Project Blitz's Bible Literacy Act and the 2019 Bible Course Bills

In an attempt to "blitz" state legislatures with bills, resolutions, and proclamations that suggest that America is a distinctively Christian nation governed by biblical principles, Project Blitz circulates model bills for lawmakers to adapt for their own contexts.

See Also: President Trump Just Tweeted Support for Bible Courses, But It’s Already Legal to Teach About the Bible

By Mark A. Chancey
Professor of Religious Studies
Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences
Southern Methodist University
June 2019

            The year 2019 has been an exciting one for boosters of Bible courses in public schools. January began with the introduction of bills promoting such classes in several state legislatures. On January 28, Fox & Friends ran a segment profiling those efforts, and shortly thereafter the show's highest profile fan, President Trump, tweeted his support: "Numerous states introducing Bible Literacy classes, giving students the option of studying the Bible. Starting to make a turn back? Great!"[i] As the spring progressed, the amount of legislation related to Bible courses grew to seventeen bills and a resolution, spread out over fourteen states.[ii] It was the busiest session ever for this issue.

            Trump's post contributed to this momentum, but greater credit belongs to a three-year-old Christian Right campaign called Project Blitz. In an attempt to "blitz" state legislatures with bills, resolutions, and proclamations that suggest that America is a distinctively Christian nation governed by biblical principles, Project Blitz circulates model bills for lawmakers to adapt for their own contexts. One of its most popular bills is the Bible Literacy Act, which calls for the creation of high school Bible electives. Of the eighteen legislative proposals introduced in early 2019, ten included verbiage that directly matched provisions in this Bible Literacy Act.[iii] Regardless of whether the sponsors of those bills got their language directly from Project Blitz or from earlier state laws that served as its sources, it is clear that Project Blitz is contributing to a standardization of both bill content and legislative strategy.

            Project Blitz was launched in 2016 by a trio of Christian Right organizations: the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, which in its own words strives to "protect religious freedom, preserve America’s Judeo-Christian heritage and promote prayer;" the National Legal Foundation, a conservative Christian legal firm committed to causing "America’s public policy and legal system to support and facilitate God’s purpose for her;" and WallBuilders, a Texas-based outfit run by Republican activist and amateur historian David Barton, famous for his claims that America's founders shared the same religiosity as modern evangelicals. A webpage created for Project Blitz expressed its intention "to protect the free exercise of traditional Judeo-Christian religious values and beliefs in the public square, and to reclaim and properly define the narrative which supports such beliefs." Thus, Project Blitz seeks to "support lawmakers who may be enacting specific legislation to fully protect religious liberty and the free exercise of our faith in the public square," create grassroots networks sympathetic to such legislation, and "reclaim and properly frame the narrative and the language of religious liberty issues."[iv] 

            In short, Project Blitz is trying to redefine religious freedom and pass laws to favor its architects' religious convictions over those of other Americans. Its strategy of circulating model legislation is seemingly inspired by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative organization famous for drafting and distributing bills that promote its values of "limited governments, free markets, and federalism." Project Blitz disseminates its own sample legislation through the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation's network of state chapters.[v] 

            Its legislative playbook goes by the title Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America. The 2017 and 2018-2019 versions contained twenty proposals running the gamut from a requirement to display "In God We Trust" in all public schools and government buildings, to the establishment of Christian Heritage Week and the Year of the Bible, to the protection of religion-based discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Project Blitz groups these measures into three categories: "Legislation Regarding Our Country's Religious Heritage," "Resolutions and Proclamations Recognizing the Importance of Religious History and Freedom," and "Religious Liberty Protection Legislation."[vi]

            The Bible Literacy Act falls into the "religious heritage" category. The team that drafted it included the president of the National Legal Foundation himself, Steve Fitschen, as well as Washington, D.C., lawyer Rick Claybrook, and two contracted workers.[vii] They cobbled most of it together from the core components of laws passed by Georgia in 2006 (SB 79) and Texas in 2007 (HB 1287), both of which have previously served as source material for other states' laws.[viii]

