A Bill Too Far: Teaching the Bible in Wyoming(This op-ed appeared in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle February 6, 2013)
By Mark Chancey
Professor of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
University of Wyoming
HB0130 was no doubt introduced with the best of intentions. It creates high-school level elective on the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament and New Testament to foster students' cultural literacy. The bill correctly notes the influence of the Bible on "law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values and culture," and one might add religion to that list. Its supporters emphasize that the classes created by this bill would not promote religious views, and the bill has provisions prohibiting both the promotion and the disparagement of particular religious views. What could go wrong?
First of all, as far as we could determine no biblical scholar was consulted in the preparation of this bill. Unfortunately, the best of intentions are not enough to ensure that material taught for this class will be in a manner that respects the diverse beliefs of students and the larger community and that adheres to constitutional parameters. It is not altogether clear that Wyoming legislators are in agreement on what the language of this bill means, HB0130 Education-elective academic bible study. One legislator has stated that the bill will not advocate for a Bible class but will allow Bible readings to be used in other classes as supplemental material. Another believed that the bill would create a class that is able to reference the "Bible in discussing world lit, political theory, art history, or whatever." A third legislator indicated this bill referred to a religious studies class and that all types of scripture must be presented, and not just the Bible. If legislators are unclear of the intent of this bill, then what kind of class will be created by the school districts themselves? But more importantly, there is no language in the present bill regarding the academic qualifications of those who would teach this class.
Our concern is that there is the distinct possibility that this bill will allow teachers with no academic background in biblical studies to teach a Bible class. We certainly don't want teachers teaching any subject in which they have no academic qualifications, and that would include a class on the Bible.
Wyoming is not the only place where Bible courses are being discussed. In fact, Texas Bible courses have also gotten quite a bit of attention recently--mostly because of the ways in which many of them missed the marks of constitutionality and academic quality.
The Bible bill Texas passed in 2007 appears to be the model of the bill Wyoming is considering, and it had even more detailed provisions on how to keep schools on the straight and narrow. A study one of us recently published demonstrated that all too often such courses clearly favored particular religious beliefs, sometimes trivializing or even disparaging others. To make matters worse, some courses served up scripture with a side dish of pseudo-scholarship.
That study discovered that most courses were taught wholly from a Protestant perspective, ignoring almost entirely Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and Jewish perspectives.
A surprising number of courses overtly promoted religious doctrine, such as belief in biblical inspiration or the Bible's complete historical accuracy. One course included topics such as "the exact point before time when Lucifer was cast out of the Third Heaven," "the relationships we will have with each other in the Third Heaven," and "which fruit Eve consumed in the Garden of Eden."
Classes often examined Judaism solely through Christian eyes, teaching students to read the Hebrew Bible as a set of predictions about Jesus (an interpretation Jews reject), or making the theological claim that God had rejected the covenant with the Jews in favor of a new one with Christians. One course even used a resource blaming Jews for killing Jesus--a claim that has contributed to anti-Semitism.
Pseudoscience made its way into multiple courses. Texas students learned that Genesis's 6-day creation story was correct when interpreted correctly, that the origin of different races could be traced back to Noah and that Africans were descendants of his cursed son Ham, and even that NASA had discovered a missing day in time corresponding to the biblical story of the sun standing still (Joshua 10). In one class, students spent two days watching a video exploring the theory that biblical angels might have been space aliens.
Ultimately, only 11 courses out of 60 taught in Texas in 2011-2012 avoided these sorts of serious pitfalls. What went wrong in Texas? 3 things: No meaningful course standards were developed to give teachers guidance, there was no expectation that teachers had ever taken an academic religion course, and no training was provided to help teachers navigate the challenges. Instead, Texas encouraged districts to send teachers into a minefield without a map.
The Wyoming bill repeats all of these problems. In every other subject, we expect teachers to have expertise before teaching a class, and we give them standards to follow. Why not in Bible? Why does a Bible class deserve less respect than a history or mathematics class?
We strongly suggest that this bill be amended to ensure that textbooks and curricula have endorsements and contributions from scholars with expertise in religious studies (the Religious Studies Department at the University of Wyoming is an obvious option). The publishers of proposed textbooks and curriculum should be required to demonstrate clearly that they have used a broad array of sources and have engaged with an extensive range of educational and religious groups to ensure that their curricula are fair and balanced and do not promote one particular religious viewpoint or church teaching. Teachers should be required to have had substantial course work in biblical studies from accredited colleges and universities.
When it comes to teaching the Good Book in a public school in a constitutionally and academically appropriate way, good intentions alone aren't enough. Don't let Wyoming make a Texas-sized mistake.