Members of the GOP this week debated and ultimately embraced an addition to the party’s platform that encourages public high schools to teach elective courses about the Bible, one of several moves that contributed to Republicans’ broad shift to the right.
Several GOP delegates said that they aren’t seeking to inculcate schools with Christianity, but they are trying to make sure that young people are acquainted with a document that has played a significant role in shaping Western culture.
“This is not designed to teach religion in the schools as a means of proselytizing,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative advocacy group, and a GOP delegate from Louisiana who supported the Bible-in-schools provision. “You can’t really fully understand the American form of government and society without some understanding of the Bible.”
Others said they want to give students a way to understand biblical allusions in Shakespeare and other literature, or want to honor U.S. history and the nation’s founders.
“The first Congress of the United States in 1789 called for the distribution of Bibles for all children in the United States at that time,” said Kansas delegate Kris Kobach. “This was an important principle that the Founding Fathers chose to embrace.”
But the role of religion in public schools — which are legally prohibited from promoting any particular faith — is an explosive issue. And even some members of the GOP — the political home to many who feel that the secularization of public schools has contributed to the nation’s moral decline — said that the party is going too far.
“I am a strong Christian, but I do not want any state legislature teaching the Bible. The churches should do that,” said Dave Johnson, a GOP delegate from Ohio, speaking Monday during the platform committee’s debate on the measure, which was broadcast on C-SPAN.
The committee debated for about 20 minutes before approving the following language on a voice vote:
A good understanding of the Bible being indispensable for the development of an educated citizenry, we encourage State legislatures to offer the Bible as literature curriculum in America’s high schools.
The full text of the draft platform has not yet been publicly released. It is expected to be introduced to and adopted by delegates at next week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Courts have long agreed that the Bible is worthy of study in public schools, so long as that study is academic and not devotional — in other words, so long as students are learning about what the Bible says, not that the Bible is the truth.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that the “Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities,” and that teaching it in public schools is constitutional if it is “presented objectively as part of a secular program of education.”
But that’s a big if. Experts and activists for the separation of church and state say it’s easy for a class that is constitutional in theory to cross a line and become unconstitutional in practice, depending on how teachers teach it and what lessons they use.
“If the public schools can teach it appropriately that’s fine, but it’s dangerous territory,” said Andrew Seidel, staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. “The problem we see is we often see teachers who don’t teach it in an objective or critical standpoint. They teach it from a Sunday school standpoint.”
State legislatures don’t need to pass laws to give schools the ability to teach Bible courses; the Constitution gives them that right. But several states, including Texas, explicitly allow for the teaching of such courses. “In a lot of ways this is just political grandstanding, appealing to a particular part of the Republican base that wants students to learn about the Bible in public schools,” said Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, a watchdog group.
In 2013, the Texas Freedom Network used public records requests to study the curriculum, lessons and assignments given to students in Bible-related courses in 57 districts and three charter schools.
Some districts were doing a good job treating the Bible’s contents as the subject of academic study, according to the organization’s analysis, conducted by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University. But many were not.
“Unfortunately, a fair number of courses are blatantly and thoroughly sectarian, presenting religious views as fact and implicitly or explicitly encourage students to adopt those views,” Chancey wrote.
Courses were rife not only with religious bias but also with factual errors, he found, and most were taught by teachers who had not taken any college-level courses in biblical, religious or theological studies. Some schools were using curriculum materials that presented the Bible as historical fact, and others used materials that explicitly called on students to adopt one particular faith.
For example, the preface of a book used in the Dayton Independent School District reads: “May this study be of value to you. May you fully come to believe that ‘Jesus is the Christ, the son of God.’ And may you have ‘life in His name.'”
In contrast, Chancey described other assignments and curriculum as academically rigorous and constitutionally sound. Students in the Grapevine Independent School District, for example, were asked to show their understanding of literary devices — such as simile, metaphor, allusion and personification — by writing about how those devices are used in Psalm 103.
Chancey, who is now working on a book on the history of Bible courses in public schools nationwide, said that teaching about the Bible in a legal fashion is easier said than done.
“Even with the best of intentions, people’s own biases creep into their presentation of the material,” Chancey said. And occasionally, he said, “some teachers use these courses deliberately as Trojan Horses to promote their own religious beliefs over others.”
In Chancey’s view, the call for teaching about the Bible is the Republican party’s response to the growing numbers of Americans who identify with no religion, or with religions other than Christianity.
“The timing of this is not accidental. It’s a reaction to the current demographic trends and the increasing Christianization of party elites,” he said. He said he believes that an “educated citizenry” needs an understanding of all major world religions, not just Christianity.
Questions about how Bible courses would be taught in schools came up only briefly during Monday’s GOP platform committee debate. Brandon Smart, a delegate from American Samoa, raised concerns that the language was unnecessary in order to allow for Bible-as-literature courses, and was problematic because it referred to giving students a “good understanding” of the Bible. Emphasizing his belief that the Bible is the word of God, and expressing skepticism that public schools could give students a “good understanding” of it, he proposed that the language be stripped from the party platform.
“Who’s going to be teaching the Bible? And what are they going to be teaching about the Bible?” Smart said. “Are we going to teach that it’s a historical document that is no longer relevant? Are we going to make sure that it’s the actual word of God?”
But most delegates supported the measure. One said that stripping the language out would leave the impression that “the Republican platform has thrown out the Bible.” Another, Jim Carns, of Alabama, said that it was important to encourage Bible-related classes because “Americans have been watching as we’ve slowly eroded the foundation of this country.”