            The model bill does more than permit public schools to study the Bible from an academic perspective; it mandates that they create two courses: "A school district shall offer to students in grades nine or above an elective course in the history and literature of the Old Testament era and an elective course in the history and literature of the New Testament era." The bill allows school districts to recommend a particular translation of the Bible, but it also allows teachers and students to ignore such suggestions and use the Bibles of their choice. It makes no acknowledgment of differences between the Jewish Bible and Christian Bibles, or between the Bibles of different branches of Christianity. Aside from a passing reference to "Hebrew Scriptures," it repeatedly uses the Christian terminology of "Old Testament," a moniker rejected by Jews. For example, one provision identifies the class's key text as "the book or collection of books commonly known as the Old and New Testaments," as if widespread agreement existed on the contents and names of such collections. Various sections employ the language of "Judeo-Christian," referring to "the Judeo-Christian tradition," "Judeo-Christian traditions" and "Judeo-Christian biblical materials." Though Project Blitz's sponsors might intend this term to demonstrate inclusiveness toward Jews, in this bill the meaning of "Judeo-Christian" seems little different from that of "Christian," a word that that seems narrowly conceptualized here to refer primarily to the views of theologically conservative Protestants.[ix]

            Drawing heavily from the Georgia law, the bill identifies the purpose of its prescribed classes as to "familiarize students" with the Old and New Testaments' "contents ... history ... literary style and structure ... and influence." It places particular emphasis on this last topic, the Bible's influence, naming specific spheres of culture for students to examine: "law, history, government, literature, art, music, customs, morals, values, and culture." Another section specifies that courses should "teach students knowledge of biblical content, characters, poetry, and narratives that are prerequisites to understanding contemporary society and culture, including literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy."

            Other details about course content also come from the Georgia law, in some cases from sections written to favor materials produced by the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, a Christian Right group with ties to the National Legal Foundation and WallBuilders. "The methods and tools of writing during the period when the Old or New Testament was written; the means by which the Old or New Testament book was preserved;" the languages in which biblical books were written; "the historical and cultural events that led to the translation of the Old or New Testament book into English"--all are topics covered in greater detail by the National Council's course than by that of its primary competitor, the Bible Literacy Project.[x]

            Boilerplate legal language ultimately derives from comes from the Georgia and Texas statutes, which adapted them from federal court cases (or, more likely, from resources summarizing those cases). The act emphasizes that classes "must be taught in an objective and non-proselytizing manner that does not attempt to indoctrinate students as to either the truth or falsity of the Judeo-Christian biblical materials or the truth or falsity of texts from other religious or cultural traditions other than the Judeo Christian tradition." They "may not include teaching that favors a religious doctrine or a sectarian interpretation of the Old or New Testament or of texts from other religious or cultural traditions other than the Judeo-Christian tradition." The courses must follow "applicable law and all federal and state guidelines in maintaining religious neutrality and accommodating the diverse religious views, traditions, and perspectives of students in the school" and may not "endorse, favor, or promote, or disfavor of show hostility toward, any particular religion or nonreligious faith or religious perspective." Such caveats seem designed more to protect the bill from charges of religious preferentialism than to offer teachers detailed guidance on how to teach the courses appropriately.

            A similar motivation probably lies behind a section noting that none of the bill's provisions prevents a school district from offering "an elective course based on the books of a religion or society other than one with Judeo-Christian traditions." A talking point included in the playbook emphasizes this further: "Provision is made for elective courses that focus on the religious literature of non-Judeo-Christian religions and traditions, in recognition of the increasing diversity of our populations and communities and to help students understand the respective contributions of religions and traditions." In this way, Project Blitz makes a polite, political nod towards the importance of studying other religions while doing nothing to actually encourage that study.

            Additional talking points repeat familiar arguments about the crucial importance of biblical literacy. One cites the prevalence of biblical allusions in classic western writers like Shakespeare, Dante, and Milton. Others repeat the Christian nationalist trope that it is impossible to understand the nation's founders, founding principles, government, and history without knowledge of the Bible.

            A final argument appeals to an oft cited but less often read 1984 article by political scientist Donald S. Lutz on the prevalence of biblical quotations in documents that, as Project Blitz puts it, "the Founders wrote." According to Project Blitz's summary, Lutz's review of 15,000 texts found that "biblical references accounted for 34 percent" of direct quotations, outnumbering quotes of Charles Montesquieu, William Blackstone, and John Locke. For Project Blitz, this proves that the Bible was most authoritative intellectual source for "the Founders." Here Project Blitz is simply repeating an argument that David Barton has made famous in Christian Americanist circles.

