By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
The challenge of shaping moral character in students looms large in Chattanooga schools, where the state attorney general last year identified 122 bullying incidents and cited “widespread systemic problems.”
Now, to stamp out bullying, cheating, and other character-related problems, Hamilton County schools are drawing on a not-so-secret weapon that has been part of their curriculum since 1922: the Bible. Private fundraising for Bible-teacher salaries has surged 22 percent this year to support steady enrollment growth in elective Bible courses.
“We’re very careful not to say, This is right, something else is wrong — many of the students come to those realizations on their own through the study of the text,” said Cathy Scott, president of Bible in the Schools, the Chattanooga-based nonprofit agency that funds Bible history courses in middle and high schools.
She noted, for instance, how one student deleted all his pirated music after studying the Ten Commandments. Another student with a pregnancy opted not to have an abortion.
“Through Bible history, she was learning that her life had meaning and a purpose,” Scott said. “She had made the decision not to abort the baby as a result of what she was learning in the Bible about the value of life and treating one another the way you’d like to be treated.”
Using the Bible to fight moral decay makes sense to many Americans. Eighty-one percent believe the country’s morals and values are in decline, according to 2017 research from the Barna Group, a research firm based in Ventura, California. Twenty-seven percent blame lack of Bible reading for the decline. That figure is higher in Chattanooga, where Bible-reading rates are the nation’s highest.
Around the country, the Bible-based approach to character formation is rare in public schools. Most districts do not offer Bible courses, although courts have said they are allowed as long as they heed constitutional guidelines. In North Carolina, for instance, high school teacher Bill Simpson worked full time for a year to launch Bible courses in public schools but encountered “only opposition or apathy,” he said via email.
“Many fear the [American Civil Liberties Union] and the negative press that would ensue,” said Simpson, a teacher at a Christian high school and founder of Pidea Alliance in Wilmington, North Carolina, which helps launch Bible courses in public schools.
Chattanooga’s program survived a legal challenge from the ACLU in 1979. The program received court approval after making a few modifications. Last year, Bible in the Schools began a new push to raise its online presence, in part to demonstrate what’s possible in public schools. Since then, it has received queries from more than a dozen states where residents would like to launch or expand Bible courses in their schools.
Chattanooga’s program is growing fast to keep up with demand. Courses using the Bible as a textbook are offered in 23 Hamilton County middle schools and high schools, up from 15 schools in 2013-14.
Courses are taught with no taxpayer funding. Donations of $1.3 million enable more than 3,700 students (about 17%) to learn what the Bible says. About 5 percent of donations comes from church groups.
“I’ve had about four or five school principals call me indicating that they would like this elective as soon as funding becomes available,” Scott said. One Hamilton County high school had to turn away 75 registrants last year because all its Bible history classes were full.
“Even if you don’t have access to a church, it’s good to know about it [the Bible] and be able to spread it and enjoy it,” said Jackson Clark, a sophomore in a Bible history class at Ooltewah High School in suburban Chattanooga.
The goal of teaching Bible history in public school is not to promote Christianity, which would violate the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition of a state church. Rather, the intent is to make students familiar with one of history’s most influential books and to mold character traits, such as honesty.
“This is maybe the only exposure that they have to broad moral truth,” says Frank Brock, a board member of Bible in the Schools. “It can have immediate impact because [students have] never heard anybody say, Stealing is wrong. … What school teaches stealing is wrong? What course does that come in — math, English, social science?”
Last September in Daniel Ziegenmier’s Old Testament survey class at Ooltewah High, students watched a six-minute video summarizing the last 40 chapters of Genesis, then opened their Bibles and read about God making a covenant with Abraham.
Then it was their turn. They broke into pairs to forge covenants of their own. Clark and his classmate, Jacob O’Daniel, pretended one had broken his leg and agreed to the other’s restitution of mowing grass and performing other chores. When class members reunited, Ziegenmier challenged students to take away a character lesson from the exercise.
“In thinking about the conversation today — the covenant that God made with Abraham, and the contracts that you made — the question is: why is it so important to be a person that keeps your covenant, your promise, and your commitment?” Ziegenmier said. Students had to turn in their answers before they could leave class.
In the past half-century, courts have tried to clarify what’s permissible and what’s not in school-based Bible education. The 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case of Abingdon School District v. Schempp ended the practice of requiring students to read or hear the Bible read aloud in public school. But it also cleared the way for Bible electives taught from a neutral standpoint with no doctrinal or sectarian biases. The U.S. District Court decision in the 1979 case involving Chattanooga’s program, Wiley v. Franklin, cited precedents including Abingdon and spelled out criteria that Bible courses must meet.
“The nature, intent, and purpose of the course must be secular,” the decision said. “The primary effect of the course must neither advance nor inhibit religion; and the course must be offered in a manner that avoids excessive entanglement between government and religion.”
Chattanooga has refined its program over the years to pass muster both legally and politically. Bible history teachers have advanced training in biblical studies or a related area, like teachers in other subjects. They are employees of the school district, which makes them accountable to the school district’s standards, not to donors.
What’s more, because teachers are paid with dollars donated to the district, taxpayers do not pay a dime for Bible electives. Keeping taxpayer dollars out of the equation helps blunt potential opposition and shore up broad public support.
“It is permissible for a school district to use its funds to teach Bible,” Brock said. “But it is politically difficult, so we choose to do it this way. It sort of mutes any criticism.”
In other districts where Bible education happens, teachers are commonly paid directly by a nonprofit agency rather than the school district, Simpson said. Their work is treated as a released-time activity, not part of the school-day curriculum like it is in Chattanooga.
Hundreds of these off-campus released-time programs are very successful, he said, but he hopes the Chattanooga model can catch on elsewhere. Risk-averse districts are reluctant to let children leave campus for new released-time activities, Simpson said, and accountability can be a problem when teachers are not answerable to the school district.
Chattanooga’s “is the only program in the country where the nonprofit is funding teachers and the teachers are hired in the normal way, through the superintendent’s office,” Simpson said. “The magnitude of their program is also unequaled in that they raise over $1 million annually and give that to the school board. … My prayer is that thousands of programs like this one will be birthed in the coming years.”
Simpson conceded that the road to replication is apt to face stiff cultural headwinds. Lawsuit-weary school districts in Tennessee and West Virginia have in some cases opted to leave Bible education to local churches.
Still, proponents are concerned that in a time of waning church attendance, children need to engage the Bible in non-church settings, lest they experience no Bible exposure at all. The percentage of Americans who say they never read, listen to, or pray with the Bible jumped from 27 in 2016 to 32 in 2017.
In Chattanooga, knowledge of the Bible increases by 85 percent on average as students complete Bible history, according to Bible in the Schools’ analysis of test records. Students say that is because the class is not required, so most of those who enroll want to learn.
“No one is trying to force you to do anything in this class,” said Clark, the Bible history student at Ooltewah High School. “No one is making you believe that God is the one true way. If you want to believe it, that’s up to you.”