifs, African American spirituals and the history of
slavery and civil rights in America. They learn about the prophets
and the role of religion in movements for social change and justice.
In learning about the Gospels, they also learn about the history of
missionary efforts throughout history and the role of the “golden
rule” in shaping ethics. In reading about Paul, they learn about
making arguments and the culture of the Roman world.
Catholic implications What should Catholics make of “The Bible and
Its Influence?” Ken Ogorek, director of the diocesan Office for
Catechesis and an evaluator of religion textbooks for the diocese’s
12 high schools, thinks the book is a good idea, though it most
likely won’t be making a trip to a Catholic classroom because of the
breadth and the depth of the Catholic resources already available.
Catholic students in public schools, though, may find “The Bible and
Its Influence” part of the curriculum. How does the new book stack
The diocese evaluates Catholic religion textbooks according to three
criteria, Ogorek said. Without question, it must be in conformity
with the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” But it also must meet
“cognitive objectives” — that is, deal with specific content areas
such as the person of Christ and the paschal mystery — as well as
have an appropriate methodology.
To be acceptable for a Catholic school, he said, a textbook must not
only be accurate but also connect students to a broader
understanding of the faith. A Catholic religion textbook is
catechetical as well as academic.
“Catechesis is more than just conveying information,” Ogorek said.
“It is inviting a person into a relationship with Jesus.”
Because it is written for public schools, “The Bible and Its
Influence” lacks much of the catechetical components that would make
it acceptable for Catholic religion courses. But he suggested that
the book is nevertheless a positive development.
“You could make the case that any exposure to the Bible is good
exposure,” he said. In addition, he suggested that Catholic youth
ministry programs in districts using the textbook could build off of
it to maximize their time. Instead of having to spend time covering
basic biblical content, youth ministers would be able to talk more
about connecting Scripture to Christian life.
Still, questions persist. Will “The Bible and Its Influence” satisfy
civil liberties groups? Will Christians be content with an approach
that treats the Bible as a regular book? And are public-school
teachers equipped to handle the challenging theological and
spiritual issues that will emerge from talking about Scripture? Time
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