            Examination of Lutz's article itself, however, shows that it makes no such claims. In fact, the whole point of his study was to understand better the relative influence of several Enlightenment philosophers. Project Blitz describes Lutz's focus simply as the "the Founders," a term that calls to mind the individuals at the heart of the deliberations behind the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. Lutz, in contrast, employed a dramatically broader scope, looking at a whole range of documents produced between 1760 and 1805 by a wide variety of authors. He noted that 80% of the sources he examined were, in fact, sermon reprints, a genre particularly likely to use biblical references. His article tallied the sources of direct quotations but did not discuss how those quotations functioned in the arguments of the authors who cited them.

            The bottom line is that when it comes to the Bible's influence on "the Founders," Lutz's study proves only that educated early Americans were familiar with the Bible and readily used its language and idioms, a point no scholar of the era would contest. It neither shows nor claims that the Bible inspired the American form of government. The playbook and David Barton misrepresent its findings, but their characterization of it highlights the driving conviction behind the Bible Literacy Act and the rest of Project Blitz, their deeply held belief that America was founded on the Bible.[xi]

            Seemingly in agreement with them are the politicians who introduced Project Blitz-style Bible course bills this year. Most were Republicans, though Democrats were the primary sponsors of bills in Florida and Mississippi. The details of these bills varied, but each typically included language that matched Bible Literacy Act descriptions of either course contents or legal guidelines.

            Yet for all of the attention to Project Blitz, only two 2019 Bible course bills with its language became laws. Alabama's governor will no doubt sign SB 14, which creates four social studies courses devoted to "the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament," "the Greek Scriptures of the New Testament," both testaments, and "religious history."[xii] Georgia's SB 83 added Project Blitz-like language to its education code and also called for the creation of course standards. Its passage brought the direction of influence full circle: Georgia's 2006 law provided the core of the Bible Literacy Act, and now parts of that act derived from elsewhere have been imported into the Georgia law. In Texas, the other pioneering state for such laws, a bill (SB 2090) that expanded already existing provisions for an English Language Arts Bible elective with Project Blitz legalese floundered in committee. Other states where bills failed to progress for various reasons were Florida (HB 195), Iowa (HF 231), Mississippi (HB 1403), Missouri (HB 267), New York (A06315), Virginia (SB 1502), and West Virginia (SB 234).[xiii]

            As for the non-Project Blitz legislation, Arkansas's HB 1626 added a call to develop course standards to the earlier Bible course law it passed in 2013 (which itself contains provisions later adopted by Project Blitz). In Missouri, both chambers approved a resolution (SCR 13) that encourages Bible courses and calls for treatment of biblical wisdom literature in world literature classes. The governor is likely to sign it as well, but as a resolution it will remain non-binding. Laws authorizing academic credit for released time classes passed in Indiana (SB 373) and Tennessee (HB 307/ SB 1373), and one in Alabama (HB 291) awaits the governor's signature. Three measures in other states failed.[xiv]

            Backers of Bible bills obviously would have preferred different results, but it would be a mistake to dismiss their efforts with the superficial observation that their losses outnumbered their wins. Fifteen years ago, though scattered public schools across the nation taught Bible courses, no state had a law on the books approving them. Today, eight do (Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas). Alabama will raise that count to nine. For advocates focused on the long game, this no doubt looks like a promising trend.

            Project Blitz drew so much negative publicity in the first half of 2019 that by the end of May, even its sponsors had distanced themselves from it. The Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation revamped its webpage about the project, replacing the heading "Project Blitz" with the vague and generic terminology of "Toolkit" and purging its site of other explicit references to it.[xv]

            But Project Blitz's sponsors gave no indication that they had abandoned their larger strategy of blitzing state legislatures with bills remaking America in their own image. And amidst that blitz, more people are talking about Bible courses and Bible bills than ever before. By whatever name, Project Blitz will be back when the next legislative session rolls around, and so will its Bible Literacy Act.

 

[i] See video of the Fox & Friends story embedded in Caleb Parke, “Growing Number of States Pushing ‘Bible Literacy’ Classes in Public Schools,” Fox News, Jan. 28, 2019, https://www.foxnews.com/faith-values/growing-number-of-states-pushing-bible-literacy-classes-in-public-schools.

[ii] To simplify discussion, this count treats identical bills introduced in both chambers of a state as a single bill.

