Backdooring the Bible Into Classrooms

A group called the Bible Literacy Project is unveiling a 392-page textbook Thursday entitled “The Bible and Its Influence,” which its members hope will be embraced by English, history and social studies teachers and form the basis of elective high school courses across the country.

The project’s founder is an investment banker from a powerful family that has longstanding ties to President Bush’s family and a history of religious activism. But the textbook is a secular effort to educate young Americans, many of whom they say know so little about a work so central to Western civilization that they cannot grasp basic references in to it in literature, music and art.

New York investment banker Chuck Stetson, who established the Bible Literacy Project, spent years consulting with educators, publishers, various Christian and Jewish leaders and First Amendment experts, and studying polling of students and teachers, to come up with a text that could withstand legal scrutiny and find academic acceptance.

Stetson said in a telephone interview Wednesday that his aim is to fill a vacuum caused by educators’ overreaction to a 1963 Supreme Court decision that declared unconstitutional the assigning of Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in schools.

“Sixty percent of Americans want to see the Bible taught in literature, history or English classes. Eight or 9 percent of the public schools do it,” Stetson said. “There are over 1,300 documented biblical allusions in Shakespeare. If kids don’t understand the biblical allusions, they don’t understand Shakespeare.”

Many educators, parents and historians share his concerns. A Gallup Poll last year found only about half of teens knew the story of Jesus turning water into wine, and close to one in 10 didn’t know what the Easter holiday observes.

Stetson said neither his group nor its textbook is advocating the teaching in public schools of intelligent design as an alternative to evolution.

“There are other people fighting that battle,” he said. “We want to move from battleground to common ground.

“I differentiate between knowledge and belief,” Stetson said. “Knowledge belongs in school. Belief is appropriate in the home and other places, but not in schools.”

In 1999, Stetson’s group teamed up with the First Amendment Center to release a guide on how to teach aspects of the Bible in public schools without violating the constitutional separation of church and state. That joint venture won endorsements from groups representing Muslims, Jews and evangelical Christians, as well as the National School Boards Association and the liberal advocacy group People For the American Way.

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar with the First Amendment Center who has reviewed the new textbook and who also worked with Stetson’s group to develop the teaching guide six years ago, said Wednesday of the textbook, “I believe this really upholds the First Amendment and is sound educationally.”

Haynes said there is no Bible textbook currently in print by a national textbook company, and that while several schools in states including North Carolina, Florida, Texas and California offer Bible or world religion classes as electives, teachers rely on a hodgepodge of materials and states often don’t keep track of what’s being taught. The Bible Literacy Project is self-publishing 10,000 copies of the “The Bible and Its Influence,” a fairly small printing that will allow its editors to seek input and make adjustments before printing a larger number of copies.

Stetson, 59, a father of three grown children, is an Episcopalian who is registered as an independent voter.

He has been a campaign donor to President Bush, however, and he is chairman of the board of an organization that advocates “released time” programs through which parents send their public school children off-campus during the school day for religious instruction.

Chuck Stetson’s father, Charles P. Stetson, who died in 2002, was a Christian conservative who supported candidates including Alan Keyes and Gary Bauer. Chuck Stetson’s grandfather was the corporate giant Eugene W. Stetson, who made his fortune with Coca-Cola, railroads and J.P. Morgan, and was a banking colleague of the President Bush’s grandfather, Prescott Bush.

The younger Stetson has his own connections to the Bush dynasty; he was one year ahead of President Bush at Yale. “I’ve met him on several occasions but I know John Kerry better,” Stetson laughed.

Kerry, the president’s Democratic rival in last year’s presidential election, was a year ahead of Stetson at Yale and both served in the Navy during the Vietnam War.