Curriculum and the Culture Wars

Debating the Bible's Place in Public Schools

by Melissa Deckman (Volume editor) Joseph Prud'homme (Volume editor)
©2014 Textbook VIII, 222 Pages


Curriculum and the Culture Wars offers a fresh perspective on perennial debates about the role of religion in public schools, focusing on the intersection of religion and curriculum. This debate has been renewed in part due to the growth of elective Bible courses in public schools in many parts of the country. The first half of the book presents new scholarship on the use of the Bible in schools, including a historical analysis of what the Founders had to say about the use of the Bible in public education, a more current assessment of the politics behind the elective Bible class movement in the early twenty-first century, and a critique of such educational programs from constitutional and pedagogical perspectives. This edited volume also offers new insights into long-standing battles that pit religious and secular advocates against one another in the areas of evolution and sex education and considers whether school choice programs that would allow parents the right to send their children to sectarian schools are an affront to promoting the goals of a liberal democracy.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Authors
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1 Introduction: Melissa Deckman
  • Bibliography
  • 2 A Handbook for Republican Citizenship? The American Founders Debate the Bible’s Use in Public Schools: Daniel L. Dreisbach
  • The Bible and American Public Education
  • The Founders and the Bible
  • The Founders Debate the Bible’s Place in Education
  • The Bible as a Textbook for Schools
  • A Handbook for Civic Virtue
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 3 Religious Literacy in Public Schools: Teaching the Bible in America’s Classrooms: Melissa Deckman
  • The Bible in Public Schools: A Brief History
  • Teaching the Bible in Public Schools, Post-Schempp
  • State Legislative Policy on Bible Courses
  • Other State and Local Policy
  • Role of Bible Literacy Interest Groups
  • National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools
  • Bible Literacy Project
  • Comparisons with Previous Movements That Link Religion and Education in Public Schools
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 4 Studying the Bible in Public Schools: Sounds Good in Theory, But …: The Rev. Barry W. Lynn
  • Promoting the Bible in Public Schools Today
  • Different Goals Require Different Approaches
  • There Is a Lack of Unbiased Curriculum Materials
  • There Is a Lack of Teacher Training
  • Biblical Scholarship Highlights Unpleasant Facts
  • People Operating in Bad Faith, or, Those With Unrealistic Expectations and Hidden Agendas Remain a Problem
  • Bibliography
  • 5 Teaching About the Bible in Public Schools: A Religious Studies Framework: Diane L. Moore
  • American Academy of Religion Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K–12 Public Schools in the United States
  • Introduction
  • The American Academy of Religion
  • Overview of Guidelines
  • Part 1: Why Teach about Religion?
  • Part 2: Religion, Education, and the Constitution
  • Guidelines for Teaching About Religion
  • Part 3: How to Teach About Religion
  • Introduction
  • Approaches to Teaching About Religion
  • A Note About Textbooks
  • A Note About Media Literacy and Religion
  • Premises of Religious Studies
  • Religions Are Internally Diverse
  • Religions Are Dynamic
  • Religions Are Embedded in Culture
  • Relevance of the AAR Guidelines for Teaching About the Bible
  • Assessing Curricula
  • The National Council for Bible Curriculum in Public Schools (NCBCPS)
  • The Bible Literacy Project
  • The Society of Biblical Literature
  • Why Privilege the Bible?
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 6 American Public Opinion and the “Culture War” Politics of Teaching Human Evolution: George F. Bishop, Misook Gwon, and Stephen T. Mockabee
  • Darwin’s Dangerous Idea
  • Origins and Evolution of the “Culture Wars”
  • Intersections with the Culture Wars Today
  • American Beliefs about Human Origins
  • Public Opinion on Teaching Evolution and “Its Alternatives”
  • An Alternative Perspective of the Polls
  • Public Awareness and Public Ignorance
  • Creationism
  • Evolution
  • Intelligent Design
  • Objections and Counterarguments
  • Question-Form Effects
  • Politics and Future of the Evolution Controversy
  • Appendix: Wording of PFAW Questions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 7 Below the (Bible) Belt: Religion and Sexuality Education in American Public Schools: Mark Carl Rom
  • The Worldview Problem
  • The Invisible Hand of Religion
  • The (Sometimes) Visible Hand of Religion
  • The Battle Over Science and Scientific Expertise
  • Public Opinion
  • Programmatic Effectiveness
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 8 State versus Parental Control of Education: Kenneth Godwin and Richard S. Ruderman
  • The Fear of Parental Control
  • Different Types of Liberalism
  • Lockean Liberalism
  • John Dewey and the Case for a More Expansive State Role in Education
  • Comprehensive Liberalism: Amy Gutmann and Liberal Democratic Education
  • William Galston and Political Liberalism
  • Summary
  • Is There Empirical Evidence That Fundamentalist Christian Schools Teach Intolerance?
  • Conclusion: Choice, the Rights of Parents, and Modern Democracy
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • 9 Conclusion: Joseph Prud’homme
  • Objections over the Manner of Biblical Instruction
  • Overestimating Fears of Irreligion among Conservative Christians
  • Conservative Christian Critiques of Sex Education: A Reconsideration
  • Notes
  • References
  • About the Authors
  • Index


