The Trouble of Teaching Biblical Content

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Ah Texas, outside of South Carolina, it is hard to think of a state with more percolating church-state issues. Their judges sanction religiously-motivated torture of teenage girls, they pass laws that their own research tells them will privilege Christian expression, and they aren’t too keen on the religious freedom of non-Christian faiths. So is it any wonder that they passed a controversial law mandating a Bible-study elective in their public schools, or that schools taking advantage of this new freedom are abusing it?

“Mark Chancey, associate professor in religious studies at Southern Methodist University, has studied Bible classes already offered in about 25 districts for the Texas Freedom Network. The study found most of the courses were explicitly devotional with almost exclusively Christian, usually Protestant, perspectives. It also found that most were taught by teachers with no academic training in biblical, religious or theological studies and who were not familiar with the issues of separation of church and state. ‘Some classes promote creation science. Some classes denigrate Judaism. Some classes explicitly encourage students to convert to Christianity or to adopt Christian devotional practices,’ Chancey said. ‘This is all well documented, and the board knows it.'”

You can read Mark Chancey’s full report, here. The Texas Freedom Network, far from being an atheist organization, actually supported the legislation that allowed for Bible-based electives. Their problem is that the Texas State Board of Education passed implementation guidelines that they claim throws school districts and teachers “under the bus” due to vague language that will put schools on a collision course for multiple lawsuits.

“The board majority then rammed through a set of vague standards that fail to offer a shred of guidance about the specific content that should be in these courses. Based on extensive research, we know for a fact that classes already based on these general standards in Texas school districts fail to meet even minimal standards for academic rigor. Even worse, those public school districts — sometimes unknowingly — create courses that promote the religious beliefs of the teacher and outside religious groups over those of the students, their families and other taxpayers.”

Texas State Attorney General Greg Abbott seems rather unconcerned about these implementation guidelines, saying they “pass constitutional muster”. Though it is hard to see how he could know that, since classes developed under the new guidelines haven’t been submitted, or tested in a court of law.

The real problem with this law, these guidelines, and “elective Bible study” is that they weren’t created in good faith. They were simply another salvo in the ongoing “culture war” between the forces of “godless secularism” and those batting for team Jesus. A real alternative to this conflict would have been to replace “Bible study” with a general religious education course. Spanning history, and including texts as varied as the Iliad & Odyssey, the Bhagavad Gita, the Talmud, the Qur’an, the Tripi?aka, and the Bible. Favoring none, and exploring how these different texts have shaped history, art, and culture.

Instead of a true learning experience concerning religion, we have instead a powder keg of potential lawsuits, sectarian Christian teachers using already existing classes as a cudgel, and students having to pick between no exploration of religion at all, or thinly veiled Christian indoctrination. Religious minorities, as per the usual, are all but silenced in this debate. This is a clear example of why exclusively Bible-oriented classes need to be opposed. Not because we fear the Bible, or hate Christianity, be because such policies almost always lead to abuses, and allow the Christian majority to run roughshod over the freedoms of non-Christians.