Bible Guide For Public Schools Gets Jewish Okay

By Jennifer Siegel

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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In an effort to neutralize the growing popularity of a right-wing Bible textbook for public schools, two major Jewish organizations are backing an alternative study guide. But some liberal watchdogs warn that the alternative textbook also could lead teachers to violate the separation of church and state.

The new textbook, “The Bible and Its Influence,” has been endorsed by the American Jewish Congress and the Anti-Defamation League, as well as Catholic leaders and a wide range of liberal and conservative Protestants. The ADL and the AJCongress both have condemned another textbook, “The Bible in History and Literature,” used in more than 300 school districts across the country, according to its publisher.

A legislative fight over the two textbooks has erupted in Alabama, after the Democratic majority leader of the state’s House of Representatives, Ken Guin, introduced a bill earlier this month that would establish an elective high-school course using the study guide backed by the two Jewish groups. Religious conservatives say that Guin’s measure attempts to undermine support for “The Bible in History and Literature,” already used in some Alabama schools, while liberal critics say the bill is a thinly veiled attempt to promote Bible study in public schools.

The wrangling in Alabama underscores the difficult balance that Jewish groups are attempting to strike as they seek to maintain the church-state wall without alienating the general public or being tarred as anti-Christian by religious conservative activists. Even as many Jewish organizations are speaking out strongly for the need to battle religious conservatives on several church-state fronts, including efforts to introduce anti-evolution theories into public schools, some Jewish communal officials have sought a compromise on the issue of teaching about the Bible.

In response to questions from the Forward, officials at both the AJCongress and the ADL acknowledged some problems with the textbook they endorsed and said that they preferred comparative religion courses to classes focused solely on the Bible. But, officials at both organizations said, despite these misgivings, they felt compelled to offer an alternative to “The Bible in History and Literature,” which they described as a blatant attempt to push a right-wing Christian agenda in public schools.

There is this “other Bible curriculum that’s out there that’s absolutely horrendous. It’s just terrible,” said Marc Stern, general counsel of the AJCongress. Stern, who served as a content editor for “The Bible and Its Influence” and reviewed passages of the book before its release, said the new text fills a “political demand” for a more moderate study guide. Ellen Frankel, editor in chief of the Jewish Publication Society, also reviewed the new text before its release.

The other textbook, “The Bible in History and Literature,” is published by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a group supported by a number of religious conservative activists, including David Barton, whose Wallbuilders organization advocates against separating church and state. In 1995, during an interview with a Christian radio program, the national council’s president, Elizabeth Ridenour, said her group’s aim was “to expose kids to the biblical Christian worldview.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that public schools may not offer sectarian religious instruction but may teach about religion in a secular context for its historical, cultural or literary value. A federal court in 1998 ordered schools in Lee County, Fla., to stop teaching the New Testament section of the textbook.

Constitutional and religious scholars have said that “The Bible in History and Literature” advocates a fundamentalist Protestant interpretation of the Bible. It relies on the King James version of the Bible, defines “Scriptures” as the “Old and New Testament which make up God’s written word” and presents Jesus as the fulfillment of statements in the Old Testament, a tenet of Christian theology.

In addition, the curriculum directs teachers and students to resources and Web sites, including the Wallbuilders Web site, which explicitly advocate sectarian claims. It also recommends that students watch a Wallbuilders film, “The Foundations of American Government,” which attributes increases in sexually transmitted diseases, teen pregnancy, divorce and violent crime to the prohibition of official prayer in public schools.

The book also repeatedly adopts “a tone of assumed historicity,” said Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Dallas’s Southern Methodist University, who last summer released a highly critical report.

According to Chancey’s report, the national council’s textbook cites widely discredited archaeological and scientific theories to “prove” various biblical narratives. Referring, for example, to the story in Joshua 10 of the sun standing still, the text states, “There is documented research through NASA that two days were indeed unaccounted for in time” — a claim discounted by NASA’s Web site.

In contrast, the textbook backed by the two Jewish organizations states that various Jewish and Christian movements have different interpretations of the Bible and that some faith communities interpret it figuratively rather than literally. Colorful photos and illustrations depict biblical references in literature and art, subjects that receive scant attention in “The Bible in History in Literature,” despite its title.

“The Bible and Its Influence” “solved a lot of our issues about the difference between having devotional study, which is not allowed by the Constitution, … and academic study,” said Jim Wrye, a spokesperson for Guin. “It was a real solution.”

But at least one church-state watchdog, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, is skeptical because the publisher of “The Bible and Its Influence” is the Bible Literacy Project. The project’s founder, Chuck Stetson, has promoted Bible teaching. Stetson is chairman of School Ministries, a group that lobbies public schools to permit off-campus religious instruction during the school day.

Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United For Separation of Church and State, said he worried that the true goal of the textbook’s publisher was to introduce Bible courses in districts that do not currently have them. Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, ADL’s director of interfaith affairs, echoed this concern in an e-mail to the Forward, although his organization has endorsed the textbook.

“We are not happy with this move to teach the Bible as literature in the public school system,” Bretton-Granatoor wrote. While the ADL had called the textbook “acceptable” in a press release, he added, that is “a far cry from endorsing the curriculum.”

Some critics complain that the new textbook, like “The Bible in History and Literature,” portrays the impact of Judeo-Christian thought on American culture as overwhelmingly positive. “Normally a good textbook has — as Clint Eastwood might put it — the good, the bad and ugly in it,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “This does not. This only has the good. Therefore, it is misleading.”

The new textbook features passages on a number of much-celebrated Christian Americans — including Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. But it does not feature any controversial figures from American history — such as southern segregationists — who also drew on the Bible.

The textbook also makes no mention of the debates running throughout American history on topics like evolution. A short section titled “The Bible and Science” relates the story of a doctor who justified the use of anesthesia by appealing to the Bible. The textbook concludes by quoting a Chinese scholar who searches for the secret to American success and concludes, “The heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.”

Lynn said that this “lopsided presentation” — while not necessarily unconstitutional — could lead teachers to misuse the book and expose them to lawsuits.

Responding to such objections, Stern said that given a choice, he would rather public schools offer classes in comparative religion rather than electives solely on the Bible. But, he said, “the good the book will do far outweighs any harm. Would I make every judgment call the final editors did? Probably not.”






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