Teaching Religious Intolerance
Christian fundamentalist textbooks display a breathtakingly arrogant attitude toward other religions.
To say that Christian fundamentalist textbooks portray Roman Catholicism and non-Western religions in a negative way is to understate the case by several orders of magnitude. All the texts are imbued with an arrogance and hostility toward non-Western religions that is truly breathtaking.
This animus toward other religions is intimately tied to the theological roots of fundamentalist Christian perspectives. As researchers Gaddy, Hall, and Maranzo have noted, because Christian fundamentalists believe that truth can only be found in “God’s infallible, literal Word revealed in the Bible, religious tolerance toward others with different values and different world views must be rejected.” 1
Criticism of other religions and Christian denominations frequently revolve around the issue of salvation by faith alone versus salvation by good works. Indeed, this was and remains one of the primary differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism (with Catholics upholding the importance of good works). As one booklet notes, “Only Christianity requires simple faith rather than good works. Only in Christianity is salvation provided through a person rather than through good works.” 2
In looking at the treatment of religion, I again studied three major textbook publishers for fundamentalist Christian schools and home-schoolers: A Beka Press, Bob Jones University Press, and School of Tomorrow/Accelerated Christian Education. I drew on a wider range of the textbooks and materials than in my discussion of politics and included substantially more material from world history and geography textbooks and, in some instances, from English literature texts.
Materials from the three publishers have a recurring theme: that the lack of material progress in various Third World countries and among indigenous peoples can be attributed to their religious beliefs. The publishers also share a tremendous emphasis on conservative Protestant missionary activity; approving passages abound about individual missionaries and Christian converts and the need for both historical and contemporary evangelism.
In one textbook’s discussion of India, for example, students are asked how Hinduism contributed “to this country’s sad fate.” Students are then encouraged to contrast India with the United States and told, “If we refused to kill disease-carrying insects, allowed filthy animals to roam around in public places, and refused to eat meat for nourishment, do you think we would be as prosperous as we are?” 3
A great majority of material in the books and literature studied are unobjectionable: map studies, discussions of Revolutionary War battles, information about the kings and queens of England, facts about the invention of the cotton gin, and so forth. Nevertheless, many statements related to non-Western religions raise serious issues that should be part of the public debate over the use of public funding for sectarian education and the use of these materials for home schooling.
Following is a brief summary of how the materials studied describe religions that differ from fundamentalist Christian Protestantism.
In general, A Beka’s history textbooks emphasize Africa’s need for Christian evangelism. 4 In addition to derogatory comments about the religious beliefs of non-Christian Africans, the textbooks assert that their religious beliefs have been the major cause of the continent’s lack of cultural and material progress and political instability and repression.
In A Beka’s fifth-grade text, students read that traditional African religions were “false religious beliefs.” 5 In one text box, students are introduced to a Christian convert, Chief Khama, who successfully ruled his people even though the “land was ruled by witchcraft” and the people drank their traditional corn beer which made them “lazy and wicked.” 6 While discussing the work of Scottish missionary Mary Slessor, the text uses the term “savage” on three separate occasions.7 The text also notes that “ The witch doctors used many evil and cruel practices. Some of the people were cannibals.” 8
Oppressive governments are ascribed solely to the influence of traditional African religions: “In countries where the people are still held in fear by witchcraft and spirit worship, [postcolonial] self-government soon turned into dictatorship.” 9 A Beka’s senior high text ascribes southern Africa’s economic problems to the absence of Christianity: “For over a thousand years, there was no clear Christian witness in the vast heartland of Africa; the fear, idolatry, superstition, and witchcraft associated with animism (the belief that natural objects and forces are inhabited by mostly malignant spirits) prevented most Africans from learning how to use nature for man’s benefit and thus develop a high culture like that of the other African empires.” 10