[iii] Of course, even proposals that did not include Project Blitz-style wording may nonetheless have been inspired by it.

[iv] Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, “Vision,” https://cpcfoundation.com/about/mission/; National Legal Foundation, https://nationallegalfoundation.org/about/; WallBuilders, https://wallbuilders.com. The webpage for Project Blitz (http://cpcfoundation.com/first-freedom-coalition-project-blitz/) was recently altered to remove both the name of the project and information about it; quotes of the page in the article come from earlier versions.

[v] Frederick Clarkson, “‘Project Blitz’ Aims Seeks to do for Christian Nationalism What ALEC does for Big Business,” Religion Dispatches, April 27, 2018, http://religiondispatches.org/project-blitz-seeks-to-do-for-christian-nationalism-what-alec-does-for-big-business/; Frederick Clarkson, “Ringing in a Christian Nationalist 2019 With an Even Larger Legislative Playbook,Rewire.News, Dec. 18, 2018, https://rewire.news/religion-dispatches/2018/12/18/ringing-in-a-christian-nationalist-2019-with-an-even-larger-legislative-playbook/; American Legislative Exchange Council, “About ALEC,” https://www.alec.org/about/.

[vi] Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, National Legal Foundation, WallBuilders ProFamily Legislators Network, Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America: 2018-2019 Version (Chesapeake, VA: Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, 2018), https://rewire.news/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/Report-and-Analysis-on-Religious-Freedom-Measures-Impacting-Prayer-and-Faith_2018-2019.pdf and Report and Analysis on Religious Freedom Measures Impacting Prayer and Faith in America: 2017 Version (Chesapeake, VA: Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, 2017), https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwfCh32HsC3UYmV0NUp5cXZjT28/view, both hereafter identified as Report and Analysis. For critique and tracking of Project Blitz bills, see “Statement from 43 National Organizations United in Opposition to Project Blitz and Similar Legislative Efforts,” Americans United for the Separation of Church and State,

https://www.au.org/sites/default/files/2019-02/Organizations Opposed To Project Blitz 2.1.19.pdf; Liz Hayes, “AU and Broad Coalition of Allies Announce Opposition to Project Blitz,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, Jan. 31, 2019, https://www.au.org/blogs/wall-of-separation/au-and-broad-coalition-of-allies-announce-opposition-to-project-blitz; Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “Project Blitz,” https://www.au.org/tags/project-blitz; and BlitzWatch, https://www.blitzwatch.org/.

[vii] Thomas W. Norris Jr., “Understanding the Promotion of Bible Literacy Classes in U.S. Public Schools” (M.A. Thesis, Pennsylvania State University, 2019), 26, 36.

[viii] On the Texas law, see Mark A. Chancey, Reading, Writing, & Religion II: Teaching the Bible in Texas Public Schools, 2011-2012 (Austin: Texas Freedom Network Education Fund, 2013), vi-viii, 66-73, at http://www.tfn.org/biblecourses.

[ix] Report and Analysis (2018-2019), 22-25; Report and Analysis (2017), 19-23.

[x] Norris, “Understanding the Promotion of Bible Literacy Classes in U.S. Public Schools,” 42; Mark A. Chancey, “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses,” Religion & Education 34:1 (2007): 28-47.

[xi] Donald S. Lutz, “The Relative Influence of European Writers on Late Eighteenth-Century American Political Thought,” American Political Science Review 78:1 (1984): 189-197; Mark A. Chancey, “A Textbook Example of the Christian Right: The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 75:3 (2007): 554-581, especially 569-570.

[xii] The House passed this Senate bill after a related bill introduced in its own chamber failed to get out of committee (HB 62).

[xiii] Details can be found at the websites for each state’s legislature or at LegiScan, https://legiscan.com/

[xiv] A Tennessee bill (HB 1373/ SB 1334) called for centralizing information about Bible curricula used in courses encouraged by the state's 2008 law, but the bill’s own sponsor appears to have abandoned it. The North Dakota Senate Education Committee voted down a bill (SB 2136) similar in spirit to Project Blitz. In West Virginia, a bill (HB 2742) that simply inserted authorization of Bible courses into the education code remained in committee when the session concluded.

[xv] The page’s URL still preserves the name: https://cpcfoundation.com/first-freedom-coalition-project-blitz/.

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