By Alan Elsner
Since the U.S. Supreme Court banned the promotion of religion in public schools in 1963, the Bible has virtually disappeared from most American classrooms.
But in recent years, as evangelical Christians have grown in numbers and gained political clout in the United States, Bible studies have been creeping back into schools.
Now, a new textbook for high school students aims to fill a gap by teaching the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, in a nonsectarian, nonreligious way as a central document of Western civilization with a vast influence on its literature, art, culture and politics.
"It's not about belief. It's about crucial knowledge and knowledge belongs in our schools," said Chuck Stetson, a New York investment banker who is the driving force behind and co-author of "The Bible and Its Influence" -- a glossy, 387-page book recently released and now being tested in a small number of schools mainly on the West Coast.
Stetson knows he was stepping into a potential minefield. But he said polls have shown that over two-thirds of Americans want to see the Bible taught in public schools while only around 8 percent of schools were offering it.
The process of approving the book for use in schools differs from state to state and district to district. In some places, it can be added to the curriculum as an elective by the principal; other locales require the approval of a local school board and in some places the state itself would have to approve it. Stetson is hoping to see the book used by hundreds of school districts by the next academic year.
"This is the first student textbook we've had that is both constitutional and age appropriate," said Charles Hayes of the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan foundation that monitors free speech.
"It teaches the subject in a way that will satisfy people who take the Bible as their scripture, but it will also appeal to a broad range of students interested in becoming biblically literate," he said.
"The Bible and Its Influence" is not the only game in town. A North Carolina group called the National Council on Bible Curriculum in the Public Schools has a Bible course now being used in 316 school districts in 37 states.
'CROSSES THE LINE'
The Anti Defamation League has denounced this program, which uses the King James translation of the Bible as its text, saying it "blatantly crosses the line by teaching fundamental Protestant doctrine." But the group's legal counsel Mike Johnson denied this.
"Take the resurrection of Christ. A teacher cannot tell a classroom that it's a historical fact. That would be a violation of the Constitution. But a teacher can say that the Bible says it's a historical fact," he said.
"One can't teach that the Bible is objectively true, but one shouldn't teach that it's objectively false," he added.
"The Bible and Its Influence" sets out its ground rules and philosophy on its opening pages. "You are going to study the Bible academically, not devotionally. In other words, you are learning about the Bible and its role in language and culture," it tells its readers.
"You will be given an awareness of religious content of the Bible but you will not be pressed into accepting religion. You will study about religion as presented in the Bible but you will not be engaged in the practice of religion."
With prominent theologians of different religions and denominations among its editorial board, the authors made a serious effort to make sure that the book did not elevate one religion over any other.
"We caught quite a few factual mistakes, but I also looked for places where the Christian point of view was assumed. There were some and we made some changes," said Marc Stein, general counsel of the American Jewish Committee who reviewed the text before publication.
Still, there has been criticism of the book coming from both the political left and right. On the liberal side, Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said the book sanitized the effect of religion throughout history, by minimizing Christian support for slavery and Christian anti-Semitism.
"To teach religion objectively, you really have to teach the good, the bad and the ugly and this book only teaches the good," he said.
On the other side, Dennis Cuddy, a Christian conservative who has worked as a consultant for the U.S. Department of Education, said the book raised doubts about God and prompted students to ask the wrong questions.
"If you are going to teach the Bible, are you going to teach it as if it were the word of God? At the least, it should be taught as truthful. It shouldn't be presented as something that is false," he said.
But Joan Spence, a high school teacher in Battleground, Washington, said she as well as students of her elective English class on the Bible appreciated it very much.
"Before I had this book, I had to do all the research myself to teach a class on the Bible as literature. This book, with its many examples of art and literature, makes it easier to keep the class academic rather than religious," she said.