Bob Jones’ seventh-grade text takes a particularly strong stance regarding the spiritual error of traditional African religions: “This religion, like all false religions, is based on works and cannot give blessing or salvation (Ephesians 2:8-9). The strong influence of magic and demonism on African religion made much of African life unhappy and savage. Satan’s strong hold on these people kept them worshiping him rather than the true God.” 11
Teachers are advised to “emphasize that African religion was one of superstition and demonism. This kind of religion is growing today in the West, and Christian students must be prepared to stand against it. Satanism is especially prevalent in contemporary music … .” 12
In A Beka’s elementary world history text, fifth graders read that Islam is “a false religion.” 13 Seventh graders read that although “over 500 people saw the resurrected Jesus Christ, no one witnessed Mohammed’s supposed encounters with the angels.” 14
According to A Beka’s senior high school textbook, Muhammad “combined elements of a corrupted and distorted Christianity in a legalistic religion.” 15 Islam itself is described as “a fanatically anti-Christian faith” that has resisted the efforts of Protestant missionaries.16
The authors’ theological difference with Islam is similar to one of their primary criticisms of Roman Catholicism. Because Catholics and Muslims both believe salvation can be achieved by the activities of human beings, (as opposed to salvation by grace alone), it falls short of Christian salvation: “External requirements,” such as prayer, fasting, giving alms, and making pilgrimages “involve no true repentance or miraculous regeneration as does Biblical salvation.” 17
Bob Jones’ world history text for sixth graders emphasizes the need for conversion of non-Protestants. Thus, after a fairly straightforward description of Muhammad and the origins of Islam, students read that “the darkness of Islamic religion keeps the people of Turkey from Jesus Christ as their savior.” 18
Hinduism comes in for, perhaps, the strongest antipathy. In A Beka’s texts, the term “pagan” is frequently used to describe the Hindu religion and the beliefs of its adherents. 19 The term “evil” is also used. 20
Its fifth-grade history textbook emphasizes what it considers to be the negative effects of Hinduism on India: “The effects of Hinduism have been devastating to India’s history.” 21
The seventh grade text quotes an unidentified scholar arguing that the Hindus are “incapable of writing history [because] all that happens is dissipated in their minds into confused dreams. What we call historical truth and veracity – intelligent, thoughtful comprehension of events, and fidelity in representing them – nothing of this sort can be looked for among the Hindus.” 22
Buddhism, like Islam, traces its origins to a particular individual and Buddha, like Muhammad, is denigrated in Christian school texts. Fifth graders reading A Beka’s history textbook learn that Buddha’s search for enlightenment involved “leav[ing] his wife and newborn son” and engaging in unsuccessful “self-torture.” 23 The students are reminded that “we serve a living Savior, not a dead teacher.” 24
For sixth graders using one text published by Bob Jones University Press, each mention of Buddhism is accompanied by a brief passage comparing Buddhism’s deficiencies with the true religion of Christianity. For example, students read that “although these [Burmese] Buddhists are sincerely trying to live a good life and do good deeds, they will never receive the peace they seek. These people need to know the Savior.” 25
The School of Tomorrow/Accelerated Christian Education materials describe Buddhism’s nirvana as “a type of heaven” and students read that “it is very important to note that Buddha’s nirvana was in direct contrast with what the Bible teaches about heaven.” 26 Later, the text states: “Hinayana Buddhism has retained Buddha’s belief in a lifeless heaven where people would have no knowledge of being alive. Jesus Christ directly opposed this belief in John 3:15-17 and many other passages.” 27
Anti-Catholic bias is most prevalent in books published by A Beka. One particularly striking aspect of the texts is the sense that theological battles of the Protestant Reformation continue unabated to the present day. In the texts, bias against Roman Catholics and the Catholic Church is exclusively theological rather than socio-cultural.
