Bible Literacy Project News
Public Schools Still Wary of Lessons on Bible
Yet in a New Study, Teachers Report Need for Grounding in Biblical
By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
Published: April 27, 2005
Even as Americans wage epic legal battles over religion in public
schools—the reference to God in the Pledge of Allegiance, the
posting of the Ten Commandments in public buildings, and lessons on
alternatives to the theory of evolution—teaching about the Bible
remains taboo in many districts across the country.
Teachers suggest that students need
to know numerous biblical references in
order to understand literature.
• Cain and Abel
• Judas Iscariot
• Let there be light
• Noah's Ark
• Walking on Water
• Cast the First Stone
• Sodom and Gomorrah
• Twenty-Third Psalm
• Lord's Prayer
• Golden Rule
• Eye for an Eye
• Prodigal Son
• Jonah and the whale
SOURCE: Bible Literacy Project
More than 40 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court said that “study of
the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a
secular program of education,” can pass constitutional muster. But
advocates of an academic approach to teaching about religion are
still trying to allay misconceptions to the contrary and encourage
public school educators to incorporate such content.
Knowledge about the Bible, its stories and figures, they say, is
essential if students are to understand the allusions, metaphors,
and themes in many classic and modern books, as well as the
influences of the ancient tome on the nation’s founding documents
and political discourse throughout history.
“The Bible is the common currency of the English language,” argued
Marie Wachlin, a former high school English teacher who supervises
teacher workshops on teaching about the Bible at Concordia
University Portland in Oregon, which is affiliated with the Lutheran
Church-Missouri Synod. “If you want to understand our best works of
literature, any complex works, contemporary [or historical] speech
or writing, you need to know the Bible.”
‘Good Book’ Literacy
Many English teachers apparently agree that students need at
least a basic knowledge of the book, which is viewed as sacred by
large segments of the population but often fuels debates over the
separation of church and state when included in public displays or
Not surprisingly, schools tend to shy away from the topic,
anticipating controversy or legal challenges, according to a report
due out this week from the Bible Literacy Project. The report from
the Fairfax, Va.-based group, which promotes an academic study of
the Bible in public schools, outlines what students know and should
know about the book of scripture in order to study English
literature. Ms. Wachlin conducted the teacher survey for the report.
From William Shakespeare to John Steinbeck—and even to contemporary
novels, songs, television programs, and movies—the stories and other
works of art that students encounter are rife with biblical
references. But “teachers can no longer assume that students know
certain basic Bible stories and/or that they will recognize biblical
allusions that occur in literature,” the report says.
Many of the 41 hand-selected English teachers Ms. Wachlin
interviewed for the study recounted how their students had trouble
mastering assigned texts after failing to recognize or understand
biblical references in them.
A nationally representative poll of 1,000 high school students,
conducted by the Gallup Organization and included in the study,
suggests that many students lack anything beyond a rudimentary
knowledge. Although 81 percent of those surveyed, for example, knew
the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto
you,” six in 10 teenagers could not identify a phrase from Jesus’
Sermon on the Mount. More than 80 percent of the students identified
themselves as Christians.
For at least one of the teachers interviewed, the effect was
“In [Charles Dickens’] Great Expectations, there’s a character named
Abel Magwitch,” one teacher quoted in the report pointed out. “But
[the students] don’t understand the reference to Abel as a biblical
allusion to Cain and Abel, so I have to go through and explain the
Cain and Abel story, and how Abel was a victim in that story.”
Despite the potential value of Bible-related lessons, however, legal
worries, as well as the battle some conservative groups have waged
to introduce religious lessons into the curriculum, have led many
educators to approach such instruction cautiously or avoid it
“Because of the long history of the fighting about this, school
districts are very reluctant to do this unless they are assured that
the approach is constitutional,” said Charles C. Haynes, a senior
scholar in the Arlington, Va., office of the First Amendment Center.
The nonprofit group advocates protection of First Amendment rights.
“But Bible literacy is necessary if someone is going to be an
educated person in our society.”
Getting It Right
Mr. Haynes helped draft a guide several years ago outlining how
Bible lessons can be taught legally in public schools. The guide won
the support of People for the American Way and the American Civil
Liberties Union, which tend to look warily at mixing religion and
public education, as well as several religious organizations. While
the guide has helped more districts infuse the subject into the
curriculum within the bounds of the law, attempts continue among
interest groups outside the schools to introduce curricula that
treat the Bible as fact.
“There’s a real push for Bible electives [in schools],” Mr. Haynes
said. “Unfortunately, many of these proposals … don’t include
different perspectives on the Bible and often just treat the Bible
as a history book.”
He said a lack of high-quality instructional materials and the need
for training to help teachers approach the subject appropriately
also hinder such undertakings.
The National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools has made
some headway since introducing a yearlong Bible course more than a
decade ago. The Greensboro, N.C.-based advocacy group asserts that
its curriculum follows “constitutional guidelines” and emphasizes
the Bible “as the foundation document of our society.”
The curriculum is used in nearly 360 Schools in 43 states. Even so,
the group has drawn scrutiny from watchdog organizations for what
they view as religious undertones in the lessons.
“The national council goes around the country below the radar
telling school districts” that the curriculum meets legal
guidelines, contended Judith E. Schaeffer, the deputy legal director
for People for the American Way. The liberal Washington-based
organization says that the Bible council’s curriculum is not
The Bible council, however, disputes that criticism.
“Teachers are taught not to give any personal viewpoints,” said
Elizabeth Ridenour, the executive director. “We’ve never had a legal
challenge. It’s not about religion; it’s about ethics.”
Officials in Frankenmuth, Mich., a rural district of about 1,200
students, decided recently to reject the council’s course, citing
academic concerns. But the school board for the 26,000-student Ector
County district in Odessa, Texas, recently discussed the possibility
of using the curriculum in its high schools. The board decided to
take its time to study the issue, according to local news reports.
School officials did not return phone calls to Education Week.
Such decisions can be difficult, but can benefit students if done
well, said Mr. Haynes of the First Amendment Center.
“The good news is that there’s agreement, … at least in principle,
as to how the Bible should be treated” in the curriculum, he said,
referring to the guide published in 1999 by his center and the Bible
Literacy Project. “Teaching the Bible is important, but it’s a
challenge to get it right.”
Vol. 24, Issue 33, Page 5