Teaching the Bible in public school raises ticklish problems.
Because our public schools must not be used for preaching religion,
they must teach the Bible purely as literature. And they must teach
it tactfully, in light of the radically different viewpoints of
various religious (and irreligious) communities in the United
But without knowing the Bible, you can't begin to understand English
literature or American history. And a recently published survey
finds that American teenagers don't know the Bible well enough. (The
study was commissioned by a group called the Bible Literacy Project,
conducted by Gallup and funded by the John Templeton Foundation.)
How to respond? Do we dare teach the Bible in our own public
schools, built and staffed with our own money? Or do we surrender to
Creeping Litigation Anxiety? To the fear that any course that
includes the Bible is bound to provoke lawsuits — although there is
nothing unconstitutional about teaching stories and language
fundamental to American culture?
Some background: Shakespeare and the Bible in English are the twin
foundations of English literature. Many believe that the Bible
(especially the King James translation of 1611) is the more
important twin by far. It "has influenced our literature more deeply
than any other book," wrote the British scholar Arthur Quiller-Couch.
Bible-blind students are apt to misconstrue "the implications, even
the meaning" of what they read, wrote educator and critic Herman
Can you understand American culture without knowing the biblical
context of "covenant," "promised land," "shining city on a hill"?
Further, the Bible and Bible-centered Protestantism are central to
U.S. history — to your history if you are American, whether you are
Protestant or not. The founders had varied beliefs, writes the
philosopher-historian Michael Novak in "On Two Wings," but they
found common ground "by appealing to the God of the Hebrews and the
religious heritage of the Torah, a 'Biblical metaphysics.' "
And the Bible remained central throughout American history. Abraham
Lincoln (for example) called Americans the "almost chosen people" —
one of the most pregnant phrases in our history. His important
speeches are steeped in the Bible.
To explore Bible knowledge in the United States, the Bible Literacy
Project survey addressed students and English teachers. Teachers
listed references their students couldn't identify — from Noah and
Moses to Cain, Abel, Absalom and Lazarus. Students did well on
trivial questions — "identify Adam and Eve" — and badly on harder
ones. Two-thirds hadn't heard about St. Paul and the road to
Damascus. Slightly over a third recognized a quote from the Sermon
on the Mount.
Most teachers described most of their students as Bible illiterates.
Litigation Anxiety complicates the problem. "Some educators
expressed fear and discomfort over the issue of teaching the Bible
in school," the report says. "Their desire to benefit their
students, by teaching this important work, was not as strong as
their fear of getting in trouble for doing so."
Children worry too. "The kids seem to think there is a very strict
division," an Illinois teacher said, "and that the Bible is not
allowed in school."
Let's be clear: If the Bible is taught strictly as literature, it's
sheer nonsense to claim that it is disallowed in public school.
Where on Earth could people have got hold of that idea? (Hmmm.)
According to Michael Johnson, attorney with the Alliance Defense
Fund (which promotes Bible-as-literature courses, among other
things), the ACLU routinely tries to discourage school districts
from adopting such courses, by implying that they are
unconstitutional — even when the curriculum has been painstakingly
tweaked to be lawsuit-proof.
And let's not be coy about the underlying cultural context.
Bible-reading used to be routine in public schools. Novak again:
"Beginning about 1948, one Supreme Court case after another turned
the judiciary (and the law schools) into aggressive enemies of
religion in public life." The Bible began to seem tainted no matter
how you planned to teach it.
Favoring Bible-as-literature courses doesn't imply that you favor
religion in public schools, but you might fear litigation anyway. In
Odessa, Texas, more than 6,000 people signed a petition demanding an
elective in Bible literacy. Opponents argued that it would invite
lawsuits. Finally, the course was approved. In Frankenmuth, Mich.,
people argued for a year about such a course; the board finally
turned it down.
Americans should demand that their children be taught what their
cultural heritage (their literature, their history) is all about.
The great thundering secularist tide that swept the Bible out of
public school education is about to turn. Tides always do. Odessa is
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