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Actress Roma Downey and husband call for greater Bible literacy

Published: Friday, March 1 2013 2:05 p.m. MST

Mark Burnett, left, and Roma Downey arrive to "Operation Smile" 25th anniversary gala in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 5, 2007. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press) Mark Burnett, left, and Roma Downey arrive to "Operation Smile" 25th anniversary gala in Beverly Hills, Calif., Oct. 5, 2007. (Mark J. Terrill, Associated Press)

Actress Roma Downey of “Touched by an Angel” fame and her husband Mark Burnett, producer of “Survivor” and other popular television shows, penned an op-ed in today’s Wall Street Journal calling for public schools to teach the Bible.

“It's time to encourage, perhaps even mandate, the teaching of the Bible in public schools as a primary document of Western civilization,” the couple wrote.

Though now U.S. citizens, Burnett and Downey grew up in Europe – England and Ireland, respectively – “where Bible teaching was viewed as foundational to a well-rounded education.”

The couple just finished producing a 10-part miniseries, “The Bible,” which they hope will “encourage audiences around the world to open or reopen Bibles to understand and enjoy these stories.” The series will air on the History Channel beginning March 3.

In a review for Christian Post, Geoff Tunnicliffe gives high marks to the series, saying it “rises to the top of the ‘Wow’ scale.”

Megachurch pastor Rick Warren will host a live 90-minute webcast with Burnett and Downey Saturday at 9:30 a.m. PST, to ask them about the impetus of the project and to provide a sneak peak of some of the scenes.

In their op-ed, Burnett and Downey remind readers that such institutions as Harvard University, the Salvation Army and Alcoholics Anonymous trace their roots to the Bible, as do many iconic works of literature made into successful movies – “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Lord of the Rings” and “Les Miserables,” for example.

They quote the first page of the Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: “No one in the English speaking world can be considered literate without a basic knowledge of the Bible,” and also reference a statement by Teddy Roosevelt: "A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education."

Meanwhile, two school districts in Texas have discontinued elective Bible courses, citing a lack of funding and qualified teachers as well as a rigorous new testing system that prioritizes other knowledge and skills.

Southern Methodist University professor Mark Chancey, who examined the curriculum used by the districts, said that biases and inaccuracies were also found in the textbooks and teaching materials.

“I really wish our education system handled religious literacy better,” Chancey said. “I think there are very good civic reasons for teaching religious literacy. But I do think as a society we don’t do a good job at that.”

Only 36 percent of the American public knows public schools can offer a comparative religion course, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

In addressing this constitutional misconception, Downey and Burnett quote from the 1963 court case "Abington School District v. Schempp," in which the Supreme Court stated that "the Bible is worthy of study for its literary and historic qualities” and that “such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as a part of a secular (public school) program of education,” can be consistent with the First Amendment.

David Ward is a writer living in Salt Lake City. Contact him at dward@deseretnews.com.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company