The authors wish to thank all of the contributors for their excellent work. We are also grateful for the support we received from the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College, as well as the Office of the Dean and Provost, for help in sponsoring a talk that featured the work of three of the contributors featured in the book. We are especially grateful for the work of Washington College student Emily Blackner, who carefully proofread the manuscript, tracking down errant sources and pointing out authors’ omissions. We thank Heidi Burns, executive editor at Peter Lang, and Sarah Stack and Jackie Pavlovic, production supervisors at Peter Lang, for their fine work in helping edit the final product. And, finally, both authors would like to acknowledge the love and support they receive from their respective families, especially Sean, Mason, and Gavin Fallon and Cyndi, Marilyn and Christian Prud’homme.

Grateful acknowledgment is hereby made to copyright holders for permission to use the following copyrighted material:

The AAR Religion in the Schools Task Force, Diane L. Moore, Chair. Guidelines for Teaching About Religion in K–12 Public Schools in the United States. Atlanta: American Academy of Religion © 2010. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. ← vii | vii → ← vii | 1 →




Melissa Deckman

In 2010, the Texas Board of Education—the statewide body that governs public schools in Texas—voted to revise its social studies curriculum. Led by a group of outspoken social conservatives, the board narrowly approved changes that, among other things, emphasized the role of religion in late eighteenth-century America, cast McCarthyism in a more positive light, and taught students about prominent conservative political interest groups and figures, such as the Moral Majority, the Heritage Foundation, and Phyllis Schlafly while removing references to liberal political icons such as the late Senator Ted Kennedy (Knickerbocker 2010; Paulson 2010). According to outgoing conservative Texas Board member Don McElroy, such changes were a long overdue correction to the liberal bias that dominates most social studies and history texts. He told a reporter (Shorto 2010) from the New York Times that

textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict. But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.

While conservatives applauded the move, many historians and liberal groups denounced the curriculum changes as partisan, ideological, and historically inaccurate (see Birnbaum 2010; Knickerbocker 2010; Paulson 2010).

The promotion of more conservative history and social studies standards in the Texas state curriculum, including the emphasis on religion’s influence in the newly formed United States, is just the latest salvo in the ongoing battle of the culture wars in public schools. Religion’s role in public schools has changed dramatically since the Supreme Court’s Engel and Schempp decisions in the early ← 1 | 2 → 1960s. These decisions banned the public recitation of prayer and state-sponsored Bible reading in public schools as violations of the First Amendment clause against the establishment of religion. Such legal challenges, coupled with later curricular changes that also threatened the religious norms of many Americans, such as the instruction of sex education, the promotion of multicultural studies, and the move to set new science standards by teaching evolutionary theory, have prompted a variety of political and legislative actions within numerous school districts, state boards of education, state legislatures, and even Congress.

In many school districts, fear of political controversy and litigation has often made public schools hesitant to teach about or even acknowledge religion in most classrooms. The result, according to Stephen Prothero (2007), religious studies professor at Boston College, is a nation of citizens who are “religiously illiterate.” Prothero’s best-selling Religious Literacy documents the lack of basic knowledge the majority of Americans have about both Christianity (America’s dominant religion) and other religions. To counter this trend, a new political and educational movement advocates the addition of an elective course on Bible studies in America’s high schools. Proponents believe such courses will allow these students to better understand Christianity’s role in American culture (past and present), while opponents fear that such courses, rather than teaching about Christianity, are designed to promote a sectarian version of conservative Christianity, which raises a host of constitutional challenges. Even in school districts that do not offer an elective course on the Bible (most still do not, but the numbers are growing), religion finds its way into many subject areas (e.g., science, sex education, and civics) addressed in public schools. This book will examine the many political, constitutional, and cultural concerns raised when religion directly intersects with the public school curriculum.

