Celebrity Bibles in Public Schools

If you haven’t bothered reading the book, since you knew the movie would be coming out soon, your plan paid off.

Hollywood Christian power couple Roma Downey (“Touched by an Angel”) and Mark Burnett (“The Voice,” “Survivor”) have produced a ten-hour Bible series for the History Channel.  Their massive movie project is not the sum total of their Bible ambition.  As they wrote recently in the Wall Street Journal, they also want to see more Bible in public schools.

Evangelical Protestants have largely endorsed the new Bible series.  Emily Belz wrote in World Magazine that the parts she saw seemed “theologically orthodox.”  Writing in the Christian Post, George Tunnicliffe declared, “This Time, Hollywood Got It Right.”

In Burnett’s and Downey’s WSJ op-ed, they argue that cultural literacy demands a thorough knowledge of the Bible.  This is not a religious mandate, they insist, only an educational one.  Young people won’t understand basic cultural references without reading the Bible.

Their argument raises some perennial questions about the teaching of the Bible in public schools.

As they correctly note, the Supreme Court in 1963 explicitly stated that the Bible could and should be used in public schools.  It must not be read devotionally, Justice Tom Clark wrote, but it should be used to teach students about culture.

However, as we have seen recently, such Bible courses in Texas have often lapsed into evangelical exercises.  Professor Mark Chancey of Southern Methodist University found plenty of devotional training packed into public-school Bible classes.

Nor should this surprise us.  As I found in my study of the first decade of Protestant fundamentalism, Bible classes in public schools often attracted irresistible public support during the 1920s.  At that time, support usually came from Protestant activists, with opposition from Catholic and Jewish groups.  Such religious dissenters often insisted that “non-devotional” study was just a ruse, meant to sneak Protestant religiosity into public education through a back door.

Do Burnett and Downey want to sneak religious proselytization into public schools?  They say they do not.  Merely to understand Shakespeare, for instance, students should be familiar with Bible language and stories.  The Bible, the celebrities argue, is a foundational text of our culture.  Not including it in public schools means depriving students of basic cultural literacy.

“Can you imagine,” they ask,

“students not reading the Constitution in a U.S. government class? School administrators not sharing the periodic table of the elements with their science classes? A driver’s ed course that expected young men and women to pass written and road tests without having access to a booklet enumerating the rules of the road?”    

Of course, this is the second half of the Bible dilemma.

Not only do religious dissenters fear that purportedly non-devotional Bible classes will serve as a cover for proselytization, but dissenters, pluralists, and secularists fear precisely the celebrities’ attitude toward the Bible.

Burnett and Downey join the conservative evangelical Protestant tradition on the question of Bibles in public schools.

By insisting that the Bible is the cultural equivalent of the US Constitution in government, the periodic table in chemistry, or the road rules in driver’s ed, these Bible-loving celebrities suggest that the Bible is more than just a good book.  After all, the Constitution and the periodic table are more than just good things people should know about.  They are foundational documents that contain essential truths of government or chemistry.  The implication, though the celebrities would likely deny it, is that the Bible is more than just a storehouse of cultural referents.  The implication is that the Bible contains the eternal truths young people need.

By describing the Bible this way, Burnett and Downey suggest that the Bible is not only important for its cultural information, but also for its religious message.

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