Bible Courses in Public Schools: SBL's Response to a Growing Trend
The cover of Time Magazine (April 2, 2007) proclaims "Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public Schools." Stephen J. Prothero's heavily marketed new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — And Doesn't (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007), calls for every American high school student to take a Bible course. Multiple state legislatures debate bills promoting Bible courses, and Georgia passes a law providing funding for such classes. Two very different organizations, the Bible Literacy Project and the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, compete to have their curriculum accepted by local school districts, while one community's decision to offer a Bible course (Odessa, Texas) draws international media attention.
Bible courses in public schools have always been legal — the famous 1963 U. S. Supreme Court decision Abington v. Schempp prohibited school-sponsored devotional reading of the Bible, not nonsectarian, academic study. Recently, however, a number of factors have combined to heighten interest in them: the desire of state legislators to appear "religion-friendly" to their constituents, the marketing campaigns of the curriculum organizations mentioned above, increased awareness of the content of Bible courses in public schools in Florida and Texas (see below), and, as Prothero's book suggests, a growing hope among some that increasing "religious literacy" might contribute towards a healthier public life.
We have surprisingly little data on what happens in the classrooms of public school Bible courses, but the information that is available is not especially encouraging. A 2000 study by People for the American Way (PFAW) found that most courses in Florida were taught from a sectarian perspective. More recently, I examined course materials from the twenty-five courses taught in Texas public schools in 2005-2006, finding that most were taught by teachers with no background in biblical studies, were full of factual errors, and were usually taught from a sectarian perspective. There is little reason to think that the situations in other states are much different.
Actions at the state level have been uneven. Florida responded admirably to the PFAW report by asking professors at Florida State University to develop detailed course standards and offer teacher training. In contrast, Georgia's new standards are too general to offer teachers much help in navigating the challenges they are likely to encounter in constructing and implementing their courses. In Texas, a bill is currently under consideration in the House of Representatives that requires every school district to offer a Bible elective, but prohibits the state from developing standards or giving guidance on curriculum — a development that would multiply the problems described in my report thirty-fold.
What should the role of the Society of Biblical Literature be in this public discussion? As the nation's largest professional society devoted to biblical studies, and one whose members are drawn from across the religious spectrum, we have much to offer. Furthermore, involvement with this issue is very appropriate given the commitments expressed in our strategic vision statements to
- encourage study of biblical literature and its cultural contexts
- collaborate with educational institutions and other appropriate organizations to support biblical scholarship and teaching
- develop resources for diverse audiences, including students, religious communities and the general public
SBL has created a working group to formulate a programmatic response to the issue. Our focus is not on encouraging the proliferation of Bible classes, but rather to develop resources for schools that choose to offer them. We have a multi-pronged strategy:
- to monitor developments in this area so that we can keep our members updated and offer appropriate responses at appropriate levels (national, state, and local)
- to publish (whether online or in print) teacher aids such as recommended standards and learning objectives, issue-specific essays (focusing on topics such as the differences between Bible translations, differences between canons, anti-Judaism and the New Testament, etc.), and lesson plans
- to offer in-service workshops for teachers, whether at the national or regional SBL meetings or at the initiative of SBL members in cooperation with their own host institutions
As our work progresses, there will be many opportunities — and much need — for the involvement of individual SBL members. Our hope as a working group is to create a a programmatic structure that will allow interested members to "plug in" to this cause without each one having to re-invent the wheel on his or her own. We'll need writers for the publications and leaders and organizers for the in-service training. And we'll need our members to be the Society's eyes and ears in individual states and local communities. If you'd like to help, or if you have news about events in your area to convey to the working group, please contact one of the members below:
Members of the SBL Working Group on the Bible and Public Education
Mark A. Chancey, co-convener
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
Carleen R. Mandolfo, co-convener
Assistant Professor of Religious Studies
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Associate Professor of Religion
Florida State University
Louise Farmer Boyer Chair in Biblical Studies
University of Texas at Austin
Public Initiatives Coordinator
Society of Biblical Literature
Mark A. Chancey, The Bible and Public Schools: Report on the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (Austin: Texas Freedom Network, 2005). Online: http://www.tfn.org/religiousfreedom/biblecurriculum/.
Mark A. Chancey, Reading, Writing, & Religion: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools (Austin: Texas Freedom Network, 2006). Online: http://www.tfn.org/religiousfreedom/biblecurriculum/.
The First Amendment Center and the Bible Literacy Project, The Bible & Public Schools; A First Amendment Guide (Nashville: The First Amendment Center, New York: The Bible Literacy Project, 1999). Online: http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/pdf/bible_guide_graphics.pdf.
David Levenson, "University Religion Departments and Teaching about the Bible in Public High Schools: A Report from Florida," SBL Forum. Online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=198.
Steven L. McKenzie, review of The Bible Literacy Project, The Bible and its Influence (New York/Fairfield, VA: BLP Publishing, 2005). Online: http://www.sbl-site.org/Article.aspx?ArticleId=465.
People for the American Way, The Good Book Taught Wrong: Bible History Courses in Florida Public Schools (Washington, D.C.: People for the American Way, 2000). Online: http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/general/default.aspx?oid=1345 .
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