The first part of the book considers several perspectives on the growth of elective Bible courses in public schools. In chapter 2, Daniel Dreisbach places the current debate about the Bible’s suitability in public schools in historical context. Examining the place of the Bible in American education through the eighteenth to the nineteenth centuries, Dreisbach pays particular attention to the founders’ divergent views concerning the Bible as an appropriate educational tool. Heavily influenced by Enlightenment critiques of religion, dissenters such as Thomas Jefferson believed that young students’ exposure to the Bible in educational settings should be limited. Other founders, such as Benjamin Rush and Fisher Ames, passionately argued that the Bible deserved a prominent place in educating young people, believing that it would be indispensable for fostering civic virtue and shoring up support for the new constitutional system of ← 2 | 3 → republican government. Dreisbach’s work demonstrates that perhaps there really is nothing new under the sun (to borrow a biblical phrase), as political debates about the Bible’s role in educating the young from two centuries past echo similar arguments in today’s debates.

Turning to the twenty-first century, in chapter 3 Melissa Deckman examines current local and state efforts that endorse and promote elective Bible courses in American public schools, including an analysis of legislation passed by five state legislatures since 2006. Two prominent interest groups have emerged promoting Bible elective courses in public schools—complete with competing curricula—but with very different origins and style. Deckman profiles both organizations and assesses their political strategies and success. She also considers how the political activism of Bible course advocates compares with the grassroots activism of the Christian Right, which has been actively involved in school board politics for more than two decades.

In chapter 4 Barry Lynn, Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, examines the constitutionality of elective Bible courses in public schools. As with Dreisbach, Lynn compares the current debate on elective Bible courses with American history, demonstrating that the role of religion in public schools has always been controversial. He then turns his attention to the promotion of the Bible in public schools today. While he acknowledges that teaching about religion in and of itself is not inappropriate, he questions the need to isolate teaching about the Bible in a separate course and advocates that a smarter approach would be to teach about the Bible and religion more generally across the curriculum.

Diane L. Moore, from Harvard Divinity School, makes the case in chapter 5 for the importance of religious instruction in public schools as a way to overcome religious illiteracy. Moore has a unique vantage point as the chair and lead author of the American Academy of Religion’s (AAR) Religion in the Schools Task Force, which in April 2010 published guidelines for teaching about religion in K–12 public schools. While eschewing a faith-based approach to teaching and learning about religion, the AAR believes proper instruction that promotes awareness about and exposure to a variety of religions, but does not promote or denigrate any religion, is both appropriate and necessary to diminish the antagonism that ignorance about religion can fuel among Americans. We republish sections of those guidelines here, and Moore adds original commentary that holds particular relevance for teaching the Bible as an elective course.

While the push for elective Bible courses is a fairly new political development in American education politics, political skirmishes over evolution ← 3 | 4 → and sex education are now familiar events within public schools and are often spearheaded by religious activists. Chapter 6, by George Bishop, Misook Gwon, and Stephen Mockabee, examines the evolution versus creationism debate through the lens of public opinion and recent politics. While political activists who advocate for the inclusion of evolution “alternatives,” such as creationism or intelligent design, in public schools often point to public opinion polls to shore up support for their positions, Bishop, Gwon, and Mockabee show that such public opinion is largely tenuous as the American public has little understanding of the basic tenets of evolution, creationism, or intelligent design. Their chapter also chronicles more recent political attempts to challenge the instruction of evolution, such as state legislators’ efforts in Louisiana and Tennessee to pass legislation aimed at considering the strengths and weaknesses of evolution in public school classrooms—a move that appears to be gaining strength in many Southern legislatures.