Descriptions of contemporary life in European countries that are primarily Roman Catholic frequently include derogatory statements about the Church: “Almost all the children of [the Republic of] Ireland grow up believing in the traditions of the Roman Catholic church without knowing of God’s free salvation.” 28
A Beka’s seventh grade world history book, for example, describes the early Roman church (before 500 A.D.) as “a monstrous distortion of Biblical Christianity.” 29 Speaking of the Crusades, the text speculates that “if Christendom had succeeded with its crusades, distorted Christianity might have been imposed on all mankind.” 30 In the chapter titled “The Age of Darkness,” which is subtitled “Distorted Christianity, Holy Roman Empire, Renaissance,” the author writes, “The papacy had always distorted Christianity. .” 31
In all, the seventh grade book uses the term “distorted” or its variants 28 times in the six chapters in which its discussions of the Roman Catholic faith are most concentrated.
Tenth graders using A Beka books are taught that “the doctrines and practices of the Roman church had digressed so far from Scripture that the church was compelled to keep its members from reading the Bible and discovering the truth.” 32
The materials’ attitude toward Roman Catholicism and non-Western religions raises serious issues that should be part of the public debate over the use of public funding for sectarian education. Two of the many questions raised:
- How much respect for the rights of members of minority religions could ordinary citizens, elected representatives, and government employees, including judges, have if their educational background included a school curriculum based on these textbooks?
- Is it fair to use the coercive power of the state to collect tax revenues that are then used to support educational institutions that malign the religion of the taxpayer? It is one thing to say, “This is what I believe.” It is something else to say, “Your religion is in error.”
It is surely far removed from the spirit of religious tolerance, however imperfectly applied in our nation, to make statements that encourage American children to despise the religion of their fellow citizens.
1 Barbara. B. Gaddy, T. William Hall, and Robert J. Marzano, School Wars: Resolving Our Conflicts over Religion and Values (San Francisco, Cal.: Jossey-Bass, 1996), p. 145.
2 World Geography-10. Social Studies (#1106), rev. 1998 (N.p.: Accelerated Christian Education, 1994), p. 6.
3 Old World History and Geography, Teacher Edition (Pensacola, Fla.: A Beka, 1991), p. 213.
4 The term “Christian” applies only to conservative Protestant evangelism. Missionary activity by other Christian denominations, including Roman Catholic missionary activity, is ignored, given perfunctory coverage, or criticized or ridiculed.
5 Old World History, p. 247.
6 Old World History, p. 252.
7 “Savage warriors,” “savage tribe,” and “savage land.” Old World History, p. 256.
8 Old World History, p. 256.
9 Old World History, p. 256-57.
10 George Thompson and Jerry Combee. World History and Cultures in Christian Perspective. 2nd edition (Pensacola, Fla: A Beka, 1997), p. 86.
11 World Studies for Christian Schools, Teacher’s Edition (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1993), p. 353.
12 World Studies, p. 78T.
13 Old World History, p. 89.
14 Jerry H. Combee, History of the World in Christian Perspective, Teacher Edition, 3rd ed. (Pensacola, Fla.: A Beka, 1997), pp. 147, 151.
15 Thompson and Combee, p. 34.
16 Thompson and Combee, p. 36.
17 Thompson and Combee, p. 35.
18 Heritage Studies for Christian Schools 6, p. 186.
19 See, for example, Old World History, p. 210.
20 Old World History, pp. 213, 214.
21 The senior high school text also mentions idols. A discussion of Indian contributions to the world is prefaced by this phrase: “Although India culture was dominated by Hindu idolatry. . .” Thompson and Combee, p. 47.
22 Combee, p. 279.
23 Old World History, p. 212.
24 Old World History, p. 212.
25 Heritage Studies for Christian Schools 6, pp. 222-23.
26 Early Middle Ages, p. 31.
27 Early Middle Ages, p. 31.
28 Heritage Studies for Christian Schools 6: Eastern Hemisphere Nations (Greenville, S.C.: Bob Jones University Press, 1986), p. 41.
29 Combee, p. 192.
30 Combee, p. 155
31 Combee, p. 184.
32 Thompson and Combee, p. 167