Spring 2003, Vol. 6, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2003

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

The South:
The GOP Gets Religion

What Christian Right?

The Undetected Tide

Church Notes

The New Governing Party

The Bible in Memphis

The Decalogue in Montgomery


A World of Hurt

James in the Box

O Brother, Who Art Thou?


What Would Jesus Drive?

The Bible in Memphis
By Stephen R. Haynes

During the 1990s the image of American public schools as religion-free zones came under concerted attack, not only from conservative evangelicals eager to get God back into the classroom but also from educators seeking to provide public school students with a better grasp of the role of religion in history and culture. For both groups, a prime goal was inclusion of the Bible in school curriculums.

Yet as states ventured to introduce (or re-introduce) religion into their schools, the Bible education movement suffered a series of legal and public relations setbacks. In 1996, a federal court in Mississippi declared Bible instruction in the Pontotoc County School District unconstitutional, finding that it was simply designed to advance Christianity. Two years later, a federal court in Florida ordered the Lee County School District to abandon a New Testament curriculum that presented Jesus’ miracles and resurrection as historical fact.

These cases put public school Bible education on the radar screen of the national media, which proceeded to examine the practices of obscure school districts in the rural South that had been teaching the Bible for decades. In June of 2000, Craig Timberg of the Washington Post reported that the public school Bible instructor in Chilhowie, Virginia (a “town of 2,000 square in the Bible belt”) also worked as youth pastor for the local Baptist church and tested students on “the six proofs that the Bible is God’s word.” Charles Haynes, a leading proponent of teaching religion objectively and neutrally “across the curriculum,” was quoted as saying that “most Bible electives being taught in the South right now are probably unconstitutional.”

Fear of scrutiny by the media and watchdog groups apparently contributed to the Georgia State Board of Education’s December 1999 decision not to fund Bible courses. Board chairman Otis Brumby defended the decision in unusually blunt terms: “The net effect of our approval would likely be minimal in terms of student enrollment but massive in terms of costly litigation.” A story on the decision by the AP’s Rachel Zoll, published in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, pointed out that “while Georgia debates whether to teach the Bible in schools, the practice is entrenched in parts of Tennessee”—including Hamilton, Rhea, McNairy, Greene, Union, Hickman, Bradley, and Maury counties.

This revelation of ongoing Bible courses in counties throughout the state caught the attention of the Shelby County School Board, which oversees public education in suburban Memphis. At its January 2000 meeting, the board asked the district staff to research the feasibility of offering Bible courses in Shelby County.

The county staff contacted officials in Hamilton County (Chattanooga) and developed a proposal patterned closely on that district’s long-standing Bible curriculum. In March 2000, the board voted 6-1 to authorize a Special Course Application for “Bible History I” and “Bible History II” and to submit the application to the State Department of Education.

Two months later, the state turned down the application. In a letter to Shelby County Superintendent James B. Mitchell dated May 2, Tennessee education commissioner E. Vernon Coffey expressed his opinion that the proposal, which “include[d] the terms ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Testaments and lists the Bible as the only text with no secular text(s) included, has the potential of facing both legal and educational challenges.”

After complaining to the state commissioner that the county had received “discriminatory treatment,” new board chairman David Pickler directed county staff to prepare a proposal for a course on comparative religion. (In conversations with education officials in Nashville, district administrators were led to believe that a comparative religion course would have no problem receiving state approval.) But at its November 16 meeting, the board rejected the alternative proposal.

“It’s just altogether a bad idea to teach Hinduism, Buddhism, and voodoo and whatever else in our schools,” declared board member Wyatt Bunker. The next day Bunker told the Commercial Appeal, “If they don’t want God in our schools, then we’re not going to have Gandhi in our schools.”

A November 20 Commercial Appeal editorial titled “Bigotry 101” set the tone for media reaction: “It would be comforting to know that members of the school board are in favor of learning, but unfortunately that’s not something that can be taken for granted.” In dismissing the comparative religion course, the board had acted “in an anti-intellectual mood that would have done Mao proud,” the paper charged. “Ranting against minority religions a few miles down the road from a beautiful new Hindu temple attended by tax-paying American citizens is inconsiderate, offensive, and a terrible message of intolerance for any children within earshot.”