In chapter 7 Mark Rom takes a fresh look at the politics of sex education, in which the past decade has borne witness to two important trends: a massive infusion of federal funds promoting abstinence-based education, and a movement to discuss more openly and promote dialogue about sexual orientation. Rom demonstrates that political activists who promote abstinence- only education (AO) versus those who promote comprehensive sex education (CSE) have fundamentally different worldviews, which makes compromise exceptionally challenging despite these activists having ostensibly the same goal: to delay sexual activity among America’s youth. Although AO advocates are often motivated by their conservative religious beliefs, their public advocacy to teach America’s public school kids to abstain from sex until (heterosexual) marriage is largely void of religious content given constitutional concerns. As a result, AO advocates need to promote secular goals. The result, as Rom details, is a fiercely fought battle over how empirical studies examining the effectiveness of AO and CSE programs are interpreted.

An obvious benefit of private, religious schools for religious parents is a greater degree of curriculum design and control from state regulatory bodies so battles about evolution and sex education are often minimized, as private schools are freer to teach classes in ways that support their own theological beliefs. Some critics of sectarian schools, however, worry that such schools represent a direct challenge to liberal democracy’s core belief that vital to maintaining a democracy is an educated citizenry holding tolerant views. In an age in which fierce battles have been wrought over the expansion of school choice and voucher programs—programs that allow parents to spend public funds to send their children to private, often religious schools—Kenneth ← 4 | 5 → Godwin and Richard Ruderman in chapter 8, examine the philosophical underpinnings of liberal opposition to school choice, specifically, and sectarian education, more broadly. They see, based on a philosophical approach and an empirical assessment, no conflict between promoting the goals of a liberal democracy through religious education and allowing parents to have the primary choice in where and how to educate their children. Godwin and Ruderman compare levels of civic knowledge, support for volunteerism in the community, and political tolerance among high school students in public schools and fundamentalist Christian academies and find that students from fundamentalist academies actually outperform their public school counterparts on such measures. Their article adds a unique perspective to the debate about school choice and concludes that perhaps funding of religious schools by taxpayers may not be a bad thing in terms of liberal democratic theory.

Finally, Joseph Prud’homme, in chapter 9, not only summarizes the major findings from this edited volume, he directly challenges some of the assumptions made by several of this work’s authors regarding the underlying political motivation of conservative Christians engaged in battles about the instruction of the Bible, evolution, and sex education in public schools. Prud’homme argues that many conservative Christians may, in fact, be opposed to the teaching of the Bible in public schools. Building on a point first raised by Barry Lynn in chapter 4, Prud’homme lays out a scenario in which many conservative Christians may be unhappy with the manner in which the Bible is likely to be taught in public schools if such instruction were done in a secular or—in his terms—“museumified” way. Prud’homme challenges the assumptions made by Bishop and colleagues in chapter 6 and Rom in chapter 7 that conservative Christian opposition to the instruction of evolution and sex education is rooted in fears about rising secularism or is strictly based on a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. Rather than exercising a merely “reflexive resistance borne out of their religious conviction,” Prud’homme makes the case that conservative Christians also justify their political activism by using nonreligious arguments to challenge either the Darwinian account of the origins of life from a scientific perspective or by calling into question the tenacity of comprehensive sex education by using reason-based arguments. In sum, Prud’homme argues that social scientists should consider the internal perspective of conservative Christian thought on these matters for a more nuanced portrayal of the reasons that such activists become engaged in a cultural war over public school curriculum. ← 5 | 6 →


Birnbaum, Michael. 2010. “Historians Criticize Proposed Textbook Changes as ‘Partisan’; Texas Has Broad Reach; Jefferson, Hip-Hop Would Be Played Down.” Washington Post, March 18. A3. www.washingtonpost.com.


VIII, 222
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2012 (November)
historical analysis politics evolution liberal democracy sex education
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 222 pp.

Biographical notes

Melissa Deckman (Volume editor) Joseph Prud'homme (Volume editor)

Melissa Deckman is Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science and the Louis L. Goldstein Associate Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College. She earned her PhD in Political Science from American University. She is the author of School Board Battles (2004), which won the Hubert Morken Award, given biennially by the American Political Science Association for the best work on religion and politics. She is also a co-author of Women with a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy (2005) and the textbook Women and Politics: Paths to Power and Political Influence, now in its second edition with Pearson/Prentice Hall (2011). She is the author or co-author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and is currently researching the intersection of gender and religion in the Tea Party movement. Joseph Prud’homme is Assistant Professor of Political Science and director of the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture at Washington College. He works in the areas of political philosophy, legal studies, and theoretical approaches to religion in public life. He received his PhD in the Interdepartmental Program in Political Philosophy at Princeton University.


Title: Curriculum and the Culture Wars
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