Oklahoma Superintendent Orders Public Schools to Teach Bible as White Christian Nationalists Go ‘On Offense’

Oklahoma Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters (Image from social media video)

Oklahoma’s Christian nationalist state superintendent of education Ryan Walters this week instructed all public schools to teach the Bible, which the New York Times called “an extraordinary move that blurs the lines between religious and instruction and public education.”

Walters, an energetic supporter of former President Donald Trump, actively seeks the media spotlight for his aggressive Christian nationalism and culture war posturing. As Right Wing Watch has noted, “Walters seems intent on using public education funds to proselytize Christianity, while falsely characterizing church-state separation as promoting atheism.” Walters is allied with Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has dedicated “every square inch” of the state to Jesus, saying that with his authority as governor, “I claim Oklahoma for you.”

Walters pushed state officials to approve a taxpayer-funded religious charter school last year. He responded to a complaint about a Bible verse being posted in a classroom by sending teachers a memo declaring, “I do not want to see Oklahoma school districts becoming complicit in promoting atheism.” A month earlier Walters claimed, “President Joe Biden wants to destroy this country. He wants to destroy our schools. He wants to destroy your family. And he wants to destroy our Christian faith.”

The timing and lack of detail in Walters’ new order suggest that he may have been trying to prevent himself from being upstaged by Louisiana’s governor signing a new law requiring that the Ten Commandments be posted in every public school classroom. That legislation has been promoted by religious-right groups as part of “Project Blitz,” a long-term strategy to push Christian nationalist legislation at the state level. Last fall, Walters spoke at the Pro-Family Legislators Conference sponsored by WallBuilders, which has claimed credit for the Louisiana law. Christian nationalists are urging legislators to go “on offense” to take advantage of the right-wing Supreme Court majority’s moves to undermine church-state separation.

Courts have said that public schools can teach about the Bible consistent with the First Amendment as, for example, part of a course on comparative religion or literature. Schools can teach about the Bible’s role in history, but cannot teach Bible stories as factual history. Schools cannot use the Bible for indoctrination or proselytizing. Those rules are often not followed.

In 2000, People For the American Way Foundation published the results of an in-depth investigation of the way Florida school districts were teaching “Bible History.” Course materials made it clear that the classes were often being taught as religious instruction, often assuming that students and teachers were Christian. In 2019, when Trump endorsed the Project Blitz call for more Bible teaching in public schools, Right Wing Watch reviewed the evidence:

Among the details included in the PFAWF report were this question which appeared on tests in two high schools: “Why is it hard for a non-Christian to understand things about God?” Another high school exam question asked, “If you had a Jewish friend who wanted to know if Jesus might be the expectant [sic] Messiah, which book [of the Gospels] would you give him?” Another lesson asked, “Who, according to Jesus is the father of the Jews?” The answer: “The devil.”

The Texas Freedom Network Education Fund has published multiple reports on the way Bible classes have been taught in that state’s public schools.  Southern Methodist University religious studies professor Mark Chancey has documented that classes were being taught from a right-wing fundamentalist Christian standpoint, including a literal interpretation of the Bible, with materials “designed to evangelize rather than provide an objective study of the Bible’s influence.”

In addition, noted Chancey in a report originally published in 2006, Bible courses often fostered “notions of American identity as distinctively Christian,” using videos and materials from Barton’s WallBuilders. Chancey described WallBuilders’ “America’s Godly Heritage” video as “so inaccurate in its content and so unabashedly sectarian in its goals that one federal court has prohibited its use in public schools.”

Walters has aligned himself with the pro-censorship group Moms for Liberty and has viciously attacked teachers unions. Right Wing Watch noted in its preview of last year’s Moms for Liberty summit:

Ryan Walters, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, is waging a scorched-earth campaign against teachers and teachers unions, which he called “terrorist organizations” at a budget hearing in May; he has been accused of lying to legislators at that hearing. At a state board of education meeting, Walters played a five-minute video savaging teachers unions, a video so hostile—it included insinuations that teachers supported pedophilia—that educators feared it would incite physical attacks on public schools. His agency banned sexually explicit materials from school libraries without defining the term. After Trump’s recent indictment, Walters put out a press release headlined, “Joe Biden Leading a Banana Republic Coup Against American Justice,” an indication of his focus on MAGA politics and promotion of Trumpish conspiracy theories.

Public education and the separation of church and state are just two of the many targets of the religious-right and MAGA movement groups behind Project 2025, which has drawn up plans for right-wing activists to “take the reins of government” if Trump or another conservative president is elected.