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Dissecting the religious right's favorite Bible Curriculum.

BACK IN 1994 SOMEONE SENT ME an article from the Greensboro, North Carolina, News Record. I read it and was alarmed.

The story dealt with efforts to promote classes about the Bible in North Carolina public schools. Some schools were already offering the classes, and others were being pressured to do so. Proponents of the idea portrayed the courses as balanced and objective. The material was said to be nonsectarian and legally acceptable for public school curriculum.

But the article contained numerous clues that something was amiss. The reporter interviewed several students taking a Bible class in the town of Reidsville. One said he had learned "how Christ died on the cross for our sins." Another opined, "If we had the Bible in schools and had prayer in schools, I think it would be a better place."

Even the teacher told the newspaper, "I feel the Bible is God's word to us and can change people's lives."

The curriculum being used in Reidsville was produced by a group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS). I had never heard of the group, but a little digging soon uncovered some interesting facts: The group was tied to TV preacher D. James Kennedy (who died in September) and had been endorsed by an array of extreme religious right organizations.

The Council seemed to have come out of nowhere. It was run by a woman named Elizabeth Ridenour, a fundamentalist Christian activist who was prone to carping about how that mean old Supreme Court had kicked the Bible out of public schools.

A lot has happened in the thirteen years since I read that article. Americans United for Separation of Church and State and other civil liberties groups have spent that time warning public schools to stay away from the NCBCPS curriculum. A federal court declared portions of it unconstitutional, and it has been revised several times. But the curriculum hasn't gotten any more acceptable, and the people behind it remain determined to use it to sneak fundamentalism into public education.

Discussions about how to do a better job teaching about religion in public schools are suddenly all the rage again, and as a result the NCBCPS'S curriculum is getting another look by some public school officials. At long last, academic scholars are examining the curriculum as well.

Mark A. Chance), associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, has examined several editions of the NCBCPS's curriculum and reported his findings in the September 2007 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. His conclusions aren't positive.

Chancey notes that the curriculum lists no authors or editors and asserts the "strikingly low" level of overall quality:
 Early editions include hand-drawn charts and graphics. Most
 editions--with some improvement in the 2005b version--are replete
 with capitalization, punctuation, and sentence construction errors;
 factual errors; unsubstantiated claims; faulty logic; and unclear
 wording. Exercises are based almost entirely on memorization of
 biblical stories.

The curriculum, according to Chancey's report, is also saturated with a fundamentalist Protestant view of the Bible. One section, for example, introduces the argument that 40,000 animals could have easily fit on Noah's Ark with room to spare.

Chancey writes for a serious, peer-reviewed journal and employs a sober analysis. Yet I couldn't help laughing when he pointed out the rather unusual views held by one writer the NCBCPS relied on to buttress its claim that the Bible is literally true. The curriculum cites writer J. O. Kinnaman, who argued for biblical inerrancy. NCPCPS's Ridenour was apparently unaware (or didn't care) that Kinnaman was an eccentric who also argued that Jesus and Saint Patti traveled to Great Britain and that Jesus studied in India. (Perhaps this account is in one of those "lost books" of the Bible!) Kinnaman also claimed to have learned the secret of antigravity by examining devices from the lost continent of Atlantis.

Religion scholar Chancey concludes:
 The overall impression the various editions convey is of an
 inability to differentiate between pseudoscience, urban legends,
 fringe theories, and mainstream scholarship as well as between
 faith claims and nonsectarian descriptions. ... In short, students
 will leave this course with the understanding of the Bible
 apparently held by most members of the NCBCPS and with little
 awareness of views held by other religious groups or within the
 academic community.

I became alarmed when I learned that the curriculum also included U.S. constitutional history and that Ridenour was aligned with David Barton, a notorious pseudo-historian and promoter of "Christian nation" drivel. Sure enough, Chancey notes that the curriculum "provides little evidence of the robust discussions among the nation's founders about the relationship of church and state," distorts Thomas Jefferson's views, and fails to discuss James Madison's thinking at all. (This is kind of like teaching biology without mentioning Charles Darwin.) Instead, as Chancey reports, the curriculum offers students "a tendentious and at times misleading history implying that the separation of church and state is a modern aberration."

The NCBCPS claims that its curriculum is being used in hundreds of public schools. Ridenour has always refused to name the schools, so the numbers may be overstated. Nevertheless, we know the curriculum is being used in some districts. It was adopted for use in Odessa, Texas, last year. (And a group of parents is challenging it in court.)

Some would question whether the Bible can be taught objectively in public schools, given the range of thought on what that book is and what it was intended to do. Recent biblical scholarship has questioned some fundamentalist claims about the Bible, yet many public schools would be afraid to mention this scholarly consensus for fear of giving offense.

It's time to stop playing this game and quit pretending the Bible can readily be taught in a non-sectarian manner. A better approach would be to teach about religion across the curriculum when it's appropriate. An art appreciation course, for example, could discuss Renaissance-era religious paintings, and history courses could examine how religion has impacted society--in good and bad ways, of course.

Isolating the Bible, the primary book of Western religion, for a special course is bound to spark division. Those divisions are made all the deeper when constitutionally suspect curriculum materials produced by groups like the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools are brought into the picture.

Rob Boston is assistant director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
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Title Annotation:Church & State
Author:Boston, Rob
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Nov 1, 2007
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