Bible textbook could circumvent culture war

Staff and wire reports

WASHINGTON — Seeking to defuse a central controversy of the culture wars, a Bible advocacy group unveiled a new textbook Thursday that could open the door to widespread Bible courses in public high schools.

The textbook, titled “The Bible and Its Influence,” was written to thread a constitutional and legal needle by teaching, not preaching, about the Bible, its editors told Knight Ridder in an exclusive preview.

The book comes as the country renews its centuries-old debate over the proper role of religion in public life and public schools. Courts are reviewing whether it’s constitutional to include the phrase “One nation under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. Others argue over whether the Ten Commandments should be displayed in public buildings.

Clovis school board member Mark Lansford said he could not comment on new textbook itself since he has not yet seen it.

He said the deputy superintendent presents curriculum for the board’s approval, rather than textbooks, Lansford said.

But if administrators wanted to use the book, and the decision were controversial, Lansford said giving the new bible a thumbs up or a thumbs down for the Clovis High School could fall under board jurisdiction.

“If it becomes controversial, I think (administrators) would certainly want the board’s approval. But ultimately the decision comes back to the public. We answer to them,” Lansford said.

Although she could not comment on the book itself, Clovis Municipal Schools administrator Cindy Martin said the Bible is already taught at the high school in an elective course titled “Religions of the World.”

She said course focuses on “a variety of different religions of the world and how they have affected different civilizations.”

She said some elementary school students are introduced and tested on biblical phrases in the Accelerated Reading Program.

But that program, she said, also pulls quotes from “thousands of other books.”

Courts and school districts across the nation have wrestled for decades over how or whether to teach the Bible.

“This predates the evolution versus creationism debate,” said Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, who’s reviewed the book.
“We’ve had so many conflicts, so many lawsuits, on this issue. … This is finally something that most of us can recommend as an answer.”

Scholars have been looking for a way to teach about the Bible in public schools for years, said Sheila Weber, a vice president of the Bible Literacy Project, a Virginia group that’s publishing the 40-chapter book.

Obviously a source of faithful inspiration to many, the Bible is also a cultural touchstone that’s crucial to young students, Weber said. For example, she said, the works of Shakespeare include 1,300 biblical references. She also noted that 60 percent of the allusions in one advanced-placement literature course had biblical references such as “walking on water.”

The new book includes sections explaining the Bible’s influence on literature, art, music and history.

Many previous efforts to introduce the Bible to public schools have focused on a Christian interpretation, Weber said. Or they’ve been taught by teachers who often strayed too far into religion or too far from it.

The book, being published in time for school districts to consider for next year’s curricula, was designed to follow a set of guidelines on how to teach about the Bible in public schools while not endorsing one religion’s view and not offending people of faith.

The guidelines were approved by such groups as the American Federation of Teachers, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Council on Islamic Education and the People for the American Way Foundation, as well as the First Amendment Center.

“We think it reflects the standards we agreed to,” Haynes said. The other groups haven’t yet seen the textbook and couldn’t comment on it Wednesday.

Judith Schaeffer, the deputy legal director for People for the American Way, a liberal group that has opposed preaching in public schools, said the book must not endorse any religious perspective. For example, she said, it can’t say that the story of Adam and Eve represents mankind’s fall from grace. That’s a Christian view, she said.

“We are hopeful that it presents a lawful approach to teaching about the Bible,” she said.

The book doesn’t take sides in its account of Genesis. “Some read Genesis as a literal account of the mechanics of creation. Still others read it as a poem about God’s relationship with humans,” it says.

“Genesis offers an account of the origins of the world and the human race that both directly and indirectly has influenced world civilization and continues to influence it.”