In mid-December, Commercial Appeal reporter Michael Erskine investigated teaching practices in Hamilton County, one of six Tennessee districts with permanent approval to teach the Bible. “We teach it just as you would teach a history book,” said Harriet Bond, a former Hamilton County Bible teacher. “We teach as if it’s historical fact from Abraham on.” The article pointed out that this was the very approach that had been overturned in Lee County. “That’s what we saw in Florida and what Shelby County wants to pursue,” said Judith Schaeffer, deputy legal director for People for the American Way.

Then, in the spring of 2001, Shelby County board members learned that a new Bible curriculum for use in public schools was under development by the Bible Literacy Project (BLP), a non-profit organization “dedicated to the academic and objective study of the Bible and its influence on Western Civilization.” The curriculum, which the BLP was hoping to pilot in five classrooms across the country in the fall, highlighted the interpretive perspectives of various religious communities. Ironically, it was Wyatt Bunker who brought the curriculum to the board’s attention.

While the board was confident that the BLP curriculum could pass muster with the state department of education, it had become apparent that state approval alone would not silence the opposition. As they awaited word on the fate of their second proposal, board members invited Matthew Hicks, the curriculum’s author, to lead a public forum in Memphis. But although the forum, which took place in January 2002, relieved the fears of some, Cheri DelBrocco of the Public Issues Forum (a local affiliate of the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State) warned that when Hicks returned to Virginia, “this board is going to be responsible for assuring the community that this is not going to be Sunday school class.”

Then, just as Shelby County’s two-year quest to receive state approval for Bible education was nearing a successful conclusion, there was a reminder of Tennessee’s checkered history of church, state, and public education. On February 8, 2002, a federal judge in Chattanooga ordered an end to the elementary school Bible classes that had been taught in Rhea County for the previous 51 years.

Reporters hastened to point out that Rhea County was the site of the infamous Scopes trial of 1925—not an entire coincidence, given that the weekly classes were being taught by students from Bryan College, an evangelical institution named for William Jennings Bryan himself. (The Commercial Appeal’s February 9 story ran under the headline “Judge Closes Bible Classes in ‘Monkey Trial’ County.”) Notwithstanding, in mid-February Shelby County received notice that “Hebrew History” had received conditional state approval for the 2002-03 school year. The course commenced at five Memphis-area high schools last fall.

Since December 1999, the Commercial Appeal has devoted more than 40 news articles, editorials, and columns to this issue. By standards of fairness and public service, it has been a mixed performance.

As the decision-making process went forward, news stories never gave comments by the course’s opponents the same critical scrutiny as those made by the course’s advocates. For example, in her March 31, 2000 article, “Bible History Closer for Shelby Schools,” Aimee Edmondson made no effort to evaluate a leading opponent’s claim that the class would be “little more than a cover for fundamental (sic) Christian indoctrination.” More than once, the paper referred to the proposed course as “Bible study.”

The slanted reporting was undergirded by strong editorial opposition to the Bible course. The Commercial Appeal’s first editorial on the issue (March 30, 2000) raised understandable concerns: “Who would teach the class? How would those instructors be trained? Which version or versions of the Bible, and accompanying vocabulary and materials, would the class use?”

But following the Bunker debacle, editorials repeatedly portrayed the proposed class as an unconstitutional attempt to (as the paper put it on December 3, 2000) “impose a Protestant evangelical course of ‘Bible history’ on a public school district.” A February 2001 editorial charged that Shelby County wanted to teach “Scripture much as it would be taught in Sunday school, while stamping the religious practices of the local majority with the government’s imprimatur.” School board members were, claimed the paper, looking for ways to “make Christianity the district’s official religion.”

When Shelby County identified the curriculum that would form the basis of its approved course in “Hebrew History,” the paper declared on July 22, 2001, “You Bet There’s a Place for Bible Class”—in church. On January 31, 2002, it grumpily noted that board members had “placed a higher priority on pandering to certain constituents than on maintaining responsible stewardship of the district’s scarce resources”—its last editorial word on the course to date.

