Video: Bible curriculum

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updated 8/3/2005 2:41:24 PM ET 2005-08-03T18:41:24

Students at one Texas high school load their backpacks with Bibles in addition to other textbooks.  The literature-based course, already used in 37 states, is the latest culture clash over religion.

Last April, the school board in Odessa voted to add the high school elective "Bible as Literature" course to its curriculum.  Supporters say it’s valuable as a literature class.  But, opponents say it teaches a narrow brand of Christianity and gets historical facts wrong.  So, is it teaching fact or faith? 

Chris Matthews debates this hot topic with Mike Johnson, a lawyer for the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools which provides the curriculum for the proposed course in Odessa.  Kathy Miller, President of the Texas Freedom Network, a group protesting the proposed Bible class, also plays Hardball. 

CHRIS MATTHEWS, ‘HARDBALL’ HOST:  Kathy Miller, what’s wrong with teaching the Bible as literature? 

KATHY MILLER, TEXAS FREEDOM NETWORK:  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with teaching the Bible as literature.  This curriculum does not do that.  This curriculum teaches a particular narrow perspective of faith, and it does so with a lot of errors. 

MATTHEWS:  Like what?  Give me some. 

MILLER:  Well, we can start with the sectarian nature.  It begins by saying that the Bible is the Old and New Testament, which is not what people of the Jewish faith believe.  It goes on to say that the Old Testament is comprised of 39 books, which is not what Catholics believe.

So, we have already narrowed out a large number of folks of faith in our country. 

MATTHEWS:  But everybody I know who is Jewish or Catholic or any Christian group knows there’s an Old Testament and there’s a New Testament.  Everybody knows that the Old Testament is generally believed in by Jewish people, and the New Testament is believed in by Christians, who also believe in the Old Testament.

Everybody knows everything you just said.  What is wrong with saying it in school? 

MILLER:  There is nothing wrong with saying it in school, so long as you are saying it in the way that you just did, Chris, which is to say, people of the Jewish faith don’t believe this, but it is what is commonly understood Christians. 

Instead of saying Christians believe in the Old and New Testament of the Bible, this curriculum says, the Bible is the Old and New Testament.  The reason it’s sectarian is that it takes a statement of faith and presents it as fact.  That belongs in a Sunday school, not in a public school. 

MATTHEWS:  OK, let me go over to Mike Johnson.  Your rebuttal, your defense of your program as a secular program fit for public school. 

MICHAEL JOHNSON, NATIONAL COUNCIL ON BIBLE CURRICULUM IN PUBLIC SCHOOLS:  That’s right.  Everything Kathy said is wrong, Chris.  The teachers of this course do it exactly as you just said.  They are trained and they are told the legal parameters.  The Supreme Court has said the Bible is worthy of its study for literary and historic qualities, as long as you present it objectively as part of the secular program of education. 

That’s exactly what the National Council’s curriculum does.  They have taken Kathy’s group, as they have a different political agenda here.  They have taken little excerpts out of the curriculum and they’ve taken them out of context. 

If you looked at another part of the curriculum, it would give equal treatment to the Jewish traditions, the Catholic traditions and everyone else’s. 

MILLER:  That is not the case. 

JOHNSON:  This is a survey of the Bible.  It’s not a Protestant course, as she said. 

MILLER:  A Biblical scholar from Southern Methodist University reviewed this curriculum and found all of the errors that I have mentioned and dozens and dozens more. 

MATTHEWS:  Well, which errors have you mentioned?  You haven’t mentioned any errors yet, as far as I know.  Tell me what errors you mentioned.

MILLER:  OK.  The book spells Hanukkah three different ways in three different places in the text. 

MATTHEWS:  So what? 

MILLER:  Well, I mean, we have a certain minimum standard of academic rigor we look for in any curriculum that is taught in the public schools. 

We wouldn’t accept a formula in geometry to look different in three different places in a geometry text book.  It shouldn’t be different in a textbook on the Bible. 

MATTHEWS:  Is that the main error you have come here to describe, that it doesn’t spell Hanukkah consistently? 

MILLER:  Oh, my goodness, no.  Oh, my goodness, no. 

JOHNSON:  That’s exactly what it is. 

MILLER:  They use creation science as the foundation of science in the Bible. 

MATTHEWS:  Give me another — give me the biggest error in the book, the Bible studies program, the biggest one you got. 

MILLER:  The biggest error in the book is the fact that pages and pages are lifted verbatim from questionable sources with little or no citations. 

MATTHEWS:  Like what? 

MILLER:  Like what?  There are entire sections on art history in the book that you could find on artontheweb.com, and if you read them paragraph-by-paragraph, they would be matched exactly in the curriculum, with absolutely no citation of that.  That’s a huge problem. 

We wouldn’t that accept that; we wouldn’t that accept that in a high school term paper. 

MATTHEWS:  What’s the error?  What’s the error?  I’m sorry, Kathy.  I missed it.  What’s the error here?

MILLER:  That’s an academic error. 

MATTHEWS:  You mentioned the misspellings.

MILLER:  I’m sorry.  That’s an academic error.

MATTHEWS:  Just tell me, what’s the error here?  Describe it.

MILLER:  I’m sorry.  If you want to talk about the errors that we elevate to scholarship, we elevate to scholarship a man named Dr. Kinnaman who in order to prove claims that are sectarian about the inerrancy of the Bible and historicity of the Bible they elevate this man.  They call him a respected scholar.  This is the same person who claimed to have found a secret entrance to the Great Pyramid of Giza and found documentation of the lost city of Atlantis, lost civilization of Atlantis? 

MATTHEWS:  Is there any validity to these?

JOHNSON:  Yes. 

MATTHEWS:  Let me just ask you this.  Do you honestly say here that this study program is not proselytizing? 

JOHNSON:  It is not proselytizing.  It is to educate and not indoctrinate, present and not proselytize. 

Kathy has just illustrated they have no gripe with this curriculum. 

MATTHEWS:  Let’s imagine, which is not hard to imagine today in America, neither Jewish nor Christian.  Suppose you are an agnostic.  Suppose you are an atheist.  Suppose you are some other religion.

JOHNSON:  Right. 

MATTHEWS:  An Eastern religion, for example. 

JOHNSON:  Sure.  Sure.

MATTHEWS:  What good would this course do you?  And how do you assume that it wouldn’t offend somebody to have to sit through it?  I know it’s an elective course. 

JOHNSON:  Well...

MATTHEWS:  But, if you took it, why would it help you?

JOHNSON:  It’s elective. 

Well, you have to—“The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy” by E.D.  Hirsch says no one can call themselves an educated American unless they have basic foundational understanding of the Bible.  How can you understand basic references in our culture without an understanding of the most widely read and widely published book in all of history?  When we censor it from the classroom, we rob students of a complete education. 

Watch 'Hardball' each night at 7 p.m. ET on MSNBC. 

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