Overall, the Commercial Appeal failed to clarify important issues raised by the story, instead exacerbating the natural tendency toward polarization on church-state issues. The pattern was set in its very first report of a possible Bible course, which quoted vehement proponents and opponents such as board member Joe Clayton, Tennessee ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg, and People for the American Way deputy legal director Judith Schaeffer but no one who might have articulated a more balanced view.

Subsequent stories reinforced the notion that there were just two views of the issue, mutually incompatible and equally unyielding. Not once in its coverage did the paper offer the perspective of a scholar of religion or the First Amendment.

It is hard to say whether the situation was helped or hindered by the Commercial Appeal’s capable religion writer David Waters, whose popular “Faith Matters” column appears three times a week on the front of the paper’s Metro section. Since the story broke, Waters has devoted eight columns to the issue, in the course of which his views have shifted dramatically.

In January 2000, he wrote that it was “about time” the county schools offered a class focused on “the most important book in history.” Every public school system, he argued, should include the Bible in its curriculum. In May, however, his tone began to change, as he characterized the proposed class as “Christian-oriented.”

In a November 29 column that referred to the board’s most outspoken Bible advocate as “Archie” Bunker, Waters declared, “Instead of comparative religion, board members say they want to offer a Bible history course. No they don’t. What they offered for state approval was a Bible-based class on Protestant evangelicalism. The state rejected that.” On December 6, he withdrew his support for the Bible class, which had been tendered “before it became obvious what some school board members were up to.” That column’s opening line was: “The Shelby County School Board has approved a new course for high school students. It’s called ‘New Testament Math: Why it all adds up to John 3:16.’”

During 2001, when the school board hitched its wagon to the new curricular approach, Waters regrettably let the issue drop. When he took it up again, he was back on board.

On January 20, 2002, the day before the county board’s vote on the new curriculum, a column headed “Curriculum So Fair, It May Be Inspired” declared, “[T]his isn’t a Bible class. This is a class about the Bible. Which is exactly what we need in public schools.” The following month, after the course received state approval, Waters congratulated county board members for taking religious liberty seriously and finding an “educationally enriching democracy enhancing Bible course.” Religion, he wrote, “is too important not to be taught in public schools.”

Last August, reporter Katherine Cromer began a back-to-school story by focusing sympathetically on one of the world history teachers preparing to teach “Hebrew History” to students who were for the most part from “Biblical literalist” backgrounds. After the school year started, however, the paper went silent. County administrators, convinced that reporters were interested only in stirring controversy, decided to deny media access to teachers and students.

Fortunately, access was not denied to academics. In visits to four of the five classrooms where the course is being offered, I was impressed with the teachers’ enthusiasm for the subject matter, their desire to make the Bible and its background accessible, and their management of the classroom. Indoctrination in Christianity, fundamentalist or otherwise, was non-existent.

When I asked students why they had elected to take the class, the most common responses were, “I am a Christian, but I don’t know much about the Bible” and “I want to learn other viewpoints on the Old Testament.” In both cases, what surfaced was a hunger for knowledge about a text they had engaged either superficially or from a single perspective.

David Waters reported my findings in his January 22 column—but it would have been far better had journalists been allowed to see for themselves.

For better or worse, persons on either side of the debate tend to invest the Bible-in-the-public-schools question with their deepest hopes and fears for our nation. Liberals who are committed to strengthening the “wall of separation of church and state” in an age of burgeoning religiosity see Bible education as a potentially disastrous breach in that wall and, perhaps, the beginning of the end for American democracy as we know it.

Many conservatives, meanwhile, view the public’s new openness to Bible education as an opportunity to “put God back into the public schools.” Teaching the Bible is necessary, they warn, if we are to slow our moral decline and avert national destruction.

In this environment of bifurcated thinking and near-apocalyptic rhetoric, we need to hear more voices that appreciate the constitutional issues associated with Bible education in the public schools, but at the same time recognize religious literacy as a safeguard to our democracy, a boon to tolerance in an age of increasing pluralism, and a way of combating some of the more extreme religious influences students are